7 December 2013


Scott Wood. London Urban Legends. History Press, 2013.

To many people London can be an alarming place: big, busy, noisy; you are surrounded by strangers, strangers who at any time might want to do you harm. Travelling on the Underground can be confusing: sitting - or more likely standing - in the train you may be singled out as a ‘mark’ by a pickpocket, or if you are a woman, as a potential victim for a frotteur.
Or maybe one of those dead-eyed people sitting opposite you, carefully ignoring all their fellow-travellers, is actually dead. Now I suppose that at some time people have died on the Tube - the idea formed the basis of a New Tricks episode - although the only case Scott Wood has been able to confirm was that of a former Nazi spy and wartime internee Franz Rintelen van Kleist, whose body was discovered on a train at South Kensington station - but that was in 1949.

The urban legend version usually involves the corpse actually being dead before getting onto the train, in the company of two burly assassins holding the body between them. The key part of this story however is that the person retelling it - the friend of the bloke your sister-in-law’s boyfriend met down the pub - who was sitting opposite the corpse when it was hauled into the carriage was warned off by an anonymous stranger who hissed “get off at the next station” into her - it’s nearly always a ‘her’ - ear.

More good advice is also hissed into people’s ears by good-natured terrorists - an oxymoron, surely - if you help them out with a bit of loose change when they’re a few pence short at the supermarket check-out: “Don’t travel on the Tube on Wednesday”, “Avoid the World Trade Center”, that sort of thing. Scott has traced these stories back through World War II (“Carry a gas-mask on September 15”) to World War I and maybe earlier.

London seems to have been targeted during the Blitz not just by bombers, but by estate agents, looking out for des. res, for senior Nazis after the invasion. Du Cane court in Balham was identified as a location for Hitler’s (or in some versions Goering’s) London pad. It was supposedly built in the shape of a swastika by its German architect in the 1930s (an example of the ‘Hidden Insult’, another popular foaflore motif). I’ve just looked at it on Google maps, and I suppose it is if you knock down three of the blocks and build a new one.

I doubt that Hitler would actually have approved of Du Cane Court, it would be a bit too modernist and Bauhaus influenced for his tastes. The Senate House at London University would be more his cup of ersatz coffee, looking very much like the sort of thing Albert Speer might have knocked out on a quiet day at the drawing-board. The story is that the Fuhrer earmarked it as the administrative HQ for an occupied Britain. It does fit the role; after all George Orwell used it as his inspiration for the Ministry of Truth building in 1984. It’s also sinking into an undiscovered underground river according to another legend.

I’m please to see that in discussing London’s phantom slashers, who hide razor blades behind prostitutes' cards in telephone boxes or on children’s playground slides, Scott adds to the growing conviction amongst people who have studied the matter seriously, as opposed to writing sensational pot-boilers, that there actually was no such person as ‘Jack the Ripper' but that a number of superficially similar murders were linked together by the tabloid press of the day, having been supplied with a suitably gory label by the police

There’s much in here about phantom animals, and buildings that were constructed the wrong way round, leading to the suicide of the architects, and equally highly strung sculptors who threw themselves into the Thames after discovering some minor inaccuracy in their depiction of their subject. Could I add here that St Helier Hospital in Carshalton (which Scott records was painted black during WWII so that German bombers could not see it by night and use it to navigate) was also supposedly built back-to-front, but as far as I know the architect did not attempt suicide at its inauguration. I suppose being at a hospital already he’d have a better chance of survival than the others.

I am contractually obliged to make at least one nit-picking criticism, so I’ll have a go at the editing and proof-reading. Amongst other things the name of one of the Ripper’s alleged victims is spelt two different ways within a few lines of each other; and whilst I agree that it's implausible that the Elephant and Castle shopping centre was built to disguise work on secret Underground excavations, surely these would have been dug as part of the Bakerloo Line rather than an extension to the Jubilee, which was not even a line on a map when the centre was built?

One other slight correction that I would suggest. Scott is adamant that The Kinks’ song ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is based on the London location, and not, as Ray Davies told the Liverpool Echo, set in that city. Scott seems unaware (or is he deliberately withholding the information?) that there is a suburb of Liverpool called Waterloo, which is noted for its beautiful golden sunsets across the Irish Sea - so spectacular that J M W Turner was inspired to paint them. I just throw this in to confuse things.

You will all want to know if the Brentford Griffin features here. Of course it does, although I feel Scott fell rather too easily into accepting his source’s claim that it was ‘fakelore’, invented to promote an occult and Fortean-tinged event in West London. This is one of the problems with believing things that people tell you in pubs.

Any self-respecting London-based Fortean and Magonian will need to have this excellent book, if only to assure themselves and their families that it safe to actually go outdoors without being attacked by the Chelsea Smilers, falling into a plague pit, or bumping into a bear on Hackney Marshes. Magonia rating: Tip-top. - John Rimmer.

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