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5 Places to Explore Literary London

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by Alan Perkins (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer, editor and teacher based in north London.
Published November 19th 2012
Intoxicated by books and ale
Few places on earth have inspired, and been home to, as many writers and poets as London. From the earliest theatre productions in taverns to today's glitzy publishing industry, the city provides an excellent backdrop to novels and muse to any number of authors.

I decided to embark on something of a literary pilgrimage, taking in a couple of the city's bookish landmarks, complete with a couple of stops for beer. It's a crime when we separate the intoxication of books from the intoxication of the ale house.

I'll assume that you, dear reader, are already familiar with Shakespeare's Globe, sitting on the south bank. Too many school trips have robbed it of its intrigue, so I'll start with-

Gordon Square

Today, this little picturesque square in the centre of Bloomsbury is home to Birkbeck College, which keeps the little cafes swarming with studenty faces and bookshops. A century ago, however, it was home to the Bloomsbury group of writers, including Virginia Woolf. She lived at number 46, hosting endless revelries for the intellectual elite of modernist London.
One of Bloomsbury's elegant squares.

Her work includes Mrs Dalloway, a study into the psychological depths of every day events, in this case the hosting of a party, and an exploration of the inner worlds of its characters. The square is particularly nice in autumn and spring, when the trees provide a colourful background to your visit.
Gordon Square was once home to a group of writers, artists and thinkers.

What to read - Street Haunting - a short story centred on Woolf's enjoyment of night time strolls in Bloomsbury. Settle into one of the cafes nearby and go back to another time.

The Red Lion in Soho

Soho today is an odd mixture of a place with seedy clubs sitting next to chic restaurants and bars. Somewhere, in the dingy corners of the sweaty streets, you can still feel the artistic and literary freedoms that once made this one of the most exciting places in London.

The contrast is beautifully shown in the history of the Red Lion pub on Great Windmill Street. Today, it is a respite to the endless commercialism of central London, but it was once home to Karl Marx's lectures.
The Red Lion in Soho once held lectures by Karl Marx.

Arguably, only a select few religious texts have had the global impact of Marx's writings, so this is a worthy stop on our trail. It remains a lovely place for a quiet pint and an hour with your book.

What to read - Das Kapital - the cornerstone text of communism, this book inspired Lenin to conduct a revolution in Russia which gave rise to one of the most influential political shiftings in history.

The Oscar Wilde monument (between Chandos Place and Duncannon Street)

Many writers are read. Some are appreciated. Very, very few could ever claim to be loved. Oscar Wilde is in that select band. His work, along with his tragic legend (he died in disgrace, shortly after being released from two years hard labour for the 'crime' of being gay) has left him with a blisteringly loyal fan base.
Oscar's statue draws many of his adoring fans.

Although born in Dublin and educated in Oxford, it was in London that he achieved fame and notoriety, with his plays and novel.
The most quotable writer of all time?

His assertion that art was valuable for its own sake was a central philosophy of the dandy movement and his acid wit and endless wordplay ensured that he was one of the most celebrated authors of the age.

What to read - The Picture of Dorian Gray - in an age where we all present an eternally youthful image of ourselves through Facebook, this novel, in which the main character allows all his sins to affect his portrait, rather than himself, seems eerily prophetic.

The George in Borough

Some tourists arrive in London expecting it to be bathed in a thick, pea soup fog. In their minds, the city is one of dark alleys and endless nights.

The novels of Charles Dickens not only reflected the city, but actually helped to form the image of it around the world. The world of which he wrote has largely been sanitised and concreted, yet around Borough, you can still get a feel for the London of old.
The George provides a great place to drink and read!

The George (75-77 Borough High Street, Southwark SE1 1NH) proudly claims Dickens as a patron and who could blame him? This pub is still delightful, with its low ceilings and its little corner coves, perfect for conspiring and plotting.
They are extremely proud of their literary heritage.

Considering the historic value of this place, it has managed to survive being turned into tourist trap. Its primary purpose is for people to drink and enjoy themselves after a trip to the nearby food market.
The George! The George!

What to read - David Copperfield - many of Dickens' works are set in London, but David Copperfield is said to be his most autobiographical. Get a sense of the sooty streets and larger than life inhabitants of 19th Century London.

Charing Cross Road bookshops

Sitting between the tourist hell-hole of Leicester Square and the grandeur of Trafalgar Square is the endlessly curious Charing Cross Road. Home to an incomprehensible number of second hand bookshops, this street provides a whole afternoon of perusing pleasure.
What could be better than a browse in a second hand bookshop?

In the era of the Kindle and Amazon, we need to appreciate places like Henry Pordes (5860 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0BB) for all they are worth.
One of the many bookshops on the Charing Cross Road.

You can find rare editions of your favourite works, or simply look through piles of tomes, searching for your next favourite read. Above all else, enjoy the tangible feel of the shop and the smell of old books sitting on dusty shelves.

What to read - Whatever you can get your hands on. Many of the shops are insanely well stocked, containing books on every conceivable subject, as well as fiction by hundreds of authors.
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Why? For the thinking person's London.
Where: Soho, Bloomsbury and Borough.
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