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.