Interview with Catharine Arnold : Part 2

Sarah Fortescue

Yesterday, Catharine Arnold spoke to London Calling about her five celebrated books about London. Today, she gives us an insight in to how she became captivated by London and its history, and how we can all learn more about one of the most captivating cities in the world.


London Calling: You’ve now written five books on London’s history – where did the obsession with the capital come from?

Catharine Arnold: Strangely enough, the title of your website springs immediately to mind: London Calling. Just like the song by the Clash, I always felt London calling from the end of the line. I even wrote a novel with that title some years ago, inevitably about a young woman’s experiences in the capital.

I grew up in Nottingham but frequently visited London as a child, to be dragged around galleries by my art teacher mother. I soon developed a fascination with the city, from St Pancras station, a gritty and desolate temple to the Midland railway line, to the elegant terraces of Belgravia. London made so much of an impact upon me that at the age of five I was apprehended at the top of the hill, trying to run away there on my tricycle.

By the time I was ready to live in the capital I already had a fantasy London in mind, from the mysterious world of espionage and intrigue around St James’s Park, to champagne-fuelled fun in Kensington and artists’ garrets in Chelsea. I pictured myself with rumpled Julie Christie hair and a man’s shirt smoking moodily on the mudflats.

There was another London, too, the spooky London of Hammer Horror, of Jack the Ripper, of Sherlock Holmes and Jeckyll and Hyde and resourceful young heroines. A London in which a reanimated Egyptian mummy plausibly roamed the streets, bodies twisted from the gallows at Tyburn, or an attractive woman transformed herself into a giant, deadly moth. This sensational London always haunted me, and still does, walking late at night through the capital, sometimes accompanied by ghosts.

Although it would have been impossible for London to have lived up to my celluloid expectations, the rather more mundane world that I actually encountered when I got here, a mansion flat off the Cromwell Road and working as a PA to a stockbroker was not enough to put me off.

LC: Where would you recommend interested Londoners go to discover more about London’s fascinating history?

CA: In book terms I would start with the guvnor, Peter Ackroyd, whose books inspired me to start writing about London, and my other favourite writers including Lee Jackson, Fiona Rule, and Sarah Wise. For a serious and insightful history of the gallows, The Hanging Tree Execution and the English People 1770-1868 by V. A. C. Gatrell.

In terms of exploration, there is no substitute for actually being there.

So, while there is little left of what was Bedlam, there are several important Victorian cemeteries which you can still visit, with really helpful guides, including Highgate, Kensal Green, Abney Park, and Tower Hamlets.

Visit Bunhill Fields (near Finsbury Square), which is a burial ground dating from the 17th century, to see what happens when a dissenter burial ground is lovingly preserved – among those buried there are William Blake, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe, author of Diary of a Plague Year.

Bunhill Fields is close to the Museum of London which has excellent displays of life in London through the ages, from the sarcophagus of a Roman lady to the Great Fire.

The Wellcome Institute is another great place to learn about the unwholesome side of London, via the history of medicine.

Bart’s Pathology Museum at St Bartholomew’s Hospital is a wonderful treasure house of the grisly and grotesque, consisting of a former pathology lab with several lectures and events a year.


Globe Life in Shakespeare’s London is out now, published by Simon and Schuster and available in all good bookshops.

You can read the first interview with Catharine Arnold here.

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