This is a transcription of Episode 51 — London: WORDS.
David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.
David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.
David: I’m David Humphreys.
David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about London. If you’re listening to this on launch day, we are five days away from the coronation of Charles III that’ll be on Saturday.
Melissa: I expect there will be lots of pomp and circumstance and probably fancy hats.
David: So, so many fancy hats. In Two Truths and a Lie. I’m going to tell you about two unlikely spies.
Melissa: Ooh, I love spy stories.
David: And then we’re going to talk about five books we love.
Melissa: Today, I’m making the case for why everyone should read a doorstopper modern classic. And I’m including tips to make it a fantastic reading experience.
David: Sounds intimidating.
Melissa: It’s going to be fine.
David: I’m going to talk about a nonfiction time traveling adventure.
Melissa: Okay? I’m in.
David: But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the London 101.
Melissa: I have to start with a disclaimer. In this episode, we’re concentrating on London, but Anglophiles out there don’t worry, we’re going to get to the English countryside, the Moors and other British cities in a future episode. So let’s get oriented. London is the capital of the UK.
Melissa: As a reminder, UK is shorthand for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland, and Wales. So London is the capital of all of that.
David: So many names.
Melissa: I know, right? There’s no way to describe that any simpler. It’s just a series of names that sound like places you drink tea. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. I found data from the 2021 census. This is awesome and fascinating. 46% of Londoners, 46% — identified with Asian, black, mixed or other ethnic groups. London has the smallest percentage of people who identified as white British. in all of the UK. It’s only 36%.
David: That’s amazing. You sort of think of London as the Center for White Men, and it is not.
Melissa: It is very multicultural and that makes me super excited.
Melissa: Okay, close your eyes and imagine London. Did you picture Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, a red double decker bus, maybe a bridge crossing the Thames?
David: I mean, I did now that you said those things.
Melissa: The Architecture and kandmarks in London are iconic. The River Thames winds through the city, dividing it in half. And there are 21 bridges in central London, including Tower Bridge, which might be one of the things you pictured when you imagined London. You don’t want to confuse Tower Bridge with London Bridge. Two different bridges. London Bridge is a sort of unremarkable workaday bridge. Tower Bridge is the iconic one with the drawbridge and the Gothic towers. I will say if you Google London Bridge, it gives you a picture of Tower Bridge. All very confusing.
David: Also, there’s a copy of London Bridge, an old version of London Bridge, in Arizona. Which just adds to the whole confusion of the thing. They took down London Bridge a while ago. Somebody bought it and moved it to Arizona and they rebuilt London Bridge. So now there’s two. We’ve got a versioning problem.
Melissa: [laughter] There has been a bridge over the Thames at the site of London Bridge for about 2000 years. Talk about a versioning problem. There’s been lots of them. Yeah. And until 1720, London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames. That’s hard for me to think about. There’s one way to get across that’s not a boat.
David: And it was populated.
Melissa: Correct. In medieval times, houses and businesses were built right on the bridge. They kind of lined the roadway so that people could have a meal, maybe get drunk listening to music at the inn, buy a necklace for their girlfriend, or shop for fish, produce, and spices in the market.
David: One of the things that I read said that people who lived on the bridge used to have a little hole in their floor and they would fish straight through into the Thames.
Melissa: And I mean, that would guarantee your dinner was really fresh.
Melissa: Today, London Bridge is a purely functional concrete and steel bridge. It’s used for transport to get from one side to the other. You might drive across it on your way to see something cool, but if you’re vacationing in London, you probably would not go out of your way to see it.
David: Right. Not super sexy.
Melissa: The one you want to see is the Tower Bridge. That’s the one that has the two towers that look like castles. Those towers are connected by high level walkways. Now you walk on what’s essentially the road level. But the original idea when it was built was that pedestrians could walk across that top level, and they could cross the bridge even when the drawbridge was open.
David: So the bridge would split in half so that boats could get up and down the Thames.
David: But at the same time, there was a. The space that was so high that pedestrians could continue to walk across that.
David: That seems very high.
Melissa: It’s pretty high. Also, people didn’t really use it.
David: You just wait for the boat to go through and the bridge to drop again.
Melissa: Yes. So in the Victorian era, those upper walkways became an informal red light district for ladies of the night.
David: Wow. Yeah. Okay.
Melissa: In 1910, they were closed, but now you can visit them on the Tower Bridge tour.
David: Oh, that’s fun.
Melissa: I suspect there are no longer any Victorian trollops up there. London has an unfair number of excellent museums, historical sites, and monuments
David: It really does.
Melissa: I mean whatever you’re interested in — Romans Royals, fashion, technology, history — you’re going to find something delightful.
Melissa: So I thought I would give a plug for one of my favorites because we would be here for hours if we talked about all of the cool things you could do in London.
Melissa: When we visited London for the first time, one of my favorite things we did was the guided tour of the Tower of London. The guides are Beefeaters. These are the Yeoman Warders at the tower.
David: Those are the guys dressed in the fancy, old timey red and black outfits that look sort of paramilitary with the hats. They’re like top hats that have been lopped off about six inches up.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah. Not quite a stovepipe. Not quite. You know what their outfits look like? They look like the bad guys in The Wizard of Oz.
Melissa: Kind of like a dress situation, but very militaristic. Anyway, those are the guides who conduct the tours at the Tower of London. And they are called Beefeaters because during Henry VII’s reign, his personal guards were allowed to eat as much beef as they wanted from his table.
David: That’s a good perk.
Melissa: These guys are excellent storytellers. It felt like they were on a mission to be entertaining. You learn all about the history of the tower as a fortress, a palace, and a prison, including ghost stories and dark tales of famous prisoners. It’s all very atmospheric and awesome. And then when you think it can’t get any better, you meet the Ravenmaster.
David: Yeah. Yeah. That guy has one of the best titles I’ve ever heard. The Ravenmaster of the Tower of London.
Melissa: And a fantastic job. His name is Chris Skaife. He lives at the Tower with his wife, and his job is to care for the six ravens that live at the tower. Do you want to know their names?
Melissa: Jubilee, Harris, Poppy, Georgie, Edgar, and Branwen. According to legend, the Tower of London will fall if the resident Ravens ever leave the fortress. So Chris is doing essential work.
Melissa: I will add that if after your tour you went to the Pret a Manger takeaway restaurant nearby and got a sandwich and went and sat in the sun and looked at the Tower Bridge for a while, you would not be disappointed.
David: I bet you could find some fish and chips to go around there, too.
Melissa: Oh, that’d be really good, too. You know what else London does really well?
David: Just about everything.
Melissa: Yes, but in particular? Literary stuff. There are museums dedicated to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens. The British Library offers a behind the scenes tour packed with stories about its history and how it works. When we went to the British Library, we just happened to arrive five minutes before the tour was starting. We didn’t even know that was a thing, and it was fascinating.
David: Yeah, it was great. They also have a museum at the British Library. It’s a small museum, but it has an amazing collection of printed materials. So they have what I remember is they have a Gutenberg Bible there, but they also have, like John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for ‘Let It Be’ and that kind of thing. Just an amazing assortment of stuff that will appeal to you if you are a reader.
Melissa: You could also go see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe. This theater is a reconstruction of the original theater with the curved galleries and balconies and a small wooden stage. It’s like stepping back in time. You could go book shopping at Word on the Water. That’s a barge moored on the riverside and filled with second-hand books. Or Libreria. In Libreria Bookshop, the books are arranged according to themes like Wanderlust, The City, or Enchantment for the Disenchanted. You could visit Daunt books. They have travel guides and novels that are shelved by geographical destination. They’re like Strong Sense of Place plopped into the real world.
David: The idea for this show may have started at Daunt Books.
Melissa: It may have now that I think about it. In Westminster Abbey, you can find Poet’s Corner. It’s more than a corner. It honors more than 100 writers.
Melissa: So you can visit the graves of Chaucer, Dickens, and Tennyson. And then there are also memorials to Jane Austen, C.S Lewis, the Brontë Sisters, Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde. After all of those literary shenanigans, you need to refuel. I recommend afternoon tea. If you’ve never tried a traditional, hedonistic afternoon tea, I’m going to give you a little overview. It usually includes treats brought to the table on a server that has three tiers. On the bottom level are finger sandwiches with the crust cut off and filled with things like cucumber or watercress, egg salad, cheese and onion or ham and chutney. They’re savory.
Melissa: And they’re maybe the width of two fingers. The middle tier includes scones with clotted cream and jam, usually strawberry or raspberry.
Melissa: ecause after the savory finger sandwiches, you want something A little sweet, but not too sweet. Right. And then the top level is for pastries and cakes, maybe some little tarts or macarons. And alongside all of that, there are endless pots of tea.
David: It’s pretty great.
Melissa: It is pretty amazing. As you might expect, London has lots of different options for tea experiences.
David: Yeah, you might think you could only get that experience in like a fancy layer, but it turns out they will also do it in a semi-fancy layer or even a casual layer.
Melissa: It’s true. You could go to a luxurious hotel where you could never afford to stay there, but you get to for a few hours, pretend you do.
David: That’s what we did.
Melissa: We did. At the Goring. Which I can’t wait to go back to someday. On the semi-fancy side of the world, you can time travel with a classic tea at Fortnum and Mason. That’s the department store founded in 1707, who also invented picnic baskets.
David: Wow. Yeah, that’s a resume builder.
Melissa: While you’re in London, you should probably also have a big old English breakfast sometime, at least once. And also, please, for the love of all that is spicy, take advantage of London’s multiculturalism. Get yourself into an Indian restaurant on Brick Lane and a middle Eastern restaurant on Edgware Road. So, London: multicultural, literary, historical, ultra modern. We didn’t even talk about theater in the West End —
David: — or the history of music in London.
Melissa: Or shopping in Camden Market. So I guess in summary, I could just say London. World class city. You should go.
David: We are for it. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I am. I’m excited to hear about the spies.
David: Okay. I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. First statement: Cab drivers in London must know the name and location of every restaurant within a six mile radius of Charing Cross Station.
David: Two: So this next statement uses two names: Aleister Crowley and Harry Houdini. They were both born in the 1870s. Aleister Crowley was a controversial figure known for his interest in mysticism and the occult. At one point, he declared himself a prophet and started a new religion. Some people trace the modern rise of Wicca and Satanism back to Crowley. And Harry Houdini, of course, was a famous magician born in Budapest but raised in Wisconsin and then Manhattan. Went on to acclaim as the world’s greatest escape artist. Here’s the statement: Aleister Crowley and Harry Houdini worked together for British intelligence during World War One.
Melissa: I love that idea. I’m going to pretend it’s true even if it’s not.
David: And three: Londoners used to watch polar bears catch fish in the Thames.
David: Yep. Let’s start from the top. Okay. Cab drivers in London must know the name and location of every restaurant within a six mile radius of Charing Cross.
Melissa: That sounds kind of bananas given the world of the internet, but I could see how in the past they might have wanted that. True.
David: That is true. So let’s start with the streets of London. They are a maze. Many were initially put down hundreds of years ago, back when people and horses were the only transportation. Unlike Paris or New York, London has never had a rebuild. They’ve never done a street zhuzh. In 2014, Jody Rosen of The New York Times wrote, ‘To be in London is at least half the time to have no idea where the hell you are.’ [laugher] So for almost 160 years, the taxi drivers of London have been required to show that they understand the streets they drive on. They are expected to know every street within six miles of Charing Cross. Which might not sound like much because I can quickly say ‘every street within six miles of Charing Cross.’ How hard can that be? That is 25,000 streets.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh.
David: And they’re required to know names and which direction they run and whether they’re one way or whether they’re dead ends and where they enter and exit traffic circles and so on. Just a complete map of those 25,000 streets in the head.
Melissa: There are no unskilled labor jobs in the world. We need to stop saying that. That’s amazing.
David: Yeah, but it doesn’t end there. The drivers are also required to know everything that’s on those streets.
Melissa: Oh, come on.
David: Prospective cab drivers are given a guide to what they need to know. First, there’s a paragraph explaining what they might be tested on. I’m not going to read you that paragraph, but I will tell you that it includes hotels, theaters, schools, art galleries, restaurants and so on. It ends with this sentence, quote, ‘In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.’ Most prospective cab drivers learn the Knowledge. That’s what they call it, the Knowledge.
Melissa: With a Capital T and a capital K?
David: Just the K, I think. By buying or leasing a motorbike and then they drive around London and try to memorize it.
Melissa: Oh my god.
David: Typically it takes 3 to 5 years of study.
David: And then the tests are given in an office. An examiner will call out to places and the applicant is supposed to quickly and definitively describe the straightest line between those two points. There are waves of those exams. Many cab drivers pass in about 12 visits. The examiner might also ask questions like, Name the four Gordon Ramsay restaurants.
Melissa: Wow, that’s amazing.
David: Yeah. Or what’s playing at the Old Vic Theatre?
Melissa: So cab drivers are essentially tour guides.
David: Effectively, yeah. As a result of all this, the brains of London cab drivers are interesting to science. They have a measurable increase in the size of the hippocampus and they’ve demonstrated that the adult brain can still physically change. We will point to some good links in the show notes. If you’re interested in learning more about that or hearing cab drivers talk about their experience or just seeing the test itself.
David: So second statement: Aleister Crowley and Harry Houdini worked together for British intelligence during World War One.
Melissa: I’m going to say true.
David: Okay. So I’m going to take you the whole ride on this one. Aleister Crowley was a spooky dude. He was a rich man who spent most of his youth and fortune trying to unlock the secrets of the occult. When he was done, some people believed that he succeeded. Some folks thought he was a mage capable of bending the fabric of reality. He said that he spoke with supernatural beings and filled books with what they told him. He was also ahead of his time. He was bisexual. He took psychedelics. He believed that people should do whatever they wanted to do, which was a radical idea in the early 1900s. He would go on to influence many people with low self-control, including Jim Morrison and John Lennon and Jimmy Page. Crowley was also said to be an asset of British intelligence. Some of his biographers claim he traveled the world on various covert operations. Crowley himself said that he infiltrated a pro-German effort in the US to help the UK effort.
David: Yeah. And Houdini, right? So Houdini was the world’s foremost escape artist. He escaped handcuffs. He jumped off of bridges in chains. He performed an illusion where he walked through a brick wall. Houdini might have been an asset for the CIA. There’s an article on the Cia.gov website.
David: With the headline ‘Was Houdini a Spy?’ He definitely influenced spycraft. They used some of his ideas throughout the 20th century.
Melissa: I was going to say, his skills seem very well suited to being a spy.
David: Yeah, he had personal meetings with Theodore Roosevelt that nobody recorded. He might have shared some observations made on his trips to Russia, where Tsar Nicholas loved him. The CIA’s public article on the matter ends with this line: ‘No doubt historians will continue to debate this question, but nonetheless, Master of Deception Harry Houdini seems to merit at least an honorable mention in the pantheon of intelligence practitioners.’ Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Melissa: I love it.
David: Yeah. So were those two men spies? Maybe. Did they ever meet? Not that we know of. Is it fun thinking about the two of them and maybe a young Agatha Christie getting together to turn the tables in World War One? Absolutely. But yeah, that’s pretty much a lie.
David: Which means the third statement is true. The third statement was: Londoners used to watch polar bears catch fish in the Thames.
Melissa: What were polar bears doing in the Thames?
David: Yeah. If you haven’t been to London, you might think that the Tower of London is, you know, a tower. It is not. There’s a tower there. There’s more than one tower there. But the Tower of London is a castle. And it was initially built almost a thousand years ago as a place to protect William the Conqueror and his family. It was built to protect them, not from some distant national threat like the Scottish or the Irish. It was built to protect them from the people of London who were still pissed off about him taking the crown during the Norman conquest.[laughter] It has been rebuilt and repurposed and expanded many times over the last thousand years. For 800 years, as you mentioned, there was a prison there. Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell spent their last days there. There was a mint at the tower. There was an armoury. It is still the home of the crown jewels of England.
Melissa: It is! We saw the crown jewels.
Melissa: Very sparkly.
David: Yeah. And I have to tell you that it was bizarre for this American to see a robe on display. Sitting there, it looks relatively new. ‘Oh, that’s nice. There’s a robe.’ And then you look on the wall where there’s a 500 year old painting of a king wearing that same robe.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s pretty wild.
David: Like what? What’s going on there? But back to the tower. One of the things that the tower has been used for is as a menagerie.
Melissa: I didn’t know that.
David: Yeah, a menagerie is like a zoo, but not open to the public. That started in the 1200s when the Roman Emperor Frederick II presented three leopards to Henry the III, which is a lovely housewarming gift. Elephants, bears, jackals, camels, baboons, and eagles have all lived at the tower.
Melissa: Those poor animals.
David: Yeah. There used to be a tower called the Lion Tower there at the castle. Because that’s where they kept the lions. But this story starts in 1252, when the King of Norway gave Henry III a freakin’ polar bear.
Melissa: Oh, that poor polar bear.
David: Yeah. And the big question of the day was, how are we going to provide for a freakin’ polar bear? And then someone had an idea. This paragraph I’m about to read you is from a book that I’m going to tell you more about in a couple of minutes. The book is London: A Travel Guide Through Time by Dr. Matthew Green. Here’s his description of their solution: ‘Each day, the horses, wagons, and carts on London Bridge came to a halt as Londoners gathered to watch the snow white beast bounding to the river, dragging his keeper along after him almost into the very water. Eventually they’d see the beast plunge into the Thames, emerge, if he was lucky, with a sturgeon or salmon between his jaws, then clamber out onto the bank, shaking off his fur. The keeper would then have to put his leash back on without giving the impression that he was trying to steal the bear’s food. And then after the beast had wolfed down his meal, replaced the muzzle.’
Melissa: [laughter] Oh, my God.
David: ‘For the citizens of London, it was a wondrous spectacle that leavened the grind of the working day.’
David: Yeah. That resulted in more than one pub called the White Bear. There are still white bear taverns in London, presumably a tribute to the polar bear who dove into the Thames almost 700 years ago. That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am. My first recommendation is Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan. This is a courtroom drama set in the world of British politics. If you like stories about rich people problems and bad dudes getting their just desserts, this is the book for you. There’s love and lying, retribution and righteous rage all set against the backdrop of some of the most iconic buildings in London. Here’s the setup. Sophie and James are the definition of golden couple. He’s a handsome, charismatic junior minister in the British Home Office. For our US friends, he’s sort of analogous to a senator. And the Prime Minister is one of his oldest, closest friends. His wife, Sophie, is beautiful and smart. She and James met when they were both studying at Oxford. Now they have two adorable children and a lovely home. The author describes Sophie as, quote, ‘someone whose life has been as bright and solidly precious as a fat gold ingot.’
David: So she’s doing all right.
Melissa: They’re both doing all right. One night, Sophie’s all dressed up and waiting for James to get home so they can go to a party at a friend’s house. But James is late. James is never late without calling, so she’s starting to get pretty anxious about what might have happened.
Melissa: So she’s relieved when he finally walks in the door. But something is wrong. He looks very grim. And then he delivers shocking news to Sophie. He’s been having an affair with a younger female co-worker, and the news is about to break.
Melissa: Yeah. Sophie’s stunned and hurt, obviously. But she believes him when he says that the affair is over, and she works through her emotions, and they present a united front to the press. But then later, his mistress accuses him of rape.
Melissa: And the drama heads into the courtroom. This story jumps back and forth in time from today in London to James and Sophie’s student days in Oxford. And it’s told through shifting perspectives from our golden couple and also the barrister who’s prosecuting the case. Her name is Kate, and she specializes in sex crimes. She is on a mission to nail James to the wall. She believes he is guilty.
David: I’m getting strong Law & Order vibes from this.
Melissa: You are correct in that there are a lot of procedural details, and this could have been kind of your standard courtroom drama. But the author, Sarah Vaughan, does a few things that really drew me into the story.
Melissa: First, the settings in Oxford and London are really vivid. The author studied English at Oxford and she wrote for the British daily newspaper The Guardian. She was a reporter and political correspondent for 11 years. So she knows the halls of Oxford Colleges and the House of Commons from the inside. I’ve never been to either of those places, but now I feel like I have.
Melissa: A lot of the action takes place in the House of Commons, and whether you realize it or not, you probably know what it looks like. It’s the spiky Gothic building on the Thames next to Big Ben.
David: Oh, sure.
Melissa: If you Google photos of London, it’s usually the first image that pops up. Inside that familiar exterior is a maze of courtyards, hallways, offices, and meeting spaces. It’s a labyrinth in there. And in this book, the alleged rape happened in a tiny elevator tucked down a hallway in the House of Commons. So all of those corridors and rooms play a major role in the plot. Just as an interesting aside, in 2020, in real life, while they were doing building renovations, they found a secret passage in the wooden wall panelling that leads from Westminster Palace into the House of Commons.
Melissa: Yeah, there was a keyhole, and they didn’t think there was anything behind it. And then eventually somebody was able to open it up, and it was a door to a secret passage.
David: I bet that was shocking. And I wonder if there were other people who were like, Yeah, didn’t know about that. Weird.
Melissa: Well, now, are they looking for more? Like just — I have more questions than this article can answer, but I will put a link in the show notes to that article in case you also love secret passages. The second thing this book does really well is sort of press on your prejudices about promiscuity and extramarital affairs, where you think consent lies, entitlement, loyalty. These are all hot button topics in this story.
David: Okay, so it’s a rich ride through these themes that she’s bringing up.
Melissa: Yes. Blame and consent are really clear when a rapist is a masked stranger. It’s harder for a jury when non-consensual sex happens within a relationship.
Melissa: And it’s really confusing for this jury because the mistress says ‘I was in love with him.’ Muddy waters.
David: Yeah. And I would imagine it’d be just incredibly difficult to prove to.
Melissa: Yes. Kate, the barrister says early in the book, quote, ‘Juries are keen to convict the predatory rapist, the archetypal bogeyman, down a dark alley. Yet when it comes to relationship rape, they’d rather not know, thank you very much.’
Melissa: Finally, the third great thing about this book is that the suspense is super high because of the shifting perspective. It just has this momentum driving it forward. And the twists keep coming. Just when you think you know what’s going on, something new is revealed. And the way the truth is revealed is a masterclass on alternating narratives. It was really well put together, and the ending is very satisfying. I’m not the only one who enjoyed this book. It’s the author’s first thriller, and it was an instant international bestseller. It’s been translated into 24 languages.
David: Wow. Good for her.
Melissa: And after you read it, you can watch the Netflix series starring Sienna Miller and Michelle Dockery.
David: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen the trailers.
Melissa: Yeah. It had just a huge opening on Netflix. Again, if you enjoy rich people problems on TV, the scenery and costumes are gorgeous and drama wise, there’s a lot to chew on. That’s Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan.
David: My first book is Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.
Melissa: Oh, I’ve been wanting to read this book for ever.
David: Yeah, same. I was really happy we did London because I wanted to read this book. This is a combination of police procedural and fantasy story set now-ish. It’s got a tone that’s set somewhere around maybe Shaun of the Dead or maybe the Dungeons & Dragons movie. Our Heroes encounter danger, but there’s a lot of playfulness to it. Fun things happen. While the main characters are investigating a series of murders. The murders themselves are kind of gruesome, but they’re presented with a bit of cheek. Peter Grant is our main character. He’s an officer with the London Metropolitan Police. He’s new to the field. He’d like to be a detective, but that’s not going well for him. His job seems to be hanging out at crime scenes and making sure nobody crosses the police tape.
Melissa: Not a lot of authority yet.
David: Nope. And that is precisely what he’s doing when the book starts. There’s been a grisly accident. A man has had his head knocked off.
David: Yeah. And Grant is at the scene. It’s the middle of the night. Everybody else is left. The body itself is long gone. The police are waiting until morning to search for anything they might have overlooked. And that’s when Grant is approached by a character who seems to have seen the whole thing. And he claims it was a murder. He introduces himself as Nicholas Wallpenny.
Melissa: Cute name.
David: Yeah. He’s a small man wearing an old fashioned suit with a waistcoat and a battered top hat. Grant thinks he might be a street performer, and the author writes:
‘Now sir,’ I said, ‘if you could just tell me what it was you saw.’
‘I saw plenty, squire.’
‘But you were here earlier this morning?’ My instructors were also clear about not cueing your witnesses. Information is only supposed to flow in one direction.
‘I’m here morning, noon and night,’ said Nicholas, who obviously hadn’t gone to the same lectures I had.
‘If you’ve witnessed something,’ I said, ‘perhaps you’d better come and give a statement.’
‘That would be a bit of problem,’ said Nicholas, ‘seeing as I’m dead.’
I thought I hadn’t heard him correctly. ‘If you’re worried about your safety…‘
‘I ain’t worried about anything any more, squire,’ said Nicholas. ‘On account of having been dead these last hundred and twenty years.’
David: So to his credit, Grant doesn’t freak out. Although this is definitely a new experience for him, and he takes the ghost’s statement. But now what? It’s not like you can report back to the precinct with that.
Melissa: I got a statement from a ghost?
David: Yeah, saw a ghost. And he’s convinced it was a murder. But Grant does talk to his partner about it. She’s incredulous, but together they verify what the ghost said. And then Grant decides to go back to the scene and see if he can get more information from old dead Nicholas Wallpenny. He gets back to the scene the next night. He starts looking for his ghost, and then he realizes he’s being watched by a man in a tailored suit with a silver cane. And that man walks up and he says, What are you up to? in an accent that Grant describes as ‘an English villain in a Hollywood movie.’ And Grant tells him, I’m ghost hunting. And that’s how Grant meets Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. Or as the locals call him, the Wizard.
Melissa: That’s fantastic.
David: Yeah. It turns out that the London Metropolitan Police are aware of the supernatural. They deny its existence to the public. They make up stories to explain it away, but they also prepare for it. And the head of that department is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. He takes Grant under his wing, and it’s off to the races from there. Together they encounter trolls and vampires and a family of spirits. There’s a whole subplot about the conflict between the water spirits who represent the River Thames and its tributaries. The book has a strong sense of London. The author was born in London and is enthusiastic about it. That comes across in his work. He wrote it while he was working at the Waterstones bookstore in Covent Garden.
Melissa: Whoa. That’s so cool.
David: Yeah. A lot of the book is set around there. He used to go on lunch and do location scouting, and he includes a fair amount of history and landmarks and such. The book has done very well for Ben Aaronovitch. There are currently nine novels in this series. There’s also a novella and a collection of short stories, and a tenth book is due out in June of this year, and a TV series was announced. So if you like this, there are lots and lots of rivers of London to explore. This is light, engaging, and fun with a really appealing ideas about London and magic. If you like some humor with your suspense and are okay with blending spirits and police work, I think you’ll find this delightful. It’s Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.
Melissa: My second recommendation is Something to Hide by Elizabeth George. This is a murder mystery. It’s set in contemporary London, and it explores two opposing sides of the city: the stately brick- and tree-lined streets of Chelsea. That’s where the posh people live. And the Nigerian community in north London, that’s where the not so posh people live.
David: Elizabeth George is one of your favorite authors.
Melissa: She is. This is the 21st installment in the series that I love. It started in 1988 with the introduction of Detective Inspector Thomas Linley. The first book was called A Great Deliverance. I am so excited to finally get to talk about this series on the show, finally. So Elizabeth George, the author, is American. But she writes British style murder mysteries. She has an excellent nonfiction book called Write Away, which describes her process, which involves taking immersive trips to England and taking lots of photographs and researching the history. If you like to nerd out about how authors do their work, that book is excellent. Her mysteries are routinely described as ‘meticulously plotted.’ They have complex plots. She’s thought of everything. You’re in really good hands. There are going to be no loose dangling threads in her narratives, and they have a really strong psychological aspect to them. So even though her characters are trying to get to the who did it, the story is really about the why they did it, and the why is so dark.
David: [laughter] Oh no.
Melissa: Yeah, always. I love it so much. And her characters are complex and contradictory. The victims, the suspects, the detectives — they’re all deliciously messy and very human. And at the heart of this world that she’s created is the relationship between two Scotland Yard detectives. There’s Inspector Lynley and his work partner, Barbara Havers. Lynley, who some people call Tommy, he doesn’t fit the detective stereotype at all, especially in the U.K., because he’s the Eighth Earl of Asherton.
Melissa: He graduated from Eton. He has the intelligence and the posh accent to prove it. But unlike the rich people we talked about in my previous book, Anatomy of a Scandal, he is cursed with an innate sense of integrity. His partner, Barbara Havers, is the opposite. She is equally as intelligent, but she’s 100% working class, and she is proud of it, at the same time that she has an enormous chip on her shoulder about it. She’s constantly rumpled. She eats junk food. She smokes like a chimney, and she’s relentless about work. But that cuts both ways. She’s like a dog with a bone when she’s on a case, which is great, except that she’s completely unwilling to soften her edges, and that gets her into trouble all the time. So there are two polar opposites who work together. And the differences between them make them really good at solving crimes.
David: Do they like each other?
Melissa: Their personal interactions have a lot of sparks to them, and not in a romantic way.
Melissa: Like in the course of a case, or sometimes even just in a car ride, they go from friendly and joking to prickly, to really heated, to coldly silent, to supportive. Like they have a very complex relationship.
Melissa: They’re helped along in their investigations by a support crew. There are a handful of recurring characters. The two most important ones are a forensic scientist with a really bittersweet backstory, and his wife, who’s a photographer and leads with her emotions all the time. And those two and Tommy have a complex history. So Elizabeth George over the years has done a really great job of evolving all of these relationships through the series.
Melissa: ut having said that, this is Book 21, so if you’re like, Oh my God, I can’t read 20 books before I get to this book. You don’t have to. This book works just fine as a standalone, and I think it’s a really good introduction to the series because it’s so firmly set in London, and it’s very much of this time that we’re living in. She’s really good at giving you enough of Tommy and Havers’ backstory that you won’t feel lost. And then if you enjoy this one, you can go back and read the previous books and kind of learn more about them.
Melissa: This novel takes place during an unusually hot July and August. Forget about London fog. The streets are baking and everyone is very short tempered from the oppressive heat. Lynley and Havers are called in to investigate the murder of a fellow detective. She had been working on a special task force in north London’s Nigerian community. As they follow the clues, they uncover a slew of suspects. There’s a wealthy family, an angry Nigerian father, a respected doctor, and a questionable nurse, and another cop who has way too many secrets. All of them have a reasonable motive for this murder. And even if they’re not guilty of this crime, they’re guilty of something.
David: Tough crowd.
Melissa: It is a tough crowd. And this narrative goes deep into class issues and family secrets and how jealousy can corrupt even close relationships. Their investigation also turns up evidence of female genital mutilation. This operation is performed on young girls in some Middle Eastern, African, and Asian cultures. It’s meant to control them or to maintain the family honor or to prepare them for marriage. It’s illegal in the U.K., but it’s still secretly practiced in some traditional communities, and it plays a big part in this plot. Elizabeth George is really good at weaving social issues into her narrative, so she does it tastefully, but it’s pretty tough.
David: Yeah. Trigger warning. Yeah.
Melissa: As always with this series, while the detectives uncover the truth of the crime, they also have to confront truths about themselves and their own relationships. It is never just about the case, and it is never just about the people they meet in their investigation. All of this is interwoven with who they are and what they’re going through. Reading an Elizabeth George novel is always a very big, cathartic experience. This one is Something to Hide, and I’ll put links to her other books in the show notes.
David: My second book is London: A Travel Guide Through Time by Dr. Matthew Green. This nonfiction book is set up like a guidebook, but it takes you through different eras in London’s history.
Melissa: That sounds awesome, and I want that for every city.
David: I agree. Yes, 100%. In this book, you will visit Shakespeare’s theater in the 1600s. You’ll see a jousting tournament in medieval London. You’ll try to avoid catching the Black Death as you wander through the plague-struck city in the mid-1600s. You’ll hear the clanking and banging of Victorian London, and you’ll look at the devastation and regrowth of London after the Blitz in 1957. As I mentioned, this book is set up like a guidebook. A tour is presented. Locations are described frequently with all five senses. It was a weird kind of fun to think about how awful London must have smelled in the 1300s.
Melissa: Yeah. Hard pass on that.
David: Yeah. Or how quiet the city must have been any time before the Industrial Age. The book suggests what you might eat and wear and where you might stay and under what conditions. And you’re also given safety instructions. There are also famous people through the book. There’s a Who’s Who of English literature. Shakespeare, of course. Chaucer. Samuel Pyps. We’re told where T.S Eliot had his day job and where George Orwell came up with the idea for the Ministry of Truth. And at the end of each section, the author tells you where you can go now to see what’s left of those places.
Melissa: Oh, that’s so cool.
Melissa: Yeah. And if you’re particularly interested in something an excellent bibliography will lead you to other books and articles and sites. Along the way, I found all kinds of ideas that I enjoyed thinking about. Here’s a paragraph- long story that kind of stunned me in this. We are visiting the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s Theatre in 1603, Greene writes: ‘The sound effects will impress and startle you. Pebbles rolling in a drum simulate the sound of waves crashing onto a shore (useful for The Tempest), dry peas falling onto a metal sheet conjures rain and frenzied backstage cries of ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ add more than a tincture of menace to battle scenes. At climactic moments, canons are fired from the roof. But it’s the clapping of thunder, more than anything else, that playhouses compete to perfect. Sometimes a sheet of metal is shaken vigorously and squibs let off; sometimes hirelings roll cannonballs around the gallery roof; on other occasions a drum is rolled across a sheet of metal. In a later period, at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, a playwright called John Dennis would invent an ingenious new method of feigning thunder for one of his plays which, to his great dismay, flopped. Attending a performance of Macbeth in the same theatre soon afterwards, his ears pricked up at the sound of his new effect. ‘That’s my thunder, by God!’ he is reported to have shouted. ‘How these rascals use me! They will not let my play run, but steal my thunder’.
Melissa: There it is.
David: That’s what that’s from. Steal my thunder. It’s amazing. We’re all walking around with a ghost of a man’s outrage from 1600.
Melissa: That’s awesome.
David: In that same section, Greene writes that people would occasionally come to the Globe with a stool and then sit on the stage to watch the show. I would love to return to the 1600s and watch Macbeth from a stool on the stage with one eye on the audience and one eye on the stage. And maybe somebody had that experience. The author, Dr. Matthew Green, is a historian and a really great storyteller. He’s got a doctorate from Oxford, and there are many ways to enjoy his work. There’s this book, of course. He’s also done audio tours of London. You can go to his site and for about £6 or $7.50, you can purchase a two-hour audio tour of some of the coffee houses of London. This audio tour is lavishly produced. It has cinematic sound effects and music and 13 actors voicing different roles. The idea is that you go to the various coffee houses and listen to the radio play, and they’re trying to recreate history for you. It sounds very entertaining. And he just released a new book. It’s called Shadowlands: A History of Lost Britain. It’s stories about the ghost towns of Britain and why we’ve lost them to time. But this book, this travelogue through time, I found just fantastic. If the idea of walking through London while shifting through time appeals to you, I recommend it. It’s London: A Travel Through Time by Dr. Matthew Green.
Melissa: My final recommendation is one of my favorite books ever. It’s Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This historical novel, you’ve probably heard of it —.
David: Wolf Hall? Yeah, yeah.
Melissa: It’s the first book in a trilogy. It won the Booker Prize in 2009. It spawned a stage adaptation and a BBC mini series.
David: Yes, it did.
Melissa: It’s sold more than 30 million copies and has been translated into 30 languages. It’s a modern classic.
Melissa: Okay. So people listening to this show, you’ve probably heard of Wolf Hall and wondered if you should read it and then maybe you read the flap copy description and thought, ‘That plot. I don’t know.’
David: Or just picked it up from the shelf. I mean, that thing —
Melissa: — It weighs like 8 pounds.
David: Yeah. It’s one of those books where you reach up to get it and you pull it out and you’re like, Oh, it’s too heavy. And it drops to the ground.
Melissa: A description of the plot in no way hints at the awesomeness of the reading experience, and I feel like we’re really selling it so far. Let’s keep going.
David: Let’s get behind it. Yeah.
Melissa: So here’s the setup. It’s 1520 in England. Maybe you’ve already turned off your ears. Don’t. Keep your ears open. King Henry VIII is itching to ditch his current wife. That’s Catherine of Aragon, because he needs a male heir. She’s getting a little older. She’s not giving him a son. He decides the best way to make that happen is to get the young, ambitious Anne Boleyn into his bed.
David: I was going to say, she hasn’t given him a male heir, but also he’s randy and unpleasant.
Melissa: He is both of those things. To get rid of Catherine of Aragon, he needs an annulment. But the Pope is the law of the land. And the Pope said no. Yeah. So what’s a horny king to do when the law won’t give him his own way?
David: Right. The obvious thing.
Melissa: Yeah. Change the law.
David: He starts a new church.
Melissa: He does. He starts the Church of England. And along the way, he dumps Catherine of Aragon. He marries Anne Boleyn and eventually, he chops off poor Anne’s head because she fails to birth a prince.
David: Fast forward. That whole starting a new church thing really went smoothly.
Melissa: Yeah, that hasn’t caused any problems at all.
Melissa: All right. So those are the basics of the story that you’ve probably maybe picked up along the way of just living your life and hearing things about Henry VIII. Missing from that description, an integral to the real story was a man named Thomas Cromwell. He was the son of a blacksmith who eventually became the second most powerful man in England. This still might sound like a little bit of a snoozefest because I hear it as I’m saying it. So here are three things that make this story unputdownable. First, Hilary Mantel is a master storyteller and word witch. Her sentences are like sticks of dynamite. They’re packed with emotion and description and words that burst off the page. You read them and then suddenly, like you realize you have a little pain in your heart or you’re laughing and you didn’t even know you were going to laugh. Like, she is just so good at what she does. When my friend Ellen and I were reading this at the same time, we would text each other sentences so we could enjoy them together. I have highlights on almost every page, but I’m just going to read one little snippet unless you want me to read you the whole thing right now.
David: Suddenly, the podcast turned into an audiobook of Wolf Hall.
Melissa: I’ll just read this one snippet. For now. ‘The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.’
David: It’s a good sentence.
Melissa: Second thing. This story takes place at court when science wasn’t quite science yet, and rumor carried the weight of truth. So there’s adultery, witchcraft, visions, betrayals. Incest, romance, humor, friendship, and kittens.
Melissa: And the main themes of the story, the things you would expect in a story of political intrigue like greed, ambition, desire, lust, love, all of that stuff, feel really timely and fresh. She makes these people feel like they are alive right now while also grounding the whole story in history. Obviously I have never visited King Henry VIII’s court, but boy, does it feel real to me. It’s a little claustrophobic. It’s very gossipy. There are scads of people who have nothing to do all day but make up stories and plan petty capers. And it’s just to amuse themselves just because they have nothing else to do.
Melissa: It’s also dangerous.
David: Yeah, that was my takeaway. Right? Is just how capricious Henry was.
David: And how powerful and how if you if he woke up and you were on the wrong side of Henry, your life was over.
Melissa: Yes. Yeah, it adds a lot of tension to the story.
David: He was a giant baby man with a lot of power.
Melissa: I do call him a baby man a lot when I’m reading the book. Finally, the Thomas Cromwell of this world, that Hilary Mantel has created from real history, is somehow equal parts charm and audacity. He’s a very quick thinker and he has this incredible ability to use words to change his fate. We should think he’s a scoundrel. I mean, real-life history does not paint him in a positive light. There’s maybe some respect for the things he did, but I don’t think historians like him or think he was a good man or even want to, like, have a meal with him. But this Cromwell is a sympathetic hero. We root for him, which is kind of a crazy thing to say about someone who’s such an opportunist.
Melissa: But he’s also an idealist and he has a wry sense of humor, and he calls bullshit when he needs to. Pretty much everybody I know who’s read this book gets a little bit of a crush on Thomas Cromwell, which is a weird experience to have for someone who’s been dead for like 500 years and was kind of unpleasant.
David: Yeah. And did some very questionable things.
Melissa: He did. But in this book, he is the hero. Yeah, 100%. Yeah. No doubt.
Melissa: So, if you want to read this book, but you’re intimidated by 600 pages of Tudor hijinks, I have some tips to help you get started and have fun.
Melissa: My first tip is a little unorthodox, but I stand by it. Watch the BBC mini-series first. Don’t make yourself read the book and then treat yourself to the movie. Watch the movie first. You will not ruin any plot twists for yourself. There are no spoilers for a 500-year-old story.
David: Everybody dies. [laughter]
Melissa: There are a lot of characters in this book. It opens with lists and two, like, maps of royal family trees. It would intimidate a hardy historian. We’re just people who want to read good stories. So the thing that the screen version gives you is that there are beautiful settings and gorgeous costumes and attractive people that you can attach to the names in the book, so that when you’re reading it, you can picture them.
David: And also the acting of Mark Rylance.
Melissa: As Thomas Cromwell.
David: He’s amazing in that role, you get the full rainbow of flavors of Thomas Cromwell — the villain, but also charming, but also, oh, yeah. Anyway, he does a great job in that show.
Melissa: And Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn.
David: Yeah, so good. Not on screen long enough.
Melissa: She’s so dastardly, but somehow you really want things to work out for her to.
Melissa: My second tip is to listen to the audiobook. Hilary Mantel wrote Wolf Hall in the present tense in the limited third person from only Cromwell’s point of view. We are inside Cromwell’s brain. It makes the story feel very intimate and immediate, and it feels like we’re hidden in a shadowy corner of the room, eavesdropping on everything that’s happening. But that can be a little hard to get off of the text on the page the first time. So I recommend the audiobook narrated by Ben Miles. You must get the one narrated by Ben Miles. He played Cromwell in the stage production, and he gives each of the characters distinct voices that bring them to life and make all of the intrigues and humor and backstabbing make sense. His intonation and delivery is just perfect. So when you marry his voice with the visuals from the mini series, it’s very easy to have a movie playing in your head. Bonus points if you read along on the page, but not required.
Melissa: My third tip is to Google frequently. There are references to art and literature and palaces and historical figures. Google all of it. Engage with this story. Look at the photos. Listen to 16th-century music. Just go all in on the Tudor era. I fell down a rabbit hole about the portrait painter Hans Holbein the last time I read this. And my life is better for it.
Melissa: We went to see the paintings in real life. I have art books on my shelf now. This isn’t a story that you can just kind of casually read. Some books work just great the way they are. You pick them up, you read them beginning to end. You have a nice time, and they’re awesome for that. This is one of those books that requires you to really engage with it. But when you do, you get such a huge payback on your investment. And I don’t want that to sound like work because it’s not, like, it’s so much fun. Delving into this world is a really good time, and Thomas Cromwell is excellent company. He is the guy you would want to sit next to at the pub.
Melissa: My last tip is to set your expectations. This story has a lot of action and high stakes, but it’s a long book. So the pacing is playing out your arcs over 600 pages instead of 300 pages. Give yourself over to the language and the rhythm of Hilary Mantel’s writing and just kind of let yourself be transported to a time when things happened a little bit more slowly, but then all of a sudden there’d be a shocking change in fortune. That’s what this book feels like. You’re going along getting to know the characters, and then, ‘Oh my gosh, did not see that coming.’ That happens over and over. I’ve read Wolf Hall in print. I’ve listened to the entire trilogy three times on audio. It’s something like 70 hours for all three of the books. It took me a really long time to listen to the three books back to back, and I, like, had a little mourning period when it was over because I’d spent every morning walk, every time I did laundry, every time I was cooking dinner in this world. It was kind of shocking when it was over. But it was great. And I have to admit, I just started listening to the Wolf Hall audiobook again, so I’ll probably do the whole thing again. I hope you’ll give it a try. That’s Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
David: Those are five books we love set in London. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com. While you’re there, we will introduce you to London cab drivers and Aleister Crowley and walk you through the Tower of London. All of which sounds a little disturbing, but I assure you it is not.
Melissa: I’ll probably throw in a picture of afternoon tea with the sandwiches and the scones and the pastries.
David: Excellent idea.
Melissa: And I had a hard time choosing my three books set in London because I’ve read lots of great books in London, so there will definitely be a follow up post with more titles to explore London through the ages.
David: We wanted to take a moment to say that we really enjoy hearing from you. We love getting your emails when you hit reply and write to Mel on her weekly newsletter.
Melissa: It makes me so happy.
David: And we typically end up reading those aloud to each other. So thank you so much for doing that.
Melissa: Yeah, thank you for being so generous with your kind words and also with book recommendations.
Melissa: Another easy way for you to tell us you like the show, and help other book lovers discover our podcast, is to leave a review on Apple Podcasts or whatever app you use to listen to our show.
David: You’ve I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it really helps.
Melissa: It does. It only takes you a few minutes, but it does two powerful things. You have power. First: Your review tells other people why they might like our show. And it’s in your words, not ours. That is tremendously helpful to people. And second, your reviews let the podcast platforms know our little show is a mighty force for good. So thank you in advance for your help. And as always, thank you for listening.
David: Mel, where are we headed on our next episode?
Melissa: By request from our patrons, we’re exploring the rugged coast, lonely lighthouses and delicious lobster rolls in the state of Maine.
David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of ESB Professional/Shutterstock.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is ©2023 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.