Our Rich Literary History

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:

Trafalgar Square a brief history  

History Brought to Life weekend

Black History Season

 

Not to be outdone, Gotham Girl takes a cross-disciplinary approach with both fiction and non-fiction highlighting some interesting historical and cultural comparisons between London and New York 

  

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?

21 thoughts on “Our Rich Literary History”

  1. 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.

    I suppose this is what would happen – eventually at least on some level – if I were to ever live in London full time. On the other hand, should the opportunity ever present itself, I think I’d adjust pretty easily since I am fully aware that day-to-day reality is not the same as a few days here and there.

    I see that ‘disconnect’ all the time when people who visit NYC occasionally suddenly get it in their heads that living here would be just like that but longer and arrive to something of a shock. Sometimes they take to it like ducks to water and sometimes they take to it rather more like cats to a bath. But either way, there is a period of adjustment that takes them by surprise.

  2. Well a poem that embodies London for me is Upon Westminster Bridge by Wordsworth

    Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty:
    This City now doth like a garment wear

    The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!

  3. firstly when i think of london i think of home, not the centre of london but the surrounding areas (south east and north west) but do pride myself on being a Londoner (and knowing i could be dropped of anywhere in te area and find my way home).
    now even though it is my home most people will realise (compared to the north or suchlike) london for all its great architecture and history, is not a very friendly place.
    this due to the fast lifestyle i believe , the hustle and bustle of the city streets. people have no time to stop and appreciate what lies around them.
    we have great buildings such as st pauls, houses of parliament and of course the tower of london.
    i am always reminded of the tudor times when i think of london.
    i can just imagine being in the court of king hery VIII.
    there are many non-ficton books such as the various text books worked through in school (not that long ago mite i add) and many my father has passed down to me such as;
    alison weir’s
    henry the VIII king and court,
    which very well describes life in and around london from ceremonies and pageantsto pets.
    and most obviously the life of the english monarchy.
    which as we know had a much bigger effect on life then than it does now.
    also i must add that rowan atkinsons series blackadder (tudor series) displayed the lifestyle and history of london from dunnys to death warrants.
    which at first is highly comedic series,but if you pay close attention explains very well the life and times of of all london dwellers.
    and most of all the somewhat over the top eagerness of elizabeth to behead everyone in sight!

    in the bookby c.m.woolgar
    the great household in late medieval england
    he describes the residential habits of those in and around london and makes clear the fact that, until the end of the 13th century houses were more or less designed as short term rather than long term places of residence more so in the realm of the king /queen.
    henry the third moving on average 80 times per year compared to edward the IV making only 10 moves per year.
    So the long term residences were now becoming more domestic property’s concentrating on display and home comforts more than defense.
    Marlborough castlefor example was improved in the late 1230’s with new rooms and chambers designed to make the stay more comfortable.
    and so tis way of life was introduced within london even pesants were seeing the benefits of long term home comforts but of course more so in the case of royalty.

    films such as from hell etc set around the time of jjack he ripper come to mind when thinking of london. now although we have moved on since then, the backstreets and alleys and unsafe way of life still are set firmly in my mind.
    then again places such as hyde park provide a sort of escape if you will from the somewhat dangerous and hectic life within london.
    This being the biggest open space i think i have visited within a city (due to being too young to remember my family trips abroad).
    it is nice to sit for a while in the sun and forget all the city types running around as fast as their legs can carry them.
    But as in all crowded places (which hyde park tends to be)
    be carful not to nod nod off and wake to find your belongings lost.

    most of all what makes me think about london has to be the tube!
    we do have a brilliant transport system in london.
    due to my late father being a train driver and mother booking clerk, i have seen so many documentaries and read so many books about lt’s trans,tubes and tunnels that my brain may explode if i try to pinpoint one example.
    Now living on the borders of south east and kent i do so miss the tube!
    As the man himself our mayor says in his book have i got views for you….
    “i am writing this on a delayed service from paddington,late at night,staring at the darkened windows. i coul no more of predicted the future than i could tell you what is out there in the night or when south west trains will get this blasted thing moving again.”
    yes the tube is far superior to the other train services that hmm…. service the capital i suppose???
    with trains every 2mins the no smoking rule is not that big of a deal, where as the smoking ban now making it illegal to light up on british rail platforms is quite a pain.
    ‘delayed….till when we feel like it’
    (a joke but still you get the picture)
    and quickly ill add thankyou mr.j for the introduction of better policing on the bus systems especially about the times the schools start rolling out, a much more enjoyable bus ride is now had by all!

    so there is not fiction book i have read that sums up london for me but many a non-fiction one that does.
    But most of all it is my memories and experiences of london that make it stand out in my mind.
    (oh and next time you walk down alongside our famous bell big ben, ask someone for the time its a great way to brighten not only your own but someone elses day you cant help but force alittle smile in that situation!)

  4. I like Gotham Girl’s view of London and her effortless blending in of historical, literary, UK – American cross-cultural points.

    You are an example to us and thank you

  5. A number of times I have read on this website that Boris Johnson would probably have been too spineless to introduce the congestion charge. I don’t remember anybody ever challenging this. *Does* anyone disagree with the proposition?

  6. @dmnyc: it has to be the best of British! Thanks and another favourite is

    By Oscar Wilde, 1890
    Impression Du Matin

    The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
    Changed to a Harmony in gray:
    A barge with ochre-colored hay
    Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold

    The yellow fog came creeping down
    The bridges, till the houses’ walls
    Seemed changed to shadows, and St. Paul’s
    Loomed like a bubble o’er the town.

    Then suddenly arose the clang
    Of waking life; the streets were stirred
    With country waggons: and a bird
    Flew to the glistening roofs and sang.

    But one pale woman all alone,
    The daylight kissing her wan hair,
    Loitered beneath the gas lamp’s flare,
    With lips of flame and heart of stone.

  7. @mary wilson: I don’t think Boris is spineless. There. Happy now? Possibly no one bothered to answer such hypotheticals since

    a) they are just that – hypotheticals and therefore not worth wasting the effort.

    b) they are almost always posed by the same person using various names (which I am sure you of all people are aware) so it’s not exactly a majority opinion

    and lastly, c) that idea of spineless is weak at best. Incorrect at worst.

    You know what I think is spineless? Snide implication delivered under the cloak of assumed identity. Have the courage of your convictions, SLEDGER (or whatever you want to call yourself in this post, the last one, here or on the forums) and say something of substance. If you can’t or won’t – then you’ve directed the accusations of spinelessness at the wrong person.

  8. @Ed: I’m with you. I can think of lots of adjectives for Boris and none of them are spineless. My mom happens to be reading over my shoulder just now and she says her adjective for him based on the picture showing right now is “unkempt.” Moms. Whadda ya gonna do.

  9. londons bell for us he chimes,
    encased within a tower fine,
    a face with hands its clear to see,
    what big ben is made to be,
    though something seems to come to mind,
    with such a clock on our skyline,
    why is it no one has the time?

    no time to stop to stand nor stare,
    at the lions in Trafalgar square,
    no time no time no time at all,
    to gaze in awe at our st pauls,
    no time and why what is the reason,
    you walk on by past our museums?
    no one has time and why is this?
    while living in london theres so much you miss,

    what makes our city what it is?
    can you pinpoint tower bridge?
    as fast as you can selfridges?
    what do you look at only sky?
    when you stop to ride the london eye,
    why is it no one has the time?

  10. The London mayor’s transport organisation … fares increases [Ed: off topic]
    Presumably Boris Johnson knew this.

  11. @circus monkey: You asked for some more photo evidence in a previous thread so my mission this weekend is to kick around some Autumn leaves and get snap happy to see if anything suitable emerges good enough to post – just to keep you happy leaping around in your show

  12. @janina davison-forder: Really lovely poem – who is that poem by? It reminded me of
    “LEISURE”

    What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep or cows.

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance.

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began.

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    By Wm. Henry Davies.

  13. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”……oh dear then it seems I tired of life many moons ago.

    Give me the fresh air of the country and a rowing boat to drink my ale in.

    Give me rolling hills that I walked as a boy and the occasional encounter with a friend from long ago.

    Give me the local tavern filled with faces I have known since I was a boy.

    Give me no traffic noise.

  14. I seek to add to English literary history by the introduction of “ampersat” for @ (in line with the established “ampersand” for &), surely an essential part of 21st century literary language and communications.

    Will anyone give me support?

    Ian McRae

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