Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The London Nobody Knows (1967)

A glimpse at the off-the-beaten-track of England's capital city in the late 1960s, The London Nobody Knows (1967), stands in stark contrast to the international glamorous image of London as a center of innovation and art in the Swinging Sixties. Narrator James Mason—dapper and serious, wielding an umbrella—wanders through the crumbling relics of abandoned, once-grand theaters, speaks to the poor and indigent at a Salvation Army hostel, and takes us into the Holborn public lavatory that once boasted live goldfish in tanks to look at while urinating. "These fish don't live here now, of course," Mason comments off-handedly, gesturing with his brolly. "We just popped them in by way of illustration."

For a Londonphile like me, this film is both glorious and affecting, bringing on the immense sadness of lost treasures of history, culture, and architecture. So much in this film is grey, bleak and muted, an apt description of London even twenty-five years after the end of the war. This is a London still trying desperately to climb out of the post-war starkness; Mason surveys the vast blocks of uninspired 1960s flats and office buildings, leaving behind much of which was unique and precious to the city. He takes us through Camden Town, its quiet grey streets not yet filled with the bustling international crowds and festival-oriented flavor, into street markets where sellers lyrically hawk their wares, down the Thames to an egg-breaking plant (accompanied by a funny, fanciful skit of workers breaking eggs with everything from a steamroller to explosives), to the buskers and performers of the day (a taunting street-corner escape artist is a delight), long before they were licensed and relegated to a small designated section of an Underground passageway.

Hindsight gives us an even sharper and more poignant view of London in this film. We now live a twenty-first century where even the red telephone box is disappearing from the streets, and many of the venerable institutions Mason walks through are now defunct or teetering. He shows us London's famous markets in full hectic rush; a recent 2012 BBC series of documentaries, The London Markets, show the grand old traditions of guild membership and apprenticeships falling to the weighside by new laws and regulations. A visit to the alleyways haunted by Jack the Ripper shows streets as-yet-unmodernized with novelty tourist pubs and many competiting "official" walking tours. Mason steps into a grocer's in the Jewish East End of London and optimistically narrates "The Marx [Marks?] family have had a thriving business here for a hundred years, ad I wouldn't mind betting that they'll be here for another hundred." But I can't find online any sign of the shop still existing. The approach of large international chains—of McDonald's, Waterstones, Tesco's—is still in the future.

Scripted by Geoffrey Fletcher (based on his book), directed by Norman Cohen, The London Nobody Knows is both a celebration of this era's London and a memorial for the people and the culture of the grand old city. "All of these bits and pieces meant something once upon a time," says Mason. "They are what you might call the crumbling images of a past. But we'd be foolish to mourn them too readily." Without irony, James Mason remarks that many of the new buildings being put up on the sites of destroyed sites will themselves become wrecks and prime for destruction one day. (And so they have.) When I step into today's London, gone are the Wimpy Bars and milk bars of the '50s and '60s. You can no longer fiddle a lengthy journey on the Tube by using a cheap ticket at the beginning and showing your in-zone pass at the end. The Barbican Center, freshly built and controversial in the early 1980s, has now mostly faded to a dull afterthought with the departure of the Royal Shakespeare Company from its premises. Tube cars were clean when I was there in the '80s, then graffiti-covered in the '90s, and now clean again. Much of the decay of the docklands and East End has been replaced with luxury flats and trendy businesses, and an Olympic Stadium burying so much beneath it. My local pub, the White Hart in Paddington, closed in 2005, bringing on an infinite sadness when I first saw it shuttered.

I love the tourist areas of London: bustling Covent Garden, trendy Knightsbridge, beautiful Bloomsbury. But even more I love wandering on the quiet side streets away from the busy crowds, looking at the architecture and the people, spotting remnants of a London past in a faded ghost sign on a building or an amusing sculptured detail hidden half-away by age. That is, I think, an added value of The London Nobody Knows—it's not merely a fine and affecting documentary, it's a reminder to discover and to treasure those moments of delights off the beaten path—that not all of a city's life is outlined in a Fodor's travel guidebook.


  1. Stone Lions by Grasscut led me here. I recognized James Mason's distinctive voice in the VoiceOver at the end of the song.

  2. I remember seeing the escape artist when I was 5.