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High Buildings Low Morals by Rob Baker
May 9, 2023
To quote Noël Coward, from the back cover of Rob Baker's book, "I don't know what London's coming to - the higher the buildings, the lower the morals." High Buildings, Low Morals is, for me, a classic book. I first discovered Baker's obsession in 20th Century London through his blog Another Nickel in the Machine. Eventually, using his blog as the source, he made two books. Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics, and this one, High Buildings, Low Morals. Both are excellent, as well as his blog and, in my studies, the two best books on contemporary (20th century) London culture. Baker is amazing that his identity disappears, and what comes up is the subject matter of his interest: the linkage between London theater, social life, film and stage stars, and gangsters. These two books remind me of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, but the big difference is that Baker is a thorough historian in his approach to matching the dots in that urban landscape. He has the genius to match individuals with a narrative much bigger than the figures because it's a web that holds the city together.
Here we get narratives about Noël Coward, Lord Boothby & Ronnie Kray, Tallulah Bankhead, Graham Greene, and obscure and entirely forgotten British stars like Billie Carleton, the Duchess of Argyll (an old porn scandal), and even Mussolini, among many others. Also, reading this book, I get the full physical picture of London being bombed during World War II and the psychology of that city’s population. It's an epic presentation, and Baker has the genius to edit it in (or out) various stories that tell even a bigger picture. He is a historian on a brilliant level, I can't recommend his books too much. For anyone who is interested in London, but also how an urban city lives and moves - it's a fascinating series of tales that is almost unbelievable, but yet, true.
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