THIS PAST SUMMER — the summer of the 2012 Olympics — has been “London’s greatest moment”! So anyone riding on a bus in London was told by the recorded voice of the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson — though he turned out to be talking about how best to avoid the crush on public transport. By the same token, a rather over-excited official earlier this year appealed to Londoners, saying this Olympics was going to be the city’s “one chance to make a good impression”; and on the morning of the day of the opening ceremony, Big Ben rang outside its normal schedule for the first time since the funeral day of the last King in 1952.
Now, the Olympics has treated London rather well. The gold medals piled up in a multi-cultural festival of inclusiveness and — never mind the impression — much-needed morale-boosting. The transport worked out well. Even the weather mostly improved. But almost best of all is the delicious crop of books about London that are crowding bookshop shelves.
Anyone who really knows London knows that its “good impression” never depended on the Olympics. It’s in the bag. Since the beginning of what we can call English poetry — certainly since Chaucer started to write down the way millers and cooks and tavern-keepers really talked and acted — London, like no other city the world over, has told its own story in poetry, and the world has been enthralled. If literature is Britain’s greatest gift to world culture, its drama and verse are a large part of why.
The English language has been nourished by waves of invaders, beginning with the Romans; and by waves of immigrants from the Huguenots (see Gillian Allnutt’s “Museum, 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields”) to the Caribbeans we saw arriving in the Olympic ceremony (see James Berry’s “Beginning in a City, 1948”), and Asians from the Indian sub-continent (see Daljit Nagra’s “Yobbos!”). We have a huge vocabulary teeming with nuance and connotative power. Our three greatest poets — Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton — have also created the largest bodies of neologisms. This process will never stop: Dizzee Rascal’s performance in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, for example, demonstrated London’s unique mixture of indigenous rhyming slang, Jamaican patois, and urban American rap.
London’s vitality is its powerful folk identity, the combined stories and personalities of its mongrel people — Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers,” servant boys and fine ladies and rakes and priests — and the stories it tells about them. Canonical characters of course include Good Queen Bess, Will Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson and his cat, Edward Lear and his cat, Oscar Wilde in Cadogan Square, and John Betjeman at St Pancras Station. And perhaps the most powerful presence of all: Anonymous.
Mark Ford, who has edited London: A History in Verse, knows all this. The book is as full of mayhem and color as the city itself, and gives Anonymous his — and her — full due. The tourists who flock here also know, for example, that Banksy and his fellow street artists are as essential to London’s identity as the Queen. London plays tricks; poetry plays tricks.
This isn’t the good impression the spokesperson had in mind last winter; they undoubtedly wanted something more like what a Scottish Anonymous wrote, in about 1500:...read more