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Book Review : London, A Literary Anthology edited by Richard Fairman ( British Library Publishing)

london lit

It was Dr Samuel Johnson who said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”  The many writers and poets who have written about London on the whole have agreed with his statement.

This literary anthology features a collection of poems and scenes from novels which range from the 15th century to the present day.

The anthology begins with the words of William Wordsworth ‘composed upon Westminster Bridge’  which describes the capital at peace in the morning, ” The City now doth, like a garment, wear.   The beauty of the morning : silent, bare.”

The peace is often a prelude to the mass influx of people coming into the city and the next section of the book considers the many impressions 0f the city recorded by numerous writers. These impressions range from Olivier Twist who considered the city ” A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen”  to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette who states ” The city is getting its living – the West End but enjoying its pleasure. At the West End you may be amused, but in the city you are deeply excited.”

For many who enter the capital with no guide or friend, it is the sheer crush of people which highlight their feelings of loneliness. This is especially so if you stand out from the crowd, new Black Londoners, James Berry and Samuel Selvon illustrate these feelings of alienation in post war London.

London has always had a wide disparity of wealth and the book considers the ‘High Life’ with excerpts from Vanity Fair, The Way We Live Now and Vile Bodies. Many of these novels are concerned about fitting into the higher levels of British Society, where background and manners are the prerequisites for acceptance.

In contrast , the section into the ‘Low Life’ explores the dark sides of London life where the fight for survival  leads to the hidden depths of human existence. Not surprising Charles Dickens is our greatest guide with an excerpt from Bleak House. Virginia Woolf, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Morrison also provide  evidence from the dingy streets and alleys.

Even from its  earliest days, London has been a multicultural city and the section named Living Together in London explores how waves of immigrants have made the city their home and left their impact in the many of the capital’s neighbourhoods.

Hanif Kureishi, Israel Zangwill and Zadie Smith gives voice to various communities who struggled to make the city their  own. If the integration of the many immigrants has not been seamless, it is remarkable that for most of the time  this integration  usually takes place without major problems.

London may inspire Hymns and Laments in equal measure but it is the capital’s ability to overcome the various disasters that have provided many writers with inspiration.

The chapter entitled Survival through Plague and Fire charts the two great calamities of the 17th century, the Great Fire of  London of 1666 and the visitation of the Plague.

John  Dryden recalls in verse, the Great Fire out of control , ” the flames impelled soon left their foes behind; and forward with a wanton fury went.”  Daniel Defoe offers some scenes from an altogether different unseen threat,  the plague decimated London but Defoe offers the humourous story of a piper who after a nights drinking is lying on the street and is thrown onto the dead cart to be taken away for burial. Fortunately he wakes up time but not without frightening the life out of the bearers carrying  the dead.

In the twentieth century, the threat to London was even greater, with the two World Wars and poets D H Lawrence, Robert Bridges and Mervyn Peake describe a city and country on the brink of the abyss.

In the Second World War especially , for many Londoners it must have seemed that the City was witnessing Visions of the Apocalypse and some writers used this precept as the theme for their novels, Richard Jeffries in ‘After London’ and H G Wells in ‘The War of the Worlds’ offers visions of London as a deserted city finally beaten into submission.

The reality is that whatever the challenges over the past two thousand years, London has survived and is ever-changing, the chapter taking up this theme includes the works of Tobias Smollett, Charles Dickens, John Galsworthy and Angela Carter.

As it was the dawn and morning that began the book it is the City at Night that brings it to its conclusion, W S  Graham poem The Night City offers a person walking though the city thinking of its connection with literature and the arts. ” The fire has burnt out. The Plague pits had closed; and gone into literature.”

This ending is rather apt because literature is part of the fabric of London life, we are constantly being reminded of writers and poets descriptions of the city.  Many people follow in the footsteps of the great writers both literally and metaphorically as they seek to find some understanding of London life.

This anthology is a combination of well-known texts and others that may be less familiar gives an intriguing balance that offer many insights into the London story. The texts are complimented by the illuminating  illustrations of London life taken from the British Libraries large collection. There are a number of anthologies on the market but this book offers more than most with interesting narratives, wonderful illustrations and attractive design.

This anthology would appeal to those who like to understand the connection between the city and literature, but also can be used as an introduction into this fascinating subject matter.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like to find out more about the book or buy a copy , visit the British Library shop here

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide.com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch in January, we attract thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website here

Exhibition Review : Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination at the British Library , 3 Oct 2014 to 20 Jan 2015

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination opens at the British Library exploring Gothic culture’s roots in British literature and celebrating 250 years since the publication of the first Gothic novel.

The Gothic genre in literature is one of the most popular and this exhibition looks at it origins and how it has influenced writers and how it has evolved and influenced film, fashion, music, art and even the Goth subculture.


It is perhaps appropriate that the genre’s origins has a strange and mysterious beginning, in 1764 Horace Walpole lived in a large villa in Twickenham and had a dream that led  him writing what is considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Oranto. However Walpole was a well-known and respected figure and rather than risk ridicule claimed that the book was a translation of an ancient Italian book.

It was with certain irony, that when the success of the book was assured, Walpole then revealed he was the creator of the story. But the unexpected consequence of his actions was other writers then began to present work based on previously undiscovered text. Most notable of these were Thomas Chatterton who was roundly admonished by Walpole and was to die at a young age in poverty. The exhibition has a rare manuscript by Chatterton as well as many items connected with Horace Walpole.

Within the late 18th century and early 19th century the gothic genre flourished with novels about the medieval past usually based in Castles. abbeys and ruins. They usually featured scheming monks, heroic noblemen and virginal heroines. In the exhibition is copies of some of the successful books of the period, the scandalous The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.

However it was in the Victorian age that Gothic moved away from castles and moved into the dirty and teeming streets of London. Vampires, Demon Barbers and other urban monsters began to make an appearance and became increasingly popular with all sections of society.

Towards the end of the 19th century, another Gothic theme developed that of decadence and degeneration, in the  heyday of the British Empire writers began to sound the warning that the endless pursuit of luxury and pleasures would inevitably lead to moral decay. In a way the rise of killers like Jack the Ripper began to feed into the imagination that it was not supernatural monsters we had to fear but rather ourselves and our often dual personalities. The exhibition features the famous ‘Dear Boss’ letter which was taken seriously by the police at the time.


The beginning of the 20th century did not lead to the decline of interest in the Gothic genre but rather increased it by using the new technologies of film to create new interpretations, classic films like  Nosferatu would bring extra fear to the vampire genre. Other films still traded on other Gothic fears Alfred Hitchcok especially trawled London folklore to produce the Lodger. Later in films Gothic became associated with the horror genre which used the old gothic novels as a loose storyline with a few modern twists.


All the way throughout the exhibition is treasures from the British library collections including manuscripts of classic Gothic novels such as Frankenstein, Dracula and Jane Eyre. There are also works by  William Blake, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, MR James, Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman.


The exhibition also makes full use of film clips, film posters, costume designs and props. some of the highlights are clips from Nosferatu, Hitchcock’s The Lodger and the Wicker Man. Also included is Clive Barker’s original film script and sketches for Hellraiser, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s annotated typescript of The Shining.


There are also paintings, prints, and photographs celebrating the Goth lifestyle.


This exhibition really does enter into the spirit of the Gothic genre by creating spaces in which the different media interplay, strange shapes are projected onto curtains that divide some of the galleries. You sometimes see objects only by a flickering light and the film clips produce piercing screams. But the exhibition also pays homage to the way that Gothic has been parodied over the centuries with a model of the Wallace and Gromit’s  Were – rabbit  and a  Victorian Vampire Hunting kit.


After 250 years the Gothic genre is still very popular and the exhibition will appeal to a wide range of people who are interested in the many strands of the genre.  The exhibition has been put together with lots of imagination and a small amount of terror , it also shows fear can be fun.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information and to book tickets , visit the  British Library website here

 London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide .com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch in January, we attract thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website here