Get Revved Up: London Cabbie Picks Olympic Reads
At the end of July, thousands of visitors will descend on one of the great literary landscapes of history for the London Olympics. And if they're lucky, they may find themselves getting a ride from a man who drives for a living, but lives to read. London cabbie Will Grozier occasionally joins Weekend Edition to discuss what he's been reading. Lately, he's been thinking about books for the London Olympics visitor — reads that put both the games and the host city in context. He shares his recommendations with NPR's Scott Simon.
For those looking to explore the city itself, Grozier recommends celebrated London biographer Peter Ackroyd's London Under.
"Ackroyd makes the point that London is sitting on a bed of clay, and in fact it's sinking into a bed of clay and has been doing so for hundreds of years," he says. "So what we have is the ability to dig down and rediscover our history."
For example, Ackroyd writes that the Roman era begins 25 feet down.
Lastly, for a Dickensian view of London, Grozier suggests Oliver Twist, which, he says, would coincidentally also make a great name for a gymnast.
"The mythology is, of course, that what we know of Oliver Twist is down to Lionel Bart['s musical theater adaptation] and the stage play: 'Please, sir, [I want] some more' ... and 'You've got to pick a pocket or two,' and all these archetypes that Dickens was so clever at describing for the nucleus of the play," Grozier says. "But there is a whole tranche of the novel that we have totally not mined, and it is complex."
A more involved read is Janie Hampton's The Austerity Olympics, about the 1948 London Games, which took place at a time when the city was still clearing the rubble of World War II and living on ration cards.
"[They were] the games that came after the austerity. Now, some [joker] might say that this time around it's the austerity that comes after the games," Grozier quips. Back in 1948, however, the London Games helped send the message that London was back.
"I also think it set a template for what ensued in the subsequent games because much of what was admired about the best of British society — the fair play, 'It's the participation and not the winning' — it was those kinds of attitudes that kind of laid down the template for what has become today's games, although I think it's gotten a little skewed in its reliance on sponsorship," Grozier says. "But at least in 1948 they were aware that they needed foreign money coming in to make the thing balance — and they did make it balance."
How to Watch the Olympics
For a sport-by-sport overview of the Games, Grozier prescribes David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton's How to Watch the Olympics.
"It lists who the runners and riders are, who the past successes have been, what you have to do to win. And it's kind of a cheat's paradise because if you want to know in an instant who's likely to win [in] archery, just stick your nose in there and say, 'I'm gonna put my money on the South Koreans,' " he says. "That's one you can dip in and out of as you will. There's no great continuity there. It's a reference book, but it's a very lighthearted reference book; it's not going to tax your reader on a long flight."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Of course, the background for all those Olympic hopes and dreams is a city known for drama. Thousands of visitors will descend on the millions of people all over the world who already reside in one of the world's great literary landscapes.
Extremely fortunate visitors might hold up their hand for cab and meet a man who drives for a living - but who lives to read - our friend Will Grozier, the London cabbie, who joins us from time to time to talk about literature. He has some books to recommend to those who want to know his city better. Will Grozier joins us from our studios at the BBC in London. Will, glad to have you back.
WILL GROZIER: Good afternoon, Scott. How are you?
SIMON: I'm fine, thanks. And you, Will?
GROZIER: We are well, sir. We are well.
SIMON: What are some books that visitors can begin to read, maybe read on the plane and bring with them, which is to say not too heavy, please.
SIMON: Something that they can use to get to know the magnificent city they're about to be in a little better.
GROZIER: Well, I've got a couple of titles for those that are coming over here who want to do a little bit of research on maybe London and the Games. The first one would be, in a very light-hearted vein, "How to Watch the Olympics," is a sort of games by games, or sport by sport approach, if you like, for every different sport. It lists who the runners and riders are, who the past successes have been, what you have to do to win. And it's a kind of a cheat's paradise because if you want to know in an instant who's likely to win the archery, you just stick your nose in there and say, oh, I'm going to put my money on the South Koreans.
SIMON: Oh. Are the South Koreans really good at archery?
GROZIER: I don't know. That's what it says.
SIMON: All right. OK.
GROZIER: But that's one you can dip in and out of as you will. There's no great continuity there. It's a reference book, but it's a very light-hearted reference book.
GROZIER: It's not going to tax your reader on a long flight. What might tax your reader is "The Austerity Olympics" by Janie Hampton which is a much more complex overview of the Olympics that were held in London in 1948.
SIMON: Right. And this was when, you know, London wasn't swaggering and rich but living on ration cards and clearing up the rubble of World War II.
GROZIER: It's the Games that came after the austerity. Now, some wag might say that this time around it's the austerity that comes after the Games but...
SIMON: Ooh, that's a good phrase, Will.
SIMON: Did the 1948 Olympics do the job that people hope? Send a signal that London was back?
I think it sent a signal that London was back and I also think it set a template for what ensued in the subsequent Games because much of what was admired about the best of British society - the fair play, play up and play the game - you know, it's the participation and not the winning. It was those kinds of attitudes that kind of laid down the template for what has become today's Games.
GROZIER: Although I think it's got a little skewed in its reliance on corporate sponsorship. But at least in 1948 they were aware that they needed foreign money coming in to make the thing balance.
GROZIER: And they did make it balance.
SIMON: What about books about that magnificent - and I do mean I think the most magnificent - rock pile of a city you live in? Because people will be walking over, through, under and over a lot of history.
GROZIER: They may even indeed be walking under but only if they're very adventurous and they're called Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd is our most celebrated living London biographer and he has to his credit two humongous tomes.
SIMON: And let me just interject. He says biography because the city's a living entity. He doesn't consider it a history.
GROZIER: Exactly. But even the concise version of his famous biography is a doorstop.
GROZIER: And so I wanted to lead your listeners gently by the nose towards Mr. Ackroyd and his very delightful little book called "London Under." Ackroyd makes the point that London is sitting on a bed of clay and in fact it's sinking into a bed of clay and has been doing so for hundreds of years.
So what we have is the ability to dig down and rediscover our history. And if you venture into some of the hidden recesses of London, much like the catacombs of Paris but nothing like as extensive, you'll find history upon history upon history.
SIMON: It was fascinating, as I recall reading it, to recollect the fact that history that we read about and care about, it's under ground at this particular point.
GROZIER: Very much so, very much so. And, you know, he's talking about the Roman era being 25 feet down. That's a long way down.
SIMON: Yeah. Yeah. I knew we were going to talk about great books about London. My mind immediately went to Dickens.
GROZIER: Yes. I saw that.
SIMON: Well, what do you think about that?
GROZIER: Well, I can make the connection between London and the Olympics and then I thought "Oliver Twist" and then I thought, wait. Wait just a minute. Oh, I know. He's a guy on the gymnastics team.
SIMON: Oh. Oh.
SIMON: I would've thought you would be above that, my friend.
GROZIER: Oh, no, no, no, no.
SIMON: I suggested "Oliver Twist." Yeah, go ahead.
GROZIER: Yeah. No, no. It was a great choice and I'll tell you why.
GROZIER: Fortuitously I had a copy of this on CD so I must confess that I took the easy route and listened to it whilst I was driving around London, which is a great way to revise. It really is.
SIMON: Sure. Yeah.
GROZIER: Because, I mean, if I read this at all, and I think that we believe that we've read certain books when actually I think in this - well, listen carefully.
SIMON: Yeah, you're absolutely right. I know. Yeah.
GROZIER: The mythology is, of course, is that what we know about "Oliver Twist" is down to Lionel Bart and the stage play.
SIMON: Please, sir, can I have some more?
GROZIER: Some more? You want more, boy?
GROZIER: And you got to pick a pocket or two, my boy. And all of these archetypes that Dickens was so clever at describing form the nucleus of the play: Oliver, Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nancy, Bill Sikes. These are all characters that we've been very familiar with. But there's a whole tranche of the novel...
GROZIER: ...that we have totally not mined. And it is complex and...
SIMON: So let me understand this. Growing up in Chicago I read "Oliver Twist." Growing in London, what were you...
GROZIER: "Catcher in the Rye," of course.
SIMON: Our friend, Will Grozier, London taxi driver, practically makes reading his own Olympic sport, speaking from London. Thank you, Will.
GROZIER: Thank you, Scott. A pleasure as always.
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