The Great Wen
The one quotation about London that everybody knows is Samuel Johnson’s opinion that ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’ Johnson liked to nettle his friend Boswell about his romantic view of his home in Scotland: Johnson much preferred the great company and liveliness of the capital. Many English poets liked to romanticize the English countryside too, but more preferred to spend their time in the capital. Marlowe’s A Passionate Shepherd to his Love is probably the most well-known pastoral poem in the English language, but its writer spent most of his working life in London – whatever words Marlowe put in the mouth of his shepherd, he seemed to think he could ‘all his pleasures prove’ in tavern and playhouse more than by brook and field. The grand old poet of nature William Wordsworth wrote one of his most popular poems about the view from Westminster Bridge, exclaiming ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ than the sight of a sunrise over the vista of England’s capital.
London continues to inspire great loyalty and love to this day: recently the English journalist Brendan O’Neill wrote that he would rather be poor in London than rich in Hull. So it’s true –Johnson’s line reflects a certain truth about the English - or many of them - and their attitude to London.
But there is another quotation about London that deserves to be as well known and speaks to another truth about the attitude of the English to their capital.
What is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, ‘the metropolis of the empire’?
So asked the polemicist, pamphleteer and rural commentator, William Cobbett, about the capital of Britain, indeed of the British Empire, as he quite gladly turned his back on it and made one of his Rural Rides out to the provinces. London, he casually opines, is a giant monstrous pimple. It is difficult to classify Cobbett’s politics, not least in today’s terms, but perhaps ‘reactionary radical’ would be closest to the mark. He is an entertaining, acerbic writer full of surprising and original opinions on everything from the Reformation to the importation of swedes (the turnips, not the people) into England, and he is perhaps the first writer I can think of to have brought up what I think we can fairly describe as ‘the problem of London’– a problem we have talked about since and still talk about today. In short, London is too big, its growth is unchecked, and it drains life and energy from the other parts of the country– perhaps in Cobbett’s day, from other parts of the empire too.
Living in the same era as Cobbett, Horace and James Smith, two successful London brothers – one a stockbroker and the other a solicitor, both writers of light verse, would have had more reason than most to celebrate London’s greatness. And indeed they did just that. In their poem, The Spread of London 1813, they described the replacement of fields, trees, and wildernesses with buildings:
Saint George’s Fields are fields no more,
The trowel supersedes the plough;
Huge inundated swamps of yore
Are changed to civic villas now.
What sane person, after all, would prefer inundated swamps to civic villas? There is a small tinge of regret, perhaps – in the ‘violated sods’ they go on to mention, or the lost yew trees – but this gloomy, if romantic, scene had been replaced with ‘velvet lawns’ and ‘acacian shrubs’, markers of a nature tamed and beautified by the hand of man. And, yes, London is to this day, even while home to over seven million people, blessed with green spaces and spacious suburbs, not to mention a surprising plethora of wildlife.
The problem for some is not so much that London is too big in itself, but that in its ceaseless expansion it absorbs and changes the rest of the country. A poet of the later 19th century, Stephen Phillips, wrote in A Nightmare of London:
I dreamed a dream, perhaps a prophecy!
That London over England spread herself;
Swallowed the green field and the waving plain,
Till all this island grew one hideous town.
Of course this didn’t happen – for one thing, the green belts have put a stop to its expansion, and if it ever does reach from sea to sea, the process will take centuries not mere decades. But Phillips’ poem describes a ‘prophecy’ and prophecies can be interpreted in more than one way. London may not have physically spread over the rest of England, but its culture and its habits of speech certainly have. One is no longer shocked, for example, to hear the school children of the far north of England pronounce their 'ths' like 'fs', like the Cockneys of yesteryear, or that a man is now commuting every day from Yorkshire to the capital. But in a way, this is the speeding up of a process that has always happened in England – just about every big cultural and political development since the Norman Invasion, from the Reformation to the Great Vowel Shift (with the possible exception of the Industrial Revolution) has started in the capital and spread outwards. And, if it ever was, the sea and its ‘sanctity of foam’, as Phillips has it, is no barrier.
If the Smith brothers associated the growth of London with civilisation and prosperity, other native Londoners noticed the attendant growth of poverty and misery, best captured in William Blake’s celebrated London:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
By the 20th century, after Baudelaire had made great poetry of the sleazy demimonde of London’s sister city Paris, poets were finding great beauty even in these darker and poorer corners of the capital: think of early T.S. Eliot and his ‘faint smells of beer / From the sawdust-trampled street’.
Louis Macneice, meanwhile wryly commented on the dreariness of the London celebrated by poets past:
I jockeyed her fogs and quoted Johnson:
To be tired of this is to tire of life.
I suspect that Macneice, unlike Johnson, thought being tired of life quiet forgivable– he often sounds a little tired himself. But there is truth in Johnson’s line, whichever way you spin it. Johnson meant that all of society and culture was to be found in the capital, and if you are tired of that, you are merely tired. My spin is this –that London is life as it is, rather than life as we wish it to be. Like many a provincial, I often wish England had the great regional capitals the likes of which Spain, Germany and, indeed, India enjoy. But we don’t. Instead, we have this sprawling, messy, unplanned city, with much as much vulgarity as beauty (which fellow Wagon columnist John Looker details each month), and with a great deal of accidie and alienation alongside its great architecture and culture. Perhaps that was something that could have been changed in Cobbett’s day – but to try to roll back the capital now is to tilt at windmills.
Still, one can enjoy indulging one’s quixotic fantasies once in a while. One such fantasy – my favourite poem about London, I think – is provided by D.H. Lawrence. In keeping with his contempt for all things industrial and technological, as well as much of the history of civilization since at least the Romans (he preferred the Etruscans), Lawrence describes:
London, with hair
Like a forest darkness, like a marsh
Of rushes, ere the Romans
Broke in her lair.
Most of the poems in this week’s article are in the public domain. I found them in John Bishop and Virginia Broadbent’s London Between the Lines, Simon Publications, London, 1973: Horace and James Smith’s The Spread of London 1813; Louis Macneice’s Goodbye to London, Stephen Philips’ A Nightmare of London, William Blake’s London and D.H. Lawrence’s Town in 1917.
The T.S. Eliot line is from Preludes, Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot 1909-1962, Faber and Faber 1963.