Friday, May 19

London Town

Though London was for more than a century the most populous city on earth, it was also always a collection of villages. Each village used to have a unique quality and some still do. The Government focuses on Whitehall, with power derived from parliament in Westminster--incomplete without the royal family, whose public and private life is still centered around St. James' Park. Newspapers used to be in Fleet Street, book publishers in Bloomsbury, antiquarian shops on Charing Cross, films in Wardour Street, theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue, fashion in Mayfair and fruit and vegetables in Covent Garden. And they all still are to one degree or another.

Oh sure, the architectural wizzardry of Sir Norman Foster has transformed the city with the Gerkin spires of Swiss Re and City Hall or the deep thrusts of the Millennium Bridge and Heathrow East. And the inevitably busy urbanism of one of the world's greatest cities tends to impose a smothering uniformity on the seething mass of humanity swarming out of Victoria--or Waterloo or Euston or King's Cross or whatever other station you might choose. Still, there is an amazing distictiveness that hangs over London like its once ubiquitous fogs.

According to G.K. Chesterton, "Here is the place where England ends--and here is where England can begin." Henry van Dyke describes the city this way, "Oh, London is a man’s town; there’s power in the air."

Two poems likewise capture the essence of the town. The first is by Henry Howarth Bashford:

As I came down the Highgate Hill
I met the sun’s bravado,
And saw below me, fold on fold,
Grey to pearl and pearl to gold,
This London like a land of old,
The land of Eldorado.

The second is by John Mansfield:

Oh London Town’s a fine town,
And London sights are rare,
And London ale is right ale
And brisk’s the London air.

But, of all the descriptions of London I have read, perhaps my favorite is James Bone's vision of St. Paul's:

"The mighty fleet of Wren, with their topgallants and mainsails of stone. The nautical simile leaps to the mind at the sight of Wren’s white spires and towers, and it is appropriate, too, to the material in which Wren worked. Portland stone is a marine deposit of the Noahic period before Britain first at Heaven’s command arose from out the azure main. Its beds are full of fossils of marine creatures, cockles, sea urchins, starfish, and oysters. You can see shell imprints on the freshly cut whitbed stone on the top of the new Bush building, and you can see the horses heads—as certain sea fossils are called by masons—on the weathered parapet of St. Paul’s. You can see and feel the shells projecting form the plinth of King Charles’ statue at Charing Cross. It is a strange thought that the majesty of the capital of this sea-joined empire should come itself from beneath the sea. How could the poets have missed such a theme?"


Anonymous said...

One of my prized possessions is my 105-year old copy of WIlliam Beckford's "Vathek", which I studied for my senior thesis paper.

I bought it at Charing Cross, which, interestingly, is where it was originally printed.

How I long for the elysian bookstalls of fair Albion...I wish I were with you all.

larry white said...

Well, I don't expect to be visiting fair Albion anytime soon if ever, but the quote from James Bone was just enough to make me do a little online bookstall searching. Now, after receiving good inexpensive copies of The London Perambulator and London Echoing, by the Bones, James and Muirhead, author and artist, I will be able to do the next best thing. What wonderfully fine books these are!