Whether you live in London, as I have done for almost fifty years, or are on a brief visit, you cannot help being reminded of both the geographical extent and the historical depth of the city. How do you make sense of it all?
For the purposes of this anthology – a pocketsize book about a vast and teeming place – I have begun at the centre. Think of the River Thames as the artery that from earliest days has allowed London’s heart, the City of London, to beat. There and in Westminster is where you will find the greatest concentration of the traces of history, some well-preserved and plain to see, others more hidden. But there is no need to rely just on old buildings and monuments: poets from the Early Modern period onward have been among the busiest and liveliest chroniclers, whether reporting events or imagining them, celebrating metropolitan life or deploring it; and while the evidence they offer is necessarily partial, it adds up to a considerable body of witness.
William Blake stands on a different plane from his fellows in having attempted, singlehanded, something more ambitious: the articulation, in his prophetic books Milton
, of a comprehensive mythology of London. Blake may still be thought eccentric, as he was in his own day, but his is the spirit that I have come to regard as presiding over my choice of poems, extracts from poems, song lyrics, topical doggerel and poetically charged prose. Embracing not only the city centre, but also the districts and boroughs that sprawl around and away from it, Blake’s vision strikes me as a vigorous assertion of eccentricity as the most reliable means of seeing the place as it really is.
So the following pages set out, in their own manner, to do justice to the full range between history and mythology, objective reality and the private feelings of the individual. The past – some of it proud, much disgraceful – looms large; but London’s habit of growing and changing needs to be considered as well. With this in mind, I have placed in my final section a handful of poems addressing the experiences of immigrants who have become citizens. Regrettably, it has not been possible to include a section about London as the revitalizing new intake of the future will know it.
I should like to thank Charles Boyle, Eleanor Bron, Nancy Campbell, Neil Corcoran, Tom Deveson, Cliff Forshaw, Vivi Lachs, Alan Leith, Lord Lisvane and Gwyneth Powell for their advice and assistance with
Copyright © 2021 by Edited by Christopher Reid. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.