The City as Body

The image of London as a human body is striking and singular; we may trace it from the pictorial emblems of the City of God, the mystical body in which Jesus Christ represents its head and the citizens its other members. London has also been envisaged in the form of a young man with his arms outstretched in a gesture of liberation; the figure is taken from a Roman bronze but it embodies the energy and exultation of a city continually expanding in great waves of progress and of confidence. Here might be found the "heart of London beating warm."

The byways of the city resemble thin veins and its parks are like lungs. In the mist and rain of an urban autumn, the shining stones and cobbles of the older thoroughfares look as if they are bleeding. When William Harvey, practising as a surgeon in St. Bartholomew's Hospital, walked through the streets he noticed that the hoses of the fire engines spouted water like blood from a cut artery. Metaphorical images of the Cockney body have circulated for many hundreds of years: "gob" was first recorded in 1550, "paws" in 1590, "mug" in 1708 and "kisser" in the mid-eighteenth century.

Harvey's seventeeth-century hospital was beside the shambles of Smithfield, and that conjunction may suggest another image of the city. It is fleshy and voracious, grown fat upon its appetite for people and for food, for goods and for drink; it consumes and it excretes, maintained within a continual state of greed and desire.

For Daniel Defoe, London was a great body which "circulates all, exports all, and at last pays for all." That is why it has commonly been portrayed in monstrous form, a swollen and dropsical giant which kills more than it breeds. Its head is too large, out of proportion to the other members; its face and hands have also grown monstrous, irregular and "out of all Shape." It is a "spleen" or a great "wen." A body racked with fever, and choked by ashes, it proceeds from plague to fire.

Whether we consider London as a young man refreshed and risen from sleep, therefore, or whether we lament its condition as a deformed giant, we must regard it as a human shape with its own laws of life and growth.

Here, then, is its biography.

Some will object that such a biography can form no part of a true history. I admit the fault and plead in my defence that I have subdued the style of my enquiry to the nature of the subject. London is a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh. It cannot be conceived in its entirety but can be experienced only as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares, in which even the most experienced citizen may lose the way; it is curious, too, that this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion.

The biography of London also defies chronology. Contemporary theorists have suggested that linear time is itself a figment of the human imagination, but London has already anticipated their conclusions. There are many different forms of time in the city, and it would be foolish of me to change its character for the sake of creating a conventional narrative. That is why this book moves quixotically through time, itself forming a labyrinth. If the history of London poverty is beside a history of London madness, then the connections may provide more significant information than any orthodox historiographical survey.

Chapters of history resemble John Bunyan's little wicket-gates, while all around lie sloughs of despond and valleys of humiliation. So I will sometimes stray from the narrow path in search of those heights and depths of urban experience that know no history and are rarely susceptible to rational analysis. I understand a little, and I trust that it will prove enough. I am not a Virgil prepared to guide aspiring Dantes around a defined and circular kingdom. I am only one stumbling Londoner who wishes to lead others in the directions which I have pursued over a lifetime.

The readers of this book must wander and wonder. They may become lost upon the way; they may experience moments of uncertainty, and on occasions strange fantasies or theories may bewilder them. On certain streets various eccentric or vulnerable people will pause beside them, pleading for attention. There will be anomalies and contradictions London is so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything-just as there will be irresolutions and ambiguities. But there will also be moments of revelation, when the city will be seen to harbour the secrets of the human world. Then it is wise to bow down before the immensity. So we set off in anticipation, with the milestone pointing ahead of us "To London."


A Note on Suicide

Many inmates committed "self-murder" within the walls of Newgate, but in London suicide assumes many forms. People have hurled themselves from the Whispering Gallery in the cathedral of St. Paul's; poisoned themselves in the solitude of London attics; and drowned themselves for love in the waters of St. James's Park. The Monument was another favourite location: the unhappy subject would throw himself or herself from the summit of the pillar and fall upon its base rather than street. On 1 May 1765, according to Grosley's A Tour of England, "the wife of a colonel drowned herself in the canal in St. James's park; a baker hanged himself in Drury-lane; a girl, who lived near Bedlam, made an attempt to dispatch herself in the same manner." In the summer of 1862 "the Suicide Mania" became a topic of public attention. In that same century the Thames was wreathed with the bodies of the drowned.

London was the suicide capital of Europe. As early as the fourteenth Wry Froissart described the English as "a very sad race," which description applied particularly and even principally to Londoners. The French considered that the London vogue for suicides was owing to "the affectation of plight of London families "that had not laughed for three generations," and observed that citizens committed suicide in the autumn in order "to escape the weather." Another visitor remarked that self-slaughter was "no doubt owing to the fogs." He also suggested that beef was another essential cause, since "its viscous heaviness conveys only bilious and melancholic vapours to the brain"; his diagnosis has a curious resemblance to the folk superstition of Londoners, in which to dream of beef "denotes the death of a friend or relation." The modern connection between beef and "BSE" may be noted here.

It was also remarked by Grosley that "melancholy prevails in London in every family, in circles, in assemblies, at public and private entertainments…. The merry meetings, even of the lowest sort, are dashed with this gloom." Dostoevsky observed the "gloom" which "never forsakes" the Londoner even "in the midst of gaiety." The wine sold in London taverns was also considered "to occasion that melancholy, which is so general." Even the theatre was held responsible for the unhappy distemper; one traveller described how the son of his landlord, after being taken to see Richard III, "leaped out of bed and, after beating the wainscot with his head and feet, at the same time roaring like one possessed, he rolled about the ground in dreadful convulsions, which made us despair of his life; he thought he was haunted by all the ghosts in the tragedy of Richard the Third, and by all the dead bodies in the churchyards of London."

Everything was blamed except, perhaps, for the onerous and exhausting condition of the city itself.


The Bad Odour 

The smells of London linger. They are "always more pronounced in the heart of the City," according to one late nineteenth-century Canadian writer, Sara Jeanette Duncan, "than in Kensington for instance." She went on to report that "it was no special odour or collection of odours that could be distinguished--it was a rather abstract smell." It has been likened to the smell of rain or of metal. It may be the smell of human activity or human greed. Yet it has been claimed that the smell is not human at all. When rain falls upon the city one of the most characteristic odours is that of "refreshed stone" but that dampness can also produce "the tired physical smell of London." It is the smell of age or, rather, of age restored.

In the fourteenth century the odours were varied and multifarious, from the smell of baking meat to that of boiling glue, from the brewing of beer to the manufacture of vinegar; decayed vegetables competed against tallow and horse-dung, all of which made up "a richly confected cloud of thick and heavy smell which the people had to breathe." This "medieval smell" is at this late date difficult to identify, although perhaps it lingers in stray doorways and passageways where a similar medley of odours confronts the passer-by. There are also parts of the world, as, for example, the souks of North Africa, where it is possible to savour something of the atmosphere of medieval London.

Every century, too, has its own smells. In the fifteenth century the dog house at Moorgate sent forth "great noyious and infectyve aiers," while others complained about the reek of the lime kilns situated in the suburbs. The smell of sea coal, in particular, was identified with the smell of the city itself. It was, essentially, the odour of trade which proved unbearable. Thus in the sixteenth century the foundries of Lothbury were a source of much public disquiet. From the north came the smell of burnt bricks, while in the City itself by Parooster Row emerged "a nauseous smell of tallow." The smell of the Stocks Market, at the eastern end of Cheapside, was so strong that the worshippers in e adjacent church of St. Stephen Walbrook "were overcome by the stench" 'rotting vegetables. Those who attended church risked other olfactory per, however, and the odours emanating from the burial ground of St. Paul's hurchyard alarmed Latimer in the sixteenth century. "I think verily that any a man taketh his death in Paul's Churchyard," he expounded in one of s sermons, "and this I speak of experience, for I myself when I have been ere in some mornings to hear the sermons, have felt such an ill favoured unwholesome savour, that I was the worse for it a great while after." This odour of graveyards was in fact one of the most permanent and prolonged smells of the city, with complaints against it from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

But there is the smell of the living as well as of the dead. References in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramatic literature point to the distinctive lour of a London crowd, in particular what Shakespeare described in Coriolanus as "their stinking breaths." Julius Caesar is felled by the savour of thy bodies which belong more to London than to Rome. In the eighteenth century George Cheyne, in The English Malady, recoiled from "the clouds of inking Breaths and Perspirations . . . more than sufficient to poison and infect the Air for twenty miles." In social reports of the nineteenth century, there are accounts of the noisome scents of "low" tenements and lodging uses which left inspectors faint and sick.

In a city of work and trade one of the principal inconveniences will be at of perspiration, "of greasy cooks at sweating work." London is a kind of forcing house, and within it lies "the mixture of Scents that arose from Mundung as Tobacco, Sweaty Toes, Dirty Shirts, the Shit-Tub, stinking oaths and uncleanly carcasses." Certainly the more refined Londoner 3uld, on a still day, be aware of the presence of other citizens without necessarily seeing them. The image generally employed is one of close, suffocating contact as if the inhabitants were pressing in on all sides with their rank bodies and dirty breath. This was one of the reasons why strangers and travellers at once felt so anonymous in London: suddenly they became aware of, and part of, the intimate yet cloying smell of human life. When a sixteenth-century report notes that the sick and infirm lie upon the streets of London where "their intolerable miseries and griefs . . . stunk in the eyes and noses of the City," the olfactory sense is linked with the visual to suggest an overpowering sensory horror.

It is also an ageless smell. To walk down a narrow and evil-smelling passage in contemporary London-and there are many such off the main thoroughfares-is to walk again down Fowle Lane or Stinking Alley. To pass too close to an unwashed vagrant is to experience the disagreeable sensation of an eighteenth-century Londoner when confronted with an "Abraham man" or a common beggar. In its smells the city can inhabit many past times.

It should not be assumed, however, that the entire citizenry were unwashed. There was soap as early as the fifteenth century, as well as lozenges to sweeten the breath and unguents to perfume the body. The real problem, as with so many others in the city, concerned the presence and the perceived contamination of the poor. In the seventeenth century the smells of poverty intruded into fashionable areas with "stinking Allies" and "suffocating Yards" beside newly designed squares. The smells of London were a great leveller. The rushes laid upon the floors of poorer households harboured "spittle, vomit, scraps of food, and the leakage of dogs and other animals." In areas such as Bethnal Green and Stepney some of those animals were pigs; in Orchard Street, Marylebone, there were twenty-three houses, which between them contained seven hundred people together with one hundred pigs creating "very nauseous smells." Once more the difference between smell and no smell is decided in London by money. Money is odourless. In the city of finance, poverty stinks. So in the mid-nineteenth century an urban traveller visited the slums of Agar Town by St. Pancras which not even wind and rain could cleanse and where "The stench of a rainy morning is enough to knock down a bullock."

In that century, too, other localities had their own especial odours. The area around Tower Street smelled of wine and tea (in the previous century its aroma was of oil and cheese), while Shadwell's odour was that of the adjacent sugar manufactories. From Bermondsey issued the smells of beer, tanyards, Ale and "the odour of fruits fomenting for jam" while by the river itself comas Hardy, lodging in Adelphi Terrace, suffered from illness as a result the smell of mud at low tide. In nineteenth-century Islington the smell was horse-dung and fried fish, while the area around Fleet Street and Temple .r was apparently permeated by the "odour of brown stout." Visitors recall it the "characteristic aroma" of the City itself was of the stables, with an anticipatory stench of its cab-stands." The experience of walking from the Monument to the Thames, however, would unleash a series of identifiable cells from "damaged oranges" to "herrings."

There were delightful smells as well as disagreeable ones. In the seventeenth century, at midnight, when the bakers of London began to heat their eras, and when the kitchens and stoves using sea coal were finally at rest, then "the air begins to clear and the smoke of the bakeries, which are heated the wood rather than with coal, spreads a very country-like smell in the neighbouring air." There were also London streets which had a reputation being sweet-smelling; such a place in the sixteenth century was Bucklersry in "simple" or herb time, and newly built Pall Mall. A Japanese visitor 1897 said that the city smelled of food, while at the same time commenting favourably on the breath of London servants. The French poet Mallarme suggested that the city had the odour of roast beef as well as the scent of fog :h "a special smell you only find here." At a slightly later date, J.B. Priest recalled the odour of "greasy little eating houses" as well as that of "a smoky autumn morning . . . with a railway station smell about it." The smell transport, in all its forms, has always been characteristic of the city. In the spring the omnibus, for example, had the odour of onions and, in winter, of paraffin or eucalyptus"; in the summer it was simply "indescribable." Fog fight the throat "like a whiff of chlorine." Rose Macaulay remembered a ;sage off High Street, Kensington, which "smelled of vaseline." Long Acre smelled of onions, and Southampton Row of antiseptic. Twentieth-century radon has been filled with odours, from the smell of chocolate along the Hammersmith Road to the smell of the chemical works down Chrisp Street in the East End and along the locally named "Stinkhouse Bridge."

Old smells have lingered, like the odour of the river and of pubs, while ole areas have retained their own especial and identifiable atmosphere. An account of the East End written in the late 1960s notes "an almost overpower; smell of fish" and "boiled cabbage," together with "a musty smell of old wood and crumbling bricks and stagnant air"; almost a century earlier in 1883 area was similarly described, in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, as imbued with "the fragrance of stale fish or vegetables," and the nineteenth-century odour "of drying matchboxes."

The ubiquitous twentieth-century smell, however, has been that of the bus and the motor car. The "air is tainted with their breath," wrote William Dean Howells in 1905, "which is now one of the most characteristic stenches of `civilisation.' " Other persistent presences include the smell of dog excrement upon the pavements, and the greasy savour emanating from fast-food restaurants. And then, too, there is the dull acrid smell of the underground which is also the smell of London dust and burnt London hair. Worse, however, is the clinging odour of the morning rush hour below the ground with lungfuls of morning breath leaving a metallic quality at the back of the throat. It is both human and inhuman, like the smell of London itself.

It has always been a city of vision and prophecy. It is supposed to have been founded after a prophetic dream vouchsafed to Brutus, and the vision of a great city in "a strange yet greener country" haunts the imaginations of the classical poets. As Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses,

Even as I speak I see our destiny
The city of our sons and sons of sons,
Greater than any city we have known,
Or has been known or shall be known to men.

Its visionary or mythic status has rendered it provisional and impalpable. It has become an "Unreal city," in the phrase of T.S. Eliot, which throughout its history has been populated by the creatures of mythology. Nymphs have been seen along the banks of its rivers, and minotaurs within its labyrinths of brick. It has been aligned with Nineveh and Tyre, Sodom and Babylon, and at times of fire and plague the outlines of those cities have risen among its streets and buildings. The city's topography is a palimpsest within which all the most magnificent or monstrous cities of the world can be discerned. It has been the home of both angels and devils striving for mastery. It has been the depths of London?

Chaucer's prophetic dream in the House of Fame-"I dreamt I was within a temple made of glass" with "many a pillar of metal"--has been applied to many of London's edifices but the most formidable prophecies are of revelation and apocalypse. On the north side of Aldersgate were inscribed the words: "Then shall enter into the gates of the city kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David . . . and the city shall remain forever." Even to its inhabitants, it was a biblical city; its history, "beyond the memory of man," verified its sacredness. Yet its inhabitants have also been touched by other fortes of vision. Of Chaucer's pilgrims, on their way to Canterbury along Borough High Street, William Blake said that they "compose all ages and nations." Every race or tribe or nation, every faith or form of speech, have been comprehended within the city. The whole universe may be found within a grain of London's life. The "gate of heaven," in St. Bartholomew the Great, was located beside the shambles of Smithfield. But if it is a sacred city, it is one which includes misery and suffering. The bowels of God have opened, and rained down shit upon London.

The most abject poverty or dereliction can appear beside glowing wealth and prosperity. Yet the city needs its poor. What if the poor must 'lie, or be deprived, in order that the city might live? That would be the strangest contrast of all. Life and death meet and part; misfortune and good fortune shake hands; suffering and happiness inhabit the same house. "Without Contraries," Blake once wrote, "is no progression." He reached this truth by steely observation of the city. It is always ancient, and forever new, that disparity or disjunction itself creating a kind of ferment of novelty and inventiveness. It may be that the new protects the old, or the old guards the new, yet in the very fact of their oneness lies the secret of London's identity shining through time.

Yet wherever you go in the city you are continually being assaulted by difference, and it could be surmised that the city is simply made U, of contrasts; it is the sum of its differences. It is in fact the very universality of London that establishes these contrasts and separations, it contains every aspect of human life within itself, and is thus perpetually renewed. Yet do the rich and the poor inhabit the same city? It may be that each citizen has created a London in his or her own head, so that at the same moment there may exist seven million different cities. It has sometimes been observed that even native Londoners experience a kind of fear, or alarm, if they find themselves in a strange part of the city. It is partly the fear of becoming lost, but is also the fear of difference. And yet is a city so filled with difference, also, therefore filled with fear?

This vision of totality, of fullness of life, may be cast in an optimistic sense. Boswell suggested that "the intellectual man is struck with London as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible." It is the vision which was imparted to him as he was driven along the Haymarket in the early days of 1763: "1 was full of rich imagination of London . . . such as I could not explain to most people, but which I strongly feel and am ravished with. My blood glows and my mind is agitated with felicity." It is the fullness of London which prompts his happiness; the congregation of people, of all races, of all talents, of all fortunes, releases a massive air of expectancy and exhilaration.

London manifests all the possibilities of humankind, and thus becomes a vision of the world itself. Steele was a "great Lover of Mankind"; and by Cornhill "at the sight of a prosperous and happy Multitude . . . I cannot forbear expressing my joy with Tears that have stolen down my Cheeks." A century later Charles Lamb wrote that "I often shed tears in the motley Strand, for fulness of joy at such a multitude of life." The multitudes induce wonder; they are not an incoherent mass, or a heap of irreconcilable elements, but a flowing and varied multitude.

English drama, and the English novel, spring out of the very conditions of London. In Jonson, and Smollett and Fielding, the poetry of the streets finds its fulfillment. Theirs is a visionary imagination as rich as that of Chaucer or of Blake, but it is a peculiarly London vision filled with images of the theatre and the prison-house, of commerce and of crowds, of fullness and rapacity and forgetfulness.

From a London vision springs a distinctive sensibility. All of these writers-and many more are numbered with them-were preoccupied with light and darkness, in a city that is built in the shadows of money and power. All of them were entranced by the scenic and spectacular, in a city that is continually filled with the energetic display of people and institutions. They under part they share the sublime indifference of London, where the multitudes come and go. However hard and theatrical it may seem, it is a true vision of the world. In the famous phrase, London made me. But then it cannot be altogether hard; it reduced Steele and Lamb to tears.

It is appropriate, then, that there should also have been visions of disaster; of London in ruins or choked to death upon its own smoke and dirt. The French writer Mirbeau invoked a city "of the nightmare, of dream, of mystery, of the conflagration, of the furnace, of chaos, of floating gardens, of the invisible, the unreal . . . this special nature of the prodigious city." An image of the furnace often emerges in London visions. In Blake's ,Jerusalem "Primrose Hill is the mouth of the Furnace & of the Iron Door," and in Arthur Machen's "When I Was Young in London" there was a moment when, "looking back one could see all the fires of London reflected dimly in the sky, as if far away awful furnace doors were opened." It has been known as "the Oven," as if that sense of unnatural heat provokes strange images of its inhabitants being cooked and eaten. Yet it has also been called "a temple of Fire-worshippers," so perhaps the citizens venerate the agents of their destruction.

A nineteenth-century observer of the fog noticed the sun as a "mysterious and distant gleam which seemed to be trying to penetrate to this immobile world." This is another true vision of the city, when all its noise and bustle have disappeared; when it lies silent and peaceful, all of its energy momentarily suspended, it seems like some natural force that will outlast all the activity of humankind. It is gigantic, monstrous, and, by the very fact of its enormity, somehow primeval. The poet, Tom Moore, had a refrain:

Go where we may, rest where we will,
Eternal London haunts us still.

Eternity may have many aspects. One is that of eternal recurrence, so that the people of the city will say the same things or use the same gestures upon the same streets. Since no one may watch a corner or a stretch of thoroughfare over hundreds of years, the truth of this will never be discovered. Yet perhaps it has become clear that certain activities seem to belong to certain areas, or neighbourhoods, as if time itself were moved or swayed by some unknown source of power. Yet if this seems too fanciful, there may be another aspect of "Eternal London." It is permanent. It is unceasing. Of its essence, it is unchanged. It is a condition of the universe. As the author of London Nights has put it, "London is every city that ever was and ever will be." Thus Wordsworth saw by Ludgate Hill

A visionary scene-a length of street
laid open in its morning quietness,
Deep, hollow, unobstructed, vacant, smooth . . .

The silence is the silence of permanence. When all the passing generations have sung their songs and departed, the city continues its quiet life. To see London without its inhabitants is indeed a "visionary scene," because another presence then reveals itself. That is why there have been so many visions of London in ruins. In drawings and in engravings even in images of film-it resembles some lost continent, or a city lately risen from the sea. These are not the ruins of Babylon or Rome, but of Atlantis or some other mythological landscape. They are emblems of some undying need or aspiration.

It is possible, however, to see among them the passing generations. London is "eternal" because it contains them all. When Addison visited the tombs of Westminster Abbey he was moved to reflect that "When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries and make our appearance together." It may be that London, uniquely among cities, prompts such considerations since the dead seem to be pursuing at the heels of the living. For some this is a hopeful vision; it suggests reconciliation where all the manifest differences of the city, riches and poverty, health and sickness, will find their quietus. One cannot be separated from the other. So Turner saw "the most angelic beings in the whole compass of the London world" in the squalor and filth of the London Docks.

There are those who have been possessed by a different vision. According to Geoffrey Grigson, London "stood for doing, at least, it stood for beginning." Branwell Bronte, in the parsonage at Haworth, collected all the maps of London he could find depicting "its alleys, and back slums and short cuts"; according to Juliet Barker in The Brontes he "studied them so closely that he knew them all by heart" so that he appeared to be an "old Londoner" who "knew more about the ins and outs of the mighty Babylon than many a man who had passed his life within its walls." This intense reading of London was, for him, a form of liberation; the maps represented all the hopes for, and aspirations towards, a new life. It was as if he were studying his own destiny. But for others the dream may become feverish, when the whole weight of London presses down. At the end of Bleak House, that threnody among the labyrinths of London, Richard Carstone towards the close of his wretched life asks, "it was all a troubled dream?" For many, that is also a true vision of the city.

The elements of innovation and of change are subtly mingled, together with the sheer exhilaration of being one among a numerous company. One could become anybody. Some of the great stories of London concern those who have taken on new identities, and new personalities; to begin again, to renew oneself, is one of the great advantages of the city. It is part of its endlessly dramatic life. It is possible, after all, to enter if only for a moment the lives and emotions of those who pass by. This collective experience can, in turn, be a source of exhilaration. It was what Francis Thompson perceived in his vision of

the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross.

It is the enchantment of a million golden souls moving back and forth between heaven and the city, all singular and all blessed. It is the same vision vouchsafed to those who have heard the music of London, a pattern of notes rising and falling in some great melody to which all the streets and avenues move in unison. The city then forms "a geography passing beyond the natural to become metaphysical, only describable in terms of music or abstract physics": thus writes Michael Moorcock in Mother London. Some inhabitants hear the music-these are the dreamers and the antiquarians-but others perceive it only fitfully and momentarily. It may be in a sudden gesture, in a sentence overheard, in an instant of memory. London is filled with such broken images, laughter which has been heard before, a tearful face which has been seen before, a street which is unknown and yet familiar.

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Excerpted from London by Peter Ackroyd. Copyright © 2001 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.