London: A History in Verse, Edited by Mark Ford

A capital collection projects 600 years of the city's grime and grandeur on a truly epic scale

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 19 July 2012 20:42 BST
Seething, clamorous megalopolis: The crowd at London bridge
Seething, clamorous megalopolis: The crowd at London bridge

Every Londoner has met the misled out-of-towner who believes that Harry Beck's Tube map represents the true lie of the land. The iconic diagram that "displayed the innards of vast loud animal" does not, of course, match or mimic the territory above. As Michael Donaghy's "Poem on the Underground", one of a dozen Tube-inspired pieces in this seething, clamorous megalopolis of a London anthology, puts it: "the city's/ an angular appliance of intentions, not/ the blood and guts of everything that happens".

If topology is not geography, then poetry is not history – or sociology. Its energies may for a stretch coincide with great events, just as Beck's graphic lines can track the tunnelled earth from time to time. But then it will go its own sweet way, like the "lovely inattentive water" of the tidal Thames that Alice Oswald celebrates in "Another Westminster Bridge". So Mark Ford's hefty flagstone of a book, 700 pages and 200 poets (not counting the many balladeering, street-crying and nursery-rhyming Anons), makes a large claim for itself as "a history in verse".

Ford's London is the quarrelsome, disputatious "flour of Cities all" (an unknown Scots rhymer, c.1500): the Athens of argy-bargy, the Constantinople of contention, all the way from John Gower in the 1380s fretting that his scribal rivals will "feyne [misrepresent] and blame" his verses to the well-oiled night-bus reveller in the final item, Ahren Warner's "Dionysus", shouting "It's a London thing". So, before the made-in-London cavils and carps begin, let me say that the boy Ford done good, has done us proud, has played a blinder.

I have never come across a London anthology (or any warehouse of urban poetry) as rich, as bold, as multifarious as this, or more alert to every mood of what William Cowper in 1785 called "by taste and wealth proclaimed/ The fairest capital of all the world,/ By riot and incontinence the worst". If they don't mind risking the excess-baggage fee (no e-book yet, it seems), Olympic visitors should lug this brick back home for a pungent souvenir of the original "maximum city" in all its grot and grandeur, as they echo Pope's valediction in 1715 and bid this "Dear, damned, distracting town, farewell!".

Poets, however, may keep "history" at a quizzical arm's length. They can sing like heroes at times of crisis: from Andrew Marvell's ironic "Horatian Ode" to Cromwell, both praising and deploring the execution of Charles I, to David Kennedy as he seeks a language fit for the bombs of 7/7, "words that won't/ make the living// or the dead cringe/ and crawl away". Yet major verse may also opt to stand aside, writing against the current as TS Eliot's "Waste Land" sets its gaze against the death-marked commuters "Under the brown fog of a winter dawn". For all the glimpses of benighted drudges on Tube or tram, ordinary work too seldom comes into focus – though we do have John Davidson's 1890s clerk's confession, "Thirty Bob a Week": a metropolitan masterpiece.

Or take spectator sport. Here, we make two visits to Bar Italia in Soho with the ever-excellent Hugo Williams, and multiple returns to Westminster Abbey or the British Museum. But we never see inside White Hart Lane, Highbury, Wimbledon, – not even Lords, site of Francis Thompson's Lancastrian cricket-lover's poem ("O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!"). Attentive to migration, to homesickness, to London as both cornucopia and asset-stripper for incomers, Ford might have picked that.

London, so its poetry shows, has thrilled, seduced, bemused, ripped off and heartbroken new citizens from the 15th-century Kentish farmer of "London Lickpenny" to James Berry's off-the-boat Jamaican in 1948, a "jus-come" at the Brixton labour exchange. When the farmer stumbles over a market packed with dodgy goods in Cornhill, we learn that the Middle English for stolen gear was… "stolne gere". Talk about unbroken tradition.

As with sport, however, actual shopping features less in London poetry than in life, even though every satirical moralist from Elizabethan times onwards bangs on about the godless commercialism of a place "where all are slaves to gold" (Samuel Johnson). The best shopping poem here comes from Isabella Whitney: perhaps the first Englishwoman to write for money, in the 1560s and 1570s (though Ford, who eschews all biographical notes, won't tell you that). Her City shopaholic's testament serves as wonderfully spirited riposte to the line of scornful satirists, from Everard Guilpin and John Donne on, who flay vulgar consumption: "For maidens poor, I widowers rich/ Do leave, that oft shall dote/ And by that means shall marry them/ To set the girls afloat".

Ford, to his credit, does set the girls afloat. Much of the poetry by women diverts the metropolitan mainstream into fresher tributaries. In the 18th century Mary Robinson, whose "ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop", answers back to Rochester, Swift and other macho dandies. Looking down from Hampstead, romantic Joanna Baillie finds dismal weather "sublime", with "the city in her grand panoply of smoke arrayed". Charlotte Mew folds a Hardyesque novel into "In Nunhead Cemetery", and Stevie Smith finds profound mystery in her sodden suburbs.

Almost every canonical attraction also features: from Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge to Blake's "mind-forg'd manacles"; Eliot's "unreal city" to Spenser's "Prothalamion" ("Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song"). Poets not tied by reputation to the Smoke turn out to flourish here: Hardy, Lawrence, Heaney, Wordsworth's peerless Prelude, as it ushers in two centuries of footsore alienation: "The face of everyone/ That passes by me is a mystery!" To John Fuller, "Lonely in London is an endless story".

The Tube's lines may reach a terminus, but poetry's never do. Born in 1980, Ben Borek evokes his south London manor ("it's not all crack and pillage – just take a look at Dulwich Village") with a rhyming sour-sweet jauntiness that Donne, Swift or Johnson would applaud. "Building, repair and demolition/ go on simultaneously," (Michael Hofmann) – in London's verses, as on London's streets.

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