BOOK REVIEW / A city that beggars the imagination: The Faber Book of London - ed A N Wilson, pounds 17.50

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The Independent Culture
I AM generally doubtful about anthologies. Who are they for? What are they supposed to do? Bits of this and that clustered around some contrived category (Saints, Villains, Chocolate - why not an anthology of anthologies?) are almost bound to dissatisfy anyone with a real interest in the subject and bore everyone else. Good for the loo, I suppose, but people I know who read in the loo generally require something more substantial - War and Peace at the very least.

But The Faber Book of London is a delight, so I eat my words and my hat. A N Wilson, though not a born Londoner, understands that London is not loved by its inhabitants for what it is, but for its vivid existence in their imagination. London is a territory of the mind, unlike Paris whose sensual and aesthetic pleasures are as real and palpable as flesh and blood. Johnson's 'tired of London, tired of life' epigram is not true any more (if it ever was) of those of us who tread the real pavements of the city, but is a precise description of the idea of London that Londoners carry about with them in their heads.

Wilson's chosen snippets range around in time - from the unfailingly pleasing Pepys, to Colin MacInnes's City of Spades and Jeffrey Bernard's half-lit low-life. Somehow, they all speak recognisably of the same city, whether they tell of the diarist's terror of the plague-struck streets or the Krays' murderous clean-up of the upstart Richardson gang. London is not, as Wilson says, a city of heroes, but it reeks of myth, none the less. It's the city that the likes of Marx, Lenin, Talleyrand, Garibaldi, Mazzini, Dostoevsky and Voltaire, as well as a parade of more or less anonymous but known 'characters', passed through - though Wilson omits a favourite of mine.

The territory in which I grew up was Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, where Prince Monolulu (now transmogrified into a pub in Fitzroy Street, and, I suppose, dead), a West Indian racing tout with a taste for the exotic, wandered about in garish robes and a head-dress of multi-coloured feathers, shouting 'I got a hoss] I got a hoss]'. At the age of seven I wasn't one for the track, but we were friends and fell into each other's arms whenever our paths crossed.

At around the same time, I was banned from the British Museum, which, as far as I was concerned, existed for the purpose of being my playground when it was wet. I played Pharaohs in the Egyptian rooms and had romantic liaisons with the pallid, eyeless statues the Greeks so thoughtfully left behind for my entertainment. I was expelled for taking too many paper cups from the drinking fountain - stealing, the uniformed attendant said, though I couldn't see how taking more of something that was free could be construed as stealing. Even now, I lower my head when I visit, in case the ban is still in effect.

But I was too young to get into the Catherine-wheeled Reading Room, and I therefore missed the man described by John Stewart Collis who sat at his desk day after day ceaselessly writing wordless scribbles, and the enigmatic, ever-present character making endless notes, growing, over several decades, white-haired and bent. Collis searched the catalogues and found that this person had once written a few slim, unreviewed volumes on ethics, but after 30 further years of note-taking in the library through the wars and peace he never got round to adding a single other title to his opus.

I was going regularly to the zoo before I could walk - before my eyes were open, I think Guy the Gorilla and me grew up together and developed what I considered a certain downbeat understanding of the way things were. But I rejoice to discover that in spite of Julian Huxley's responsibility for the zoo in wartime (did the lions and tigers and bears - oh my] - go to the local Underground to shelter from the bombs?) there was a direct hit on the zebra house, and one bolted in fright, to gallop around Camden Town for a good while. I'd like to think it found its way to the Ladies lavatory in the middle of the road at the junction of Parkway and Camden High Street, which remains an unpublicised monument to Bernard Shaw, who campaigned for a place where the women of Inverness Street market could relieve themselves decently.

Wilson knows that London is its population, generally exploited and miserable, though curiously immune to revolutionary infection. Darwin may have been shaken by the Chartist riot as it made its way up Gower Street, but more often the London pavements have absorbed the misery rather than thrown it back in the exploiters' faces. Charles Lamb, who laments the passing of beggars, would be cheered by today's growing band of the homeless and destitute, who know and perhaps own London like no one else.

(Photograph omitted)