A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters
US: Dec 2013
This clever book celebrates diarists, letter-writers, and journal-keepers who, day by day as chronicled here, add over 200 of their famous and humble voices to the eight million who currently crowd this city. (Not counting the tourists.) Fittingly, where Samuel Pepys pioneered the diary as a record of an individual’s reactions to the collective crush, the variety of stimulation, irritation, and celebration comprises a novel way to roam London. Editors Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison also work as booksellers, and the handsome presentation (graced by a pale blue ribbon sewn into the binding as a marker) enhances this big volume.
The opening endpaper maps London from 1574 as drawn by a Flemish cartographer. The closing endpaper charts Twitter and Flickr feeds from the sprawl that extends ten-fold, centuries later from the core glowing with electronic transmission. What in Shakespeare’s times comprised the City of London and a less congested stretch down along the Thames to Westminster’s royal enclave spreads today into distant suburbs. The ancient turns of the serpentine city’s northern course, considerably larger but still identifiable as a concentration along the north shore of the river, twists on, near giant blocks discernible as parks that have been plotted out.
This combination of streets and space, planned after the Great Fire which Pepys described so well, allowed his successors to note their ability, frustrated or eased, to escape the loos for the lawns. One will benefit from a map of one’s own to plot one’s route for instruction or orientation, or an A-Z guidebook. The intricacy of networks and referents becomes to those acquainted with the labyrinth at the city’s heart somewhat more familiar, but as any visitor or native agrees, its name-maze endures.
The editors note how certain tropes repeat down the decades: “The impossibility of getting around the place. The dirtiness of London’s streets. The unpredictability of the weather. The expensiveness of food and lodgings. The snootiness of shopkeepers, restauranteurs and/or publicans.” Consistently, complaints repeat, notably the “difficulty of finding somewhere decent to live and, interrelatedly, the worry about whether the price of X and Y neighborhood will go up or go down.” Finally, as Charles Lamb summed up in 1829, the old place isn’t what it used to be.
In a short review, 500 pages of extracted narratives defy summation. Yet, patterns emerge. They share often the nostalgia of Lamb (not included), but they reveal many emotions. I opened the book at random, as many readers may (once they check their birthday or today’s date to see how the mood or the clime correspond or not to their own wherever they peruse this, in whichever borough or suburb wherever), at 28 May. “A Man Vomiting Blood” in St. James’s Street, observed by William Windham and his colleague, detains them from their entrance into the House. Parliamentary affairs, it transpires, can wait, as the two statesmen repaired to a club instead in 1760, according to his diary.
Mary Berry’s journal commemorates that same date the visit of the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands to the capital. “Her savage majesty appeared much more occupied by the red-plumed hats of the musicians than the music.” Berry notes how the Hawaiian ladies, encumbered by the folds of their voluminous “European dress,” walked awkwardly; “there was nothing of the free step of the savage.”
“All are caged birds; the only difference is the size of the cage.” So muses Thomas Hardy, in characteristically epigrammatic style, after waiting that day in 1885 at the Marble Arch to watch the people pass in their finery. “Hurry, speech, laughter, moans, cries of little children” enliven for Hardy the human “tragedy” along this “hum of the wheel—the roar of London!”
Most dates offer an equivalent sampling of entries, from as diverse a cast. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, but also Nils Stevenson from the punk era in 1977 and Aaron Burr from 1808. Lord Byron and Lindsay Anderson; Michael Palin and Keshub Chandra Sen, a Bengali philosopher in 1870; emancipated slave Ignatius Sancho from the Georgian period and Emily Shore, who after her visits in 1830 as a girl would die of consumption a few years later.
These are the people through which we see London, those often who have come to stay for a short time or a lifetime after being born elsewhere. Along with natives (ranking far fewer, as in many cosmopolitan cities, it seems) such as Charlton F.C. fan Russ Wilkins, nearly unknown Victorian clerk Rafe Neville Leychester, or late 19th century minister’s daughter Helen G. McKenny, we see from the recognizable names and the obscure bylines the range of perspectives and persuasions drawn by tellers who put down on paper their reactions to the London they occupy, for a surprise or a memory, as a souvenir of their passing moment day by day and year by year.