- - Tuesday, December 23, 2014


The ever-sagacious Samuel Johnson famously remarked that those who were tired of London were tired of life. There’s an awful lot of life packed into the sampling of literary reflections of that city, which the editors of the British Library — that great depository of English manuscripts — have assembled in these pages. Whether a writer was a native of London, a visitor or one who adopted it as his hometown, it had an enormous effect. For so many writers over the centuries, London offered fodder for their work, whether as inspiration for all manner of subject matters and characters or merely as background. Love it as William Wordsworth did — “Earth has not anything to show more fair” — or loathe it as American poet Amy Lowell did — “The city is squalid and sinister an alien city” — London exerted an almost gravitational pull, a compulsion to write about it.

London has been a great city, not just in size but in all sorts of ways, for many centuries, but it has constantly been in flux, growing, adding, decaying, ever evolving. “London: A Literary Anthology” shows us reflections of all this, in styles and indeed the language itself continually changing. Late 15th- or early 16th-century Scottish poet William Dunbar celebrates London’s unique superiority with an eponymous poem beginning “London, thou art of townes A-per-se/ Sovereign of cities, seemliest in sight,” and ending, after much sonorous praise, “London, thou art the flour of Cities all.”

The pre-Shakespearean language and spelling here mean, of course, that Dunbar is likening the city to a bloom and not a milled grain, as is clear from the internal context and meaning: a salient example of that continuous evolution of the English language.

Zadie Smith, a contemporary British author, gives us a quite different civic glimpse in her novel “White Teeth”: “He pointed to the ugly red-brick building. He pointed to the smelly bustle of black, white, brown and yellow shuffling up and down the high street. ‘We are all having difficulties in this country, this country which is new to us and old to us all at the same time. We are divided people aren’t we?’”

Bustle is a word that applies to so many of the impressions in this book, from the novels of Charles Dickens to those of Virginia Woolf and countless others. London spells romance or squalor, vivacity or decay, depending on who is reacting to it and what part of its almost infinite variety is being glimpsed.

Dickens’ description of the enormous clearance necessary to bring the railroad through London, which he likens to a “great earthquake that rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre,” unforgettably evokes “a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together” and so much else “which wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.” For Rudyard Kipling, it is the buses that rush all over London that make him “sick of London town,” while for William Blake more than a century earlier, it is the people he sees as he wanders the streets “and mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

New Zealander Katherine Mansfield finds herself repelled by “a sickening smell of warm humanity — it seemed to be oozing out of everybody on the bus — and everybody had the same expression, sitting so still, staring in front of them.” Yet when she reaches her destination, it is pure enchantment she feels: “Westbourne Grove looked as she had always imagined Venice to look at night, mysterious, dark, even the hansoms were like gondolas dodging up and down, and the lights trailing luridly — tongues of flame licking the wet street — magic fish swimming in the Grand Canal.”

Not everything in this collection is about the streets and buildings and locales of London. We listen inside a woman’s mind as she rides on the open top of a London bus in Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Evelyn Waugh’s breakthrough second novel, “Vile Bodies,” gives us a peerless portrait of how those Bright Young People of the 1920s filled their time: “What a lot of parties. (Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. Those vile bodies.”

London: A Literary Anthology” indeed affirms Samuel Johnson’s dictum, for it shows not only a city with a lot of lives being lived but also a metropolis with a life of its own.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Washington.



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