This week I have Mark Ford’s immense (700+ pps) volume ‘London: A History In Verse’, starting in the 14th century and finishing around yesterday, with every possible aspect of the city covered. Lovely stuff from Pope’s ‘Dunciad’, terrifically filthy accounts from the Earl of Rochester walking in St James’ Park at night, WE Henley on London busdrivers (‘At all the smarter housemaids winks his court, and taps them for half-crowns; being stony-broke, Lives lustily; is ever on the make; And hath, I fear, no other Gods but Fake.’) some overwrought Victorian stuff about sunsets over bridges, and a couple of the late poets (born after 1985) proving forgivably awful, proving that the best poems are lustily pre-Victorian and usually about Londoners themselves.
If I have a cavil it’s this; that often London poetry is too much on buildings and not enough on people. In some ways, the smaller ‘Ode To London’ collection mentioned in a past post is an ideal purchase, if not in range, then in warmth.
Fiona Rule has concentrated very much on people in ‘London’s Labyrinth’, which makes her take on the underground city fresh and different. Crimes, bombs and tragic human stories bring this netherworld to life in a way that other authors have missed. I thought I knew all the stories about what went on beneath the city streets, but Rule has found plenty of fascinating new material, and it’s a good buy.
‘The Moving Pageant’ is a literary sourcebook of London street life, rich in trivia, packed with tramps beating cats and falling out of filthy gin shops, rowdy theatres and low taverns, efforts by well-meaning Christians to improve the poor, street ballads, music hall songs, riots, pageants and executions – I’d recommend it to anyone thinking of writing something with a period setting.
Finally here’s the surprise I turned up at a bookstall in Russell Square; Mr Gay’s London is a selection by AP Herbert of dodgy plaintiffs, unreliable witnesses, drunk suspects and hopeless liars turning up before the beak in the desperate hope that they will escape pokey, the cases culled from the Newgate accounts in 1732, and considering these cases come from a time when you could be hanged for nicking a bit of rice pudding, they’re hilarious. Even the juries felt the system was too harsh and found ways to trick judges into lesser sentences. I felt guilty paying the fifty pence asking price and proffered a quid for the book. Out of print, of course!