Monday, January 27, 2014


'I like this book,' said my niece, clutching it close like a comforting
teddy bear. ‘It makes me feel safe.’ The book was the A-Z, and it was her first time living in London. The A-Z has been making Londoners feel safe for years, ever since it was first published in 1936. Between two covers, fronted by its distinctive sans-serif logo, is London. Major roads declare themselves in dark yellow, mid-ranking roads look over their shoulders in light yellow, while the rest cluster behind in white. Railway lines snake over the map in black; overground stations are a comforting, solid black, while Tube stations are a cheeky little dot. The regular splodges of green remind you of how blessed London is with parks. The West End is printed in enlarged format, just in case you’d forgotten how important it is. The Thames sails through it all in a serene blue. Even the index has stories to tell of the city’s history. The column full of Alexandra Roads and Avenues speaks of the surge of suburban house building in the first decade of the twentieth century when Edward VII was on the throne and Queen Alexandra was his much-betrayed consort; the two pages of streets with saints’ names reminds you of the hundreds of years of Christian heritage behind the modern multi-cultural capital.

The A-Z was created by Phyllis Pearsall, the eccentric daughter of a Hungarian Jew and an Irish Catholic suffragette. She told the story that one evening she arrived late for a fashionable dinner party, having got lost on the way, only to find that most of the guests had had the same experience, in the absence of satisfactory maps. The next morning she rose at 5 am, and did so every day until she’d walked and mapped every street in London. This story (lovely though it is) is widely dismissed as a marketing fiction. What’s certain is that the company she established, the Geographers’ A-Z Company, is still going strong; it was the official provider of maps for the 2012 London Olympics.

Except, of course, that people no longer clutch books to make them feel safe when they come to London; they stroke phones. There are numerous apps to get you from anywhere to anywhere, not only telling you how long it will take, how much it will cost on the bus or the Tube or the train, which stop you should get off (and the stop before), and how many calories you would expend walking or cycling, but also accompanying you as your little pin floats up and down the streets with a protective penumbra flashing round it. None the less, I can’t quite get rid of the old hard copy A-Z; copies of it in large and small formats nestle in different parts of the house within an arm’s reach, there’s one on the shelf in my office at work, and a big, chunky, hardback sits smugly in the car waiting for everything electronic to admit defeat. I’ve vaguely thought of choosing the A-Z to take along with the Bible and Shakespeare if / when I’m on Desert Island Discs, in order to relive a thousand London stories in my head, and invent a few more. And in any case, the A-Z has its own app now. With the lightest touch of your finger, you can move up and down streets, zoom in close on favoured areas, then pan out and look down on the whole city from above, like a god surveying his creation. The A-Z is London, bigger than any of us could possibly comprehend, and yet at the same time sitting in our pockets, waiting for us.


  1. When I lived in London I got through 3 copies of the A-Z, it was guide to life and I took it everywhere. Now I am writing a book in which my protagonists live in London, and I consult my A-Z when they set off on foot - only problem being they live in 1912 and London has changed a lot since then!

  2. I love the A-Z too. And have you seen this?
    if you like maps and you like history you will love this.