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Bookends: Capital rewards

London has been the subject of more anthologies than Samuel Pepys had hot chambermaids. This is fitting, as an anthology’s appeal — unexpected juxtaposition — matches that of the capital itself. But it does mean that any new contender has to work hard to justify its publication.

26 March 2011

6:00 AM

26 March 2011

6:00 AM

London has been the subject of more anthologies than Samuel Pepys had hot chambermaids. This is fitting, as an anthology’s appeal — unexpected juxtaposition — matches that of the capital itself. But it does mean that any new contender has to work hard to justify its publication.

London has been the subject of more anthologies than Samuel Pepys had hot chambermaids. This is fitting, as an anthology’s appeal — unexpected juxtaposition — matches that of the capital itself. But it does mean that any new contender has to work hard to justify its publication.


Irreverence is one possible route, and here the Blue Guide Literary Companion: London (Somerset Books, £7.95) scores well, with Trollope spilling ink over a pompous colonel, and Keats struggling not to snigger as Wordsworth is buttonholed by a tedious fan. There are interesting historical snippets: at top-notch Victorian funerals mourners were given paper packets of gravel to sprinkle on the coffin, while the phrase ‘the great unwashed’ was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in a novel of 1830. In an extract from the same writer’s Pelham, the title character remonstrates with a tailor overly-keen on padded suits: ‘You will let me for once have my clothes such as a gentleman can wear without being mistaken for a Guy Fawkes.’

Overall, though, the selection feels rooted too much in the past. In one of the very rare post-second world war entries we get the Prince of Wales’s 1987 speech bemoaning the fact that anybody after Wren was allowed to build anything in London (but with more wit perhaps than we remember): ‘You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble’. But if we don’t change we die. And what sort of tribute is that to a city?


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