When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson
Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits. (Boswell lived in Scotland, and visited only periodically. Some people are surprised to learn that Boswell and Johnson were far from inseparable over the last twenty years of Johnson’s life, the period Boswell knew him.)
This discussion happened on September 20, 1777, and Johnson, someone who hated to spend time alone, was always going out and enjoying what London had to offer.
Now Boris Johnson as Mayor has been promoting historical events in the capital such as:
I’ve recently been re-reading “Here Is New York” an essay by E.B. White (which I cannot recommend highly enough). It’s a 55-page– well, love letter of sorts – written during the summer of 1949 and is considered by many (including me) to be one of the ten best books ever written about the city. I’m not sure what the London equivalent would be… Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography maybe? Much bigger than White’s piece and not so much a love letter as it is a collection of love letters. What do you all think?
I’m not suggesting that a single book could do justice to the sweeping scope that is London. Nor do I suggest that White’s piece is, by any means, a complete portrait of New York. You’d need a large bookcase of books to embody a subject as multi-layered and robust as London or New York. More likely, you’d need a whole library.
Luckily, I have plenty of shelf space because I “travel” to London and through New York via books quite a lot and it is travel almost without limits. You can get to know either city by getting to know about the people who left their mark centuries ago or who are leaving their mark now. You can examine the buildings and monuments that dot the city landscapes as well as those that have disappeared. You can read about the industries and social movements that drive the cities through cycles of growth and ruin. Books are, in this way, a handy-sized sort of TARDIS.
Do not think, however, that you must limit yourself to non-fiction when going on these page-turning adventures. Not at all. I read my share of non-fiction and I have a special fondness for biography but fiction can also provide views and (often unexpected) insights into the current and historical worlds of London and New York.
Journeys through the London underworld of Dickens reflect a world wholly removed from the high society of Edith Wharton but both authors are first class tour guides and have saved you a front row seat next to them. The ‘New York Past’ and ‘New York Present’ found in Jack Finney’s Time and Again mirror each other in many of the same ways as the ‘London Above’ and ‘London Below’ do in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I’ve tried to write more fully on this idea but I always get distracted by a mental picture of Sherlock Holmes trying to outwit Nero Wolfe — or more accurately Archie Goodwin challenging Doctor Watson to an arm wrestling match and being told not to be an impertinent young pup.
What can I say? My great interest in history is quite often interrupted by my even greater love of mystery fiction. Both bookcases are overflowing to the point of near collapse. Maybe I don’t have enough shelf space after all.
Both bookcases reflect my preference for British over American titles. British history is of far greater interest to me than American history and there are far more British mysteries on the shelf than American ones. Of course, New York isn’t wholly absent from my historical radar. Living on top of (and next door to) New York’s history means it is terribly convenient and proximity gives me a particularly fondness for it – especially since so much of it is actually the wide-ranging history of the people who came here and not the place itself. Actually, I love that about both cities the amalgamation of places, cultures and peoples — far more than many of the other cities in their respective countries.
But I digress.
London’s history is one of my favorite things about the place. Sometimes my interest in history and my mystery reading habits collide and I find myself wallowing in historical crime for a bit. Again, London edges out New York on my historical crime shelf.
London had Lord Lucan while New York had Judge Joseph Crater — not as well-known but just as vanished. London had the Krays and New York had the Gambinos. Had? Has? Let’s say ‘had’ – it’s safer. London had Jack the Ripper and has any subject inspired so many walking tours – there must be 5 or 6 a night moving through the East End. New York had the Son of Sam but in addition to being very ‘Johnny Come Lately’ compared to the Ripper, he inspired no walking tours of which I am aware. The Gambinos, on the other hand, have and a tasty walking tour it is.
Of course, both cities have seen their fair share of shady financial shenanigans and as anyone who reads the news can attest – those things are not just found in the pages of history. However, while that sort of thing racks up impressive numbers and allows for gob-smacking headlines, it doesn’t always make for the most entertaining reading. As a family friend (who happens to be a very successful and high profile criminal appeals attorney) once told me: “These guys? Boring. Anyone can steal money.”
But whether it’s historical crime or historical fiction, the seedy London of Oliver Twist or the Five Points district in Asbury‘s The Gangs of New York, an autobiography of Robert Moses or of Christopher Wren – books are one of my favorite ways to visit London and explore my own home town.
What do you all think? What book embodies London for you?