Have you seen the old girl who walks the streets of london“Streets of London” Lyrics by Ralph McTell 1974
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags
She’s no time for talking she just keeps right on walking
Carrying her home in two carrier bags
Phyllis Pearsall wasn’t dirty or dressed in rags. In fact she was a product of a very upmarket girls’ boarding school in England and the Sorbonne in Paris. But she did walk the streets of London for a year from dawn to dusk, dressed in woollen stockings and sturdy shoes. She carried a satchel stuffed with pencils and paper marked in one inch squares with which she meticulously documented every one of its 23,000 streets, and avenues, cul de sacs and mews.
Through dogged persistence she produced the London A-Z guide, the first book of its kind to help local inhabitants and visitors navigate their way around the city. At least that’s what Mrs P’s Journey would have readers believe.
I have a copy of this A-Z guide myself. For years I couldn’t set out on a trip to London without the assurance that I had packed my copy. It’s consequently rather dog-eared and stained and some of the detail no longer as accurate because of redevelopments in various parts of the city. But if I’m venturing beyond the central tourist hotspots or going to an unfamiliar part of the city, it’s still an essential companion.
In all those years however I never gave a moment’s thought to how this guide came to exist. If it wasn’t for a member of my book club I would never have discovered the extraordinary story of its origins and the remarkable story of Phyllis Pearsall.
Journalist Sarah Hartley was in a similar state of ignorance until August 26, 1996 when she heard of Pearsall’s death via a radio report and discovered she was the brains behind the A-Z. In the foreword to her book Mrs P’s Journey she recalled that moment:
I remember thinking to myself, a woman put together the cabby’s bible, the book that lies on every Londoner’s bookshelf and in every desk drawer. Who says we can’t read maps?
Her research uncovered the tale of a woman so frustrated by the lack of street maps of the city that she felt she had to act. While not an immediate success, sales of the resulting guide (the first published in book form and including an alphabetical index) increased to the point where Phyllis Pearsall created the Geographers’s Map Company in 1936. The firm exists today, still publishing the London guide and similar guides to most major British cities.
The idea of any individual so determined to get a job done that walked for 18 hours every day regardless of swollen, blistered feet and inclement weather, was the hook that got me reading this book. How disappointing then that it took 204 pages before we reached that part of Pearsall’s story.
What we were presented with instead was a very detailed account of her parent’s history and her childhood. To call this a miserable existence would be an understatement.
Her father, of Hungarian Jewish descent, was a bit of a con man but he had a good eye for a business opportunity. He created a map making business just in time to take advantage of the march towards World War 1 and the thirst of newspaper readers for information about the location of various places in the conflict. He was also an egocentric figure who resented his daughter’s success while his own business went bankrupt.
Even when his daughter was recovering from a near fatal plane crash, he harangued her to get out of bed and get back to work. Her mother wasn’t any better, being so infatuated with her second husband that when Phyllis returned home from boarding school she didn’t even allow her in the house. She simply told her to go straight to the employment agency and find a job which included accommodation. Phyllis Pearsall was just 15.
While some of the history was interesting and I knew I was reading a semi-fictionalised account, the more I read the more I began to have doubts. Did Pearsall really get sent to work at a French school or did her parents pay for her to attend as her brother claimed? Did this girl at seventeen years old spend four weeks sleeping rough on the streets of Paris before starting her classes at the Sorbonne? And what exactly was the nature of her relationship with Vladimir Nabokov whom she met when they both stayed at the same boarding house in Paris?
Hartley acknowledges this issue of authenticity in the foreword to Mrs P’s Journey, noting that there were gaps and inconsistencies in her sources, in particular Pearsall’s own memoir and reminiscences from her best friend Esme Wren. Hartley argues that the fictional elements were less fantastical than the true elements and what she had written was to Pearsall, the truth.
Having finished the book I discovered that Pearsall’s life has been surrounded by controversy and questions about authenticity.
English Heritage declined to award her a blue plaque because they were not confident enough that her story could be verified. There were questions raised by the British Library too. Their head of maps Peter Barber has completely debunked Pearsall’s account of how her map book came to exist.
“The Phyllis Pearsall story is complete rubbish. There is no evidence she did it and if she did do it, she didn’t need to,” he said. Instead of walking the streets all she needed to do was ask London’s local authorities for their street plans. Nor was she that original in Barber’s view since her father Alexander Gross drawn up a very similar A-Z years before.
Is Hartley’s book another example of the myth making engine that has grown up around Pearsall; some of it likely the result of her own endeavours? It’s certainly a larger than life story but that doesn’t necessarily make it untrue. However, the lack of detail about the actual process of making the maps was a huge red flag.
How good is the book overall? For me it fell down in a few areas. The time frame kept jumping about without any real purpose which meant I had to keep flicking back to try and work out how old Phyllis was at a particular time. The point of view similarly kept changing; sometimes third person narrative and sometimes supposed dialogue or Pearsall’s own words. Most confusing.
But I was in the minority since everyone else in the club thought this was wonderful. You’ll just have to read it and make up your own mind.