Travis Elborough is James Mason in The London That Nobody Knows

The London That Nobody Knows

Cultural historian Travis Elborough has written witty, brainy books about the vinyl records, the British sea side and the double decker bus. Now he’s turned his attention to London Bridge in America with The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing, which stars London Bridge, fleet street shysters, stiff-lipped bureaucrats, Disneyland designers, a gun-toting sheriff and the Guinness Book of Records. His filmic alter ego is James Mason in The London That Nobody Knows. Eithne Farry

These days practically everybody knows The London That Nobody Knows – Norman Cohen and Brian Comport’s 1967 cinematic version of Geoffrey Fletcher’s wonderfully idiosyncratic study of the capital’s lesser regarded corners and inhabitants. But there was a time, not that long ago, when the film lay almost as neglected as parts of the city it depicts. Or certainly that was how it seemed to me when I first saw it in the early 1990s. And on television at an obscure hour of the afternoon when probably some tennis or horse racing had been rained off.

Thinking about it now, it’s quite possible that I may actually have got the idea of horse racing from James Mason’s attire. Mason, who stars as kind of a stand-in for Fletcher as our peripatetic proto-psychogeographical guide, wears a flat cap and tweed jacket – the mufti of race-goers in his native Yorkshire, if not the world over.

Armed with a rolled umbrella, frequently wielded like a sword, Mason is captured tramping, arrestingly wearily, about a mostly crust-on-its-uppers London – a London whose streets look less swinging for the 1960s than scrofulous with bomb damage. Whole areas appear shabby with torched boxwood and putrefying cabbages and are roamed by packs of terrifying feral meth drinkers. Foraging through the wreckage of the Bedford Music Hall theatre in Camden and the crowded stalls at Chapel Market, Islington, Mason is as quizzical as Sherlock Holmes. And if I’ve ever really wanted to be anyone on screen it is probably him here, poking about in the ruins of a London long since lost.

He can be flaky, insouciantly busking the odd line here and there, and at times a touch too imperious. Meeting toothless down-on-their-lucks in a Salvation Army shelter in Whitechapel, one still rueing the consequences of the crash of 1929, he comes across as a visiting royal killing an hour before cutting the ribbon on a new civic centre elsewhere in the day. But his on-screen presence. And that voice – honeyed as cognac, soft, melancholy, almost viscous with fatalistic languor in parts – who wouldn’t want that?

Travis Elborough