"During and since the War the steps of the Fountain have been occupied by an untidy fringe of foreigners, provincials, soldiers, sailors, and their lady friends ... The centre of Piccadilly Circus, which used to look so lovely with its baskets of primroses and violets in spring, its roses in summer and its dahlias in autumn, is now, in my opinion, one of the most depressing and regrettable spectacles in the capital. I have an idea that sitting around Eros began during the War with the Americans, who chewed their gum there and mournfully smoked their cheroots, wondering why the heck they were in London." ‒ H.V. Morton in IN SEARCH OF LONDON
Well, you know what they said about Yanks in England during the war: "Overpaid, oversexed, and over here."
Having been to London almost more times than I can count, I could have been on any visit part of that "untidy fringe" except that sitting in the middle of what amounts to a busy road junction on the steps of an unimposing statue has never held much attraction. Other than that, London is my personal-favorite city in the whole world and reading H.V. Morton's IN SEARCH OF LONDON reminds me why I love it so much.
Morton's book is product of his fourth visit to the city which occurred in or somewhat before 1951. England and its capital were still recovering from the destructive effects of World War II, and George VI was still King. As the author is careful to point out in order to give some idea of the changes he'd seen over time, his first visit was as a child in the closing years of Victoria's reign.
While IN SEARCH OF LONDON could perhaps have been used as a walking-tour guidebook for a contemporary tourist when it was first published, now it couldn't serve as such at all. Too many things have changed (even during the period between my first and most recent visits, 1975 and 2010). There aren't as many second-hand book stores along Charing Cross Road as there used to be. The Royal United Service Museum, once housed in the Banqueting Hall of the old Palace of Whitehall, is apparently no longer there, though I can't seem to discover with a Web crawl where it went ‒ if anywhere. With the increased security around public buildings after 9/11, I suspect tourists can no longer scurry past the gate guards into St. James's Palace for a cursory look-see. Though one can still go by motor launch from Westminster Pier to Greenwich, the latter is now a stop (Cutty Sark Station) for Docklands Light Rail. And the Royal Naval College in Greenwich closed its doors in 1998.
IN SEARCH OF LONDON serves best as a reminder ‒ if such is needed ‒ that the metropolis is chock-a-block filled with sights and history just waiting to be discovered by the city explorer of any era. And Morton takes the armchair tourist even further into what perhaps could only be experienced after special arrangements and efforts (which are probably beyond the casual visitor), e.g., a climb up Big Ben to inspect the bells and the clock and its workings, attend an auction at Sotheby's, descend into the Royal Vaults beneath Westminster Abbey's Chapel of Henry VII, or observe the grueling examination on London's streets administered to cabbie wannabes.
H.V. Morton is a travel essayist of the utmost eloquence and possessing boundless enthusiasm. (If I may be so plebeian, his passion for his subjects reminds me of Huell Howser, host of the American public television program CALIFORNIA'S GOLD.) In any case, I've read and enjoyed him in the past (In Search Of England), and I'll most certainly do so again.