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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.

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Dr Samuel Johnson: 300th Anniversary of his birth this week

A17 -Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_ReynoldsYou know what, I doubt whether he’d even get a column in today’s newspapers. No one would dare hire him. If Dr Johnson were writing in modern Fleet Street, his views would be denounced as utterly outrageous. Foreign ambassadors would be constantly on the Today programme, demanding apologies for the insult done to their country.

Polly Toynbee would be in a state of permanent apoplexy. Any newspaper that dared to print his views would face the wrath of the Equalities Commission. It must be admitted – 300 years after the birth of one of the greatest figures of English literature – that some of his stuff can seem outré to the point of unacceptability.

He is not just sexist. He is not just xenophobic. He is a free-market, monarchy-loving advocate of the necessity of human inequality.

Listen to him bashing the Americans. “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”

Ireland? Worth seeing, but not worth going to see. The French – a dirty bunch, blowing into the spouts of teapots to make them pour properly.

As for the Scots, they are mainly liars who had no cabbage until Cromwell introduced it. They subsist on horse-food, and the finest sight a Scottish person can see is the high road leading to England. Not even Simon Heffer would get away with that kind of Jock-bashing, tongue in cheek
or not.

Samuel Johnson thought the decline in the use of the cane would harm educational attainment. It wasn’t just that he was opposed to women having jobs. He thought it was a bit off for them even to paint or draw. “Public practice of any art, and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female,” he said; and as for a woman preaching, it “was like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done
at all.”

You might find some Daily Telegraph columnists who still think like that – but not in print. And no matter how odd some of us look in our picture bylines, Dr Johnson was positively bizarre.

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