The London Nobody Knows – Norman Cohen – 1967
There’s something sadly appropriate about the fact that Geoffrey Fletcher is now largely forgotten. A prolific chronicler of disappearing London, Fletcher’s books (or ‘scrapbooks of offbeat London’) are now themselves relics.
Fletcher devoted his life to seeking out and documenting the everyday, often tawdry, features of bygone London that clung on amid the upheaval of the mid-twentieth century; the strange, endangered spaces threatened by the modernising agenda of post-war Britain. Edwardian tearooms, unusual gas lamps and crumbling terraces, rococo funeral parlours and art nouveau pubs, the ‘sleazy snack bars’ and the cast-iron balconies, forlorn music halls, old Jewish tailors and outmoded East End boutiques; redundant curiosities on the brink of oblivion.
The film The London That Nobody Knows (based on Fletcher’s 1962 book of the same name) sees James Mason (smart casual and dressed for adversity in a flat cap) taking a stroll through shabby 1960s London. We accompany James around derelict theatres and the disused Victorian public toilets in Holborn where the attendant kept a pet goldfish in one of the tanks (Fletcher was fascinated by public toilets – a self-confessed ‘experienced conveniologist’).
Fletcher may be a conveniologist, but he isn’t a conservationist – he isn’t appealing to rebuild crumbling music halls or preserve disintegrating masonry – he loves the romance of ruins. What he seeks are the places where a fragile connection with the past remains intact. He’s an explorer and an adventurer, a Londonologist.
The London Nobody Knows is an important film every Londoner should watch once. It’s a privilage to re-experience the city through the prism of Fletcher’s eccentric gaze. You won’t be able to walk down your street in quite the same way ever again.
The London Nobody Knows is available on DVD from the BFI.
Meanwhile, keep a look out for the paperback, now out of print (obvs.).