Thursday, January 22, 2015

The British Library's "London: A Literary Anthology": Book Review

Although the handsome cover and many familiar authors may tempt browsers to judge this compilation as a pleasant holiday gift or congenial night-table companion, the contents reveal a complex presentation. Some treat London as did Daniel Defoe, as "the greatest, the finest, the richest city in the world" but as many talented writers and artists gathered within concur, this megapolis has long stood for poverty, congestion, pollution, and degradation. From medieval poets John Lydgate and William Dunbar to current observers Benjamin Zephaniah and Zadie Smith, Londoners whether native or newcomers regard its vast crowds and tall towers with dread, dreariness, and delight.

Arranged thematically by Richard Fairman, thirteen chapters begin at dawn, moving into the reactions of those entering its sprawl for the first time, then exploring its mews and squares. "In dim-lit streets, war-tired people moved slowly/ like dark-coated bears in a snowy region." So recalls James Berry, as he views"Beginning in a City, 1948" from a Caribbean immigrant's perspective.

Although the weather requires both rich and poor to bundle up, beneath this comparison, differences endure. Contrasts between the high and low life have long fascinated visitors. Consider Charlotte Brontë's protagonist from her novel Villette: "I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me. Who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and forever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity?" This lure draws millions, over centuries, from all over. Amazing diversity endures, noted by William Blake as by Hanif Kureishi. London's narrow streets never seem to empty.

The febrile tension from crowds connects Hugh Walpole's story set on The Strand, Katherine Mansfield's depiction of "The Tiredness of Rosabel" as she comes home from work to climb four flights up to a humdrum night out of the rain, and Doris Lessing's excerpt from The Four-Gated City. This finds Martha out after dark, fearing exposure she risks passing through a red-light district on her way from Oxford Street to Bayswater Road, along Queensway towards Notting Hill. The drama of a pedestrian's passage from one district to another, subtle or dramatic, and the warren of diversions or temptations in dim side streets, recur in many of these sixty-six entries from nearly as many writers.

On first perusal, the lack of an introduction or any editorial context for the selections or authors puzzled me. It seemed a shortcoming. A small flaw is the near-absence of those who live away from the historic core of The City or the few miles near the north side of the Thames. Only Angela Carter's Wise Children speaks up for those beyond the south bank. But, the presentation of period illustrations and literary reflections, if attentively read, invites audiences to study dozens of reactions in pen and pastel to the domination of The City over one's own mental landscape. For those who have visited or who live in London, it will remind them of why many want to return there, or why some never will.

As Evelyn Waugh's satire sums it up: "all that succession and repetition of massed humanity...Those vile bodies..." A bitterness clouds many sights seen by those who record them honestly. Charles Dickens' Bleak House dramatizes a tale from a mother so poor she wishes her son had never survived his birth. Virginia Woolf's far-better off Mrs. Ambrose, in The Voyage Out, observes from Waterloo Bridge: "When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath."

Clad in rags or cradled in finery, people never stop arriving. Jewish, Australian, Scots, and Pakistani immigrants all find their voices in these pages. Israel Zangwill and Zadie Smith may have lived a century apart. But they agree in their stories that chaotic city streets spark tension. Classes must mix, and their failure to cope with relentless demands strains relationships, in passing or permanently.

Overcrowding and inequality, worsened by the weather and the conditions which made this city for many centuries one of the world's largest also generate disease and decay. Juxtaposed chapters on disgust, plagues and fires, wartime devastation, and apocalyptic depictions of the city's downfall remind readers of the reactions writers amass to London's perpetual pride, and how it tempts fate.

Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor brutally conveys how the plague dissolved family ties. Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Poison Belt" and H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, as to doom, join Richard Jeffries' stoic description in his suitably titled portion from After London. Even less cataclysmic scenarios in The City show its force exacted upon nature. Dickens' Dombey and Son charts the immense digs that built the railroads, and if the holdouts of Stagg's Garden defy the iron horse, they may not last long.

On a thoroughfare half a century or more later, Amy Lowell at two in the morning imagines the results of a transformed London. "I stand in the window and watch the moon./ She is thin and lustreless,/ But I love her./ I know the moon,/ And this is an alien city." What has changed is constant light. Juxtaposed memorably, in the last chapter documenting London after dark, the photos and illustrations, many chosen well from the British Library's holdings, suggest a nuanced reaction to the coming of electricity. This transformed London from a few candlelit circles within foggy shadows.

"Electric lighting in the City" from The Graphic, April 1881, may cause you to beg to differ with Lowell from 1914. It shows walkers halted by the wonder of seeing what had long evaded sight. Complementing these engravings, another from the same publication evokes a supremely detailed "Bird's-eye view from a balloon" in May 1884. The attention to precision, over Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament next to the sweep of the Thames, astonishes the careful eye. The people and cabs are so far away they appear as dots, and this elevation, after all, removes one from the jostle, the smells, the unpredictability of whatever the streets bring the rich and the poor. Above, one sees only a city made beautiful, from so high up that clouds float down below, over the serpentine river.

The fact that these clouds emanate from factories does not detract, somehow, from their wonder. That too, may be what makes London a place that impels immigrants to remain as residents, and which fills those same streets and attractions as it has for hundreds of years, as a destination that compels.
(PopMatters + Amazon US 12-19-14)

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