“Because London is Still a Kaleidoscope”: The City's History in Verse

October 14, 2012   •   By Katy Evans-Bush

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:

Thy famous Maire, with princely governaunce,
With swerd of justice the rulith prudently.
No Lord of Parys, Venyse, or Floraunce
In dignities or honoure goeth to hymn ye.
He is exampler, loode-ster, and guye;
Principal patrone and roose orygynalle,
Above all Maires as maister moost worthy:
London, thou art the flour of Cities all.

The book celebrates the whole city, what Jamie McKendrick describes in “The Occupations of Bridewell”:

The loafers, the forgers, the feckless, the fickle,
The vagabond that will abide in no place,
The rioter that consumeth all […]
Ruffians, cutpurses and dissolute women […]

Jonathan Swift’s “Clever Tom Clinch, Going to be Hanged,” puts on a fine show as he proceeds down what is now our main shopping thoroughfare, “to die in his calling”:

His waistcoat, and stockings and breeches were white,
His cap had a new cherry ribbon to tie’t.
The maids to the doors and the balconies ran,
And said “Lack-a-day, he’s a proper young man!”

Tom Clinch praises his arch-enemy, the infamous thief Jonathan Wild, and tells the crowd his conscience is clear; “he hung like a hero, and never would flinch.”

Maybe three centuries before Swift witnessed this hanging, another Anonymous had come to the city to get justice — or at least redress — for being robbed. He recorded his utter failure in a diatribe on the heartless place, called “London Lickpenny.” Amidst the misery of seeing his own hood on sale in a market full of “stolne gere,” he describes the callousness of everyone in a position to help him:

In Westminster Hall I found one
Went in a longe gowne of ray.
I crowched, I kneled before them anon,
For Marys love, of helpe I gan them pray.
As he had be wrothe, he voided away
Bakward, his hand he gan me byd.
“I wot not what thou menest,” gan he say.
“Ley downe sylvar, or here thow may not spede.”

This story will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever had their bike stolen, only to see it on sale in Brick Lane Market.

There will always be far more lore about London than it’s possible to uncover in one place — or perhaps at all. Scratch a surface and another comes into view; scratch that… who can ever know it all? Ford’s book packs in as much lore, as much fact and legend, as much gala occasion, as much glitter and cloud, gossip and prayer, sound and sight and smell as it’s possible to imagine. The grand — the aristocratic, the heroic — take their places beside Hannah More’s “little wretches, trembling there / with hunger and with cold,” and WH Hudson’s London Sparrow — “blithe heart in a house so melancholy.”

London is full of presiding spirits, characters who still walk the city, flavoring it with their presence. Keats is among these; his traces are everywhere. Hampstead Heath is rich with him. He is represented by three poems in this book. And he crops up as a character in two more, including John Stammers’ wonderful “John Keats Walks Home Following a Night Spent Reading Homer With Cowden Clarke” — an account of how Keats wrote “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

God blind me, the star-struck heavens you contemplate
contemplate you in their turn, singular beacon
whose unrepeatable illumination inspires

Now at your desk, you lift your pen,
mutter something lost and begin to write.
Daylight finds you atrophied in ink, clouded in near-sleep.
By first post, you will be a masterpiece.

Not all of my personal presiding spirits are in this book. Since it is limited specifically to poems about London, there is no Charles Lamb, no Dickens, no Fanny Burney, no Mary Wollstonecraft.

But Ford has redressed the gender balance to a certain extent: the book includes an array of women, starting with a ballad by the protestant heretic Anne Askew — the first woman to be both tortured in the Tower, and burned at the stake. The poem was written in Newgate Prison in the last year of Henry VIII’s reign. (In an interesting side note, the churchman Thomas Fuller wrote of Askew a hundred years later that “she went to heaven in a chariot of fire” — a phrase that memorably appears again in Blake’s “Jerusalem,” which is not only included in this book, but also serves as the title of an iconic British film whose theme music was lampooned by Rowan Atkinson in the Olympic Opening Ceremony.)

Between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the early eighteenth century and more familiar Victorians, the book acknowledges the late-eighteenth century flowering of writing women. Mary “Perdita” Robinson, a colorful character, was a contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft and attended a school run by Hannah More. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a very influential woman of letters, lived within a mile of Wollstonecraft, in Stoke Newington. Joanna Baillie, in Hampstead, was a friend of Barbauld. Charlotte Mew and Frances Cornford, both writing in the early twentieth century, use a highly charged sense of the past to write about their complicated, contemporary city: Mew setting her poem of loss in Nunhead Cemetery, and Cornford using the memory of Hector leaving for war to color a World War One farewell. Sixteenth century Isabella Whitney (the first “professional” woman poet) is a gift. Her 10-page verse, “The Manner of Her Will and What She Left to London and to all Those in It, at Her Departing,” is a glorious catalogue of all London can offer: its “cunning surgeons,” “ruffians,” “quiet persons,” “handsome men,” “bookbinders by St Paul’s.” With pragmatic generosity, the poet leaves “widowers rich […] to set the girls afloat,” and “wealthy widows […] to help young gentlemen.” This is a refreshing viewpoint next to the pornographic romps of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and the Anon who wrote “In the Fields of Lincoln’s Inn,” with their stereotypical lusty wenches. In their London, women all love to “swive” and with luck do so in public, with as many men at once as possible. (This gives the lie to Philip Larkin’s assertion that sex was invented “in 1963” — but that was in Liverpool, after all.)

As the book progresses into the twentieth century, the vista changes. A recognizable London emerges, a place of greyness, bad weather, boredom and buses, strangers on the tube, and the isolation of the immigrant. Sections of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land are exceptionally vivid in this context. Anyone wanting to understand last summer’s riots — a year ago this week — could do worse than to start with Lynton Kwesi Johnson’s horrifying “Sonny’s Lettah,” a protest against the “sus” (suspicion) laws that created a police culture where young black men get stopped frequently, for no reason:


I really don’t know how fi tell yu dis,
cause I did mek a salim promis
fi tek care a likkle Jim
an try mi bes fi look out fi him.


It woz di miggle a di rush howah
wen evrybady jus a hosel an a bosel
fi goh home fi dem evening showeah;
me an Jim stan-up
waitin pan a bus,
nat cauzin no fus,
wen all of a sudden
a police van pull-up […]

Indeed, in this book, proximity to those in power is seen in all eras to be best avoided at all levels of society. Sonny and Jim know this as well as Chidiock Tichborne, whose “Elegy” was written in the Tower as he awaited execution; and Sir Thomas Wyatt, arrested for treason on suspicion of having slept with the Queen, Anne Boleyn. While in the Tower and not knowing his own fate, he could have watched the vicious and protracted executions of the others (including her brother) who had been arrested on the same charge – and even the beheading of Anne herself. He wrote:

These bloody days have broken my heart,
My lust, my youth, did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.

Four hundred years later, another Londoner damaged in service to the state — the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen — wrote:

I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
Along the wharves by the water-house
And through the cavernous slaughterhouse,
I am the shadow that walks there.

The river, “Sweet Thames,” rolls throughout this book, through the years and the centuries and events, and through Shadwell no less than Westminster. Where Spenser walked “along the shore of silver streaming Thames,” seeing nymphs like brides, Eliot answers him 400 years later:

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

But the nymphs were there. Glyn Maxwell writes:

violet and lime were the shades of the air that
steamed or anchored over
the slurping water, and this was the River Thames […]

Tom Chivers, one of the youngest poets in the book and thoroughly London-bred, sees a modern river in “Big Skies over Docklands”:

From the train the water is not real,
Does not move. The people, real enough.
Mudflats the colour of petrol.

In “The River Glideth of His Own Sweet Will,” the poet — the late, much-missed, Irish-American poet Michael Donaghy, who migrated to London from the Bronx, via Chicago — lies in a hospital bed overlooking the river, and the river becomes Time itself. Time, of course, is an element this city can handle.

A large proportion of the book is given to twentieth century poets, from Sylvia Plath to John Ashbery; from Thom Gunn to Hugo Williams; from Ezra Pound to John Betjeman to young poets such as Chivers, Ahren Warner, and Ben Borek, with his impressive comic evocaton of a south London block of flats. Today’s London is vividly present; it’s laid out like a table of the jewels Isabella Whitney describes, or like a line of red buses along a bridge.

On this note, a couple of notes. The contemporary list is noticeably, overwhelmingly, led by Faber’s (admittedly crucial) roster of poets. Admirably, Chivers, Warner and Borek are all published by indie presses. (Though Chivers has blogged that he was never asked permission to be represented in the book, I’m glad he is.) British poetry is undergoing a bit of a renaissance lately. There has been a plethora of exhilarating poetry in recent years, much of it engaged in various ways with London as a city, exploring her history, textures, presents and futures, her languages. Of course, every poem in this book deserves to be here. The trouble is that there are so many more.

I miss Anna Robinson’s glottal-stopped voice in The Finders of London, for example, about the really poor who have always populated London — children and others who made their livings scavenging, including the so-called mudlarks along the river. Or something from Jon McCullough’s The Frost Fairs, which reclaims secret gay histories, some written in Polari (an underground slang used by homosexuals and theatre people). Glyn Maxwell’s description of the burning of the Tate and Lyle factory during the Blitz, from his verse radio play The Sugar Mile, is unforgettably vivid. And dissident Chinese poet Yang Lian’s poem “Stoke Newington Scene,” from his Bloodaxe collection Lee Valley Poems celebrates the importance of the “local” to even the most international Londoner. I’d also have loved to see Cockney skinhead poet Tim Wells’ class-war dating poem, “Epsom,” in this anthology. It is hilarious and spot-on about the conflict between inner London and its suburbs, a little bit of a legend on the London performance scene, and a genuine working-class storytelling voice.

But these are quibbles. No one anthology can contain everything, and for a US readership, Ford offers a wonderful sampler of British poets — as well as some of the many American ones who have washed up here, and written what they found. The titles of poems tantalize with place-names, stacking up like gold medals: West London, East London, Bloomsbury, Ye Flags of Piccadilly, The Embankment, In Nunhead Cemetery, Sunday in Hampstead, In the Tube, Whitechapel, Fleet Street, Monmouth Street, bunhill fields [sic], Parliament Hill Fields… Everyone’s a winner, and London’s finest moments are all here, for anyone who wants to look.


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