Alternative London makes compulsive reading

Alternative LondonIn the 1960s a new wave of London guidebooks began to appear, offering insight into the city’s attractions to would-be visitors of all incomes, lifestyles and backgrounds. My particular favourite is Alternative London first published in 1970 and compiled by author, traveller and pioneer of the wholefood movement Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998). The guidebook was well-received from the first, somewhat to Saunders’ surprise given its outspoken and idiosyncratic content. A reviewer from the Observer said: ‘Alternative London makes compulsive reading – lots of original and imaginative suggestions.’ Saunders attributed the popularity of Alternative London to the fact that it was authentic; that is, it was thoroughly researched by someone who knew, loved and ‘lived’ his subject. In the afterword to the 1971 edition (Alternative London went through six reprints in the 1970s and 1980s), Saunders explained:

‘I’m not the journalistic type at all; I haven’t read a book in the last 18 months; I don’t get any papers, haven’t got a telly. What I learn is from my own experience, or from other people relating theirs to me. I’m a frustrated, dissatisfied kind of person who’s always getting involved in something which I hope will provide me with some kind of answer. Also I don’t fit into any social slot – I drift as an outsider among all sorts of people. And that, combined with isolation from the news, gives me an overall sense of what’s going on.’

In part I love Alternative London for the hip and happening geometric cover, which Saunders designed (I hope his estate would be happy to approve my reproducing the cover above to illustrate this post). I also enjoy flicking through the pages to be reminded of how much the world has changed since the 1970s. For example, in a section on money, Saunders advises visitors to London to ask their bank for ‘a card and secret number’ to take advantage of cash dispensers which give out £10 at any time and are ‘becoming more common on the streets of the city’.

In a discussion of food prices, Saunders urges his readers to complain if they receive bad service or are overpriced before providing us with an intriguing glimpse into 1970s customer care in the capital:

‘Don’t hesitate – managers prefer you to say what’s wrong rather than boycott their shop. And you may get rewarded: when I last complained about my pork pie being clammy, a straw-hatted Wall’s representative came round with a giant fresh one.’

An entire social history blog might be constructed out of this one passage, not least because pork pie aficionado Saunders went on to become best-known for turning Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden into the wholefood and alternative therapy centre it is today. Not a pork product in sight.

If you would like to find out more about Nicholas Saunders, there is a website dedicated to his life and memory here: http://www.stain.org/nicholas/

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