London: A Literary Anthology selected by Richard Fairman

“There’s nowhere like London really you know.”

😀 😀 😀 😀

london a literary anthologyThis is a beautifully produced book published by the British Library, combining words from many of the greatest writers in English with illustrations culled from the British Library’s own collection. The mix includes both poetry and prose, which have been grouped together under sections highlighting one aspect of the city’s life or history – The City at Dawn, The High Life, The Low Life, Survival Through Plague and Fire, etc. The greats are here, of course – Dickens, with extracts from Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Dombey & Son, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Wordsworth et al. There are also entries from some of the newer well-known names – Benjamin Zephania, Zadie Smith, Angela Carter etc.

As the cab drew up before the address indicated, the fog lifted a little and showed him a dingy street, a gin palace, a low French eating-house, a shop for the retail of penny numbers and twopenny salads, many ragged children huddled in the doorways, and many women of different nationalities passing out, key in hand, to have a morning glass; and the next moment the fog settled down again upon that part, as brown as umber, and cut him off from his blackguardly surroundings.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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The extracts vary in length from fairly short to several pages. They are well-chosen to sit within their sections and overall there’s a kind of progression in the book from London’s early history to the present-day, although it’s not quite as clear cut as I might be making it sound. For example, the second last section, Ever-Changing London, goes from Tobias Smollett all the way to Angela Carter, via Dickens, Galsworthy and Walpole. The illustrations match the text well and are beautifully reproduced, in many cases reaching across the two-page spread. The cover itself is lovely, the paper is high quality and, together with a decent font-size, these combine to make the book a physical pleasure to read.

Gilmour said, “This is a pretty low joint, anyhow. You chaps come round to my place and have a drink.”
So they went to Gilmour’s place.
Gilmour’s place was a bed-sitting room in Ryder Street.
So they sat on the bed in Gilmour’s place and drank whisky while Gilmour was sick next door.
And Ginger said, “There’s nowhere like London really you know.”

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

The book is primarily designed to dip in and out of, I should imagine – however, I read it straight through and enjoyed the experience of making comparisons between the authors from different time periods. I was a little disappointed that it was so weighted towards earlier writers – the few modern authors felt a little swamped by the recognised classics, and I would have welcomed the opportunity to be introduced to some lesser known writers. But that’s a matter of personal taste rather than a criticism of the book, and there were a few extracts that will certainly inspire me to look for the books. The list of illustrations is at the back, which works in the sense of keeping the pages looking clear and uncluttered but which I found a bit irritating as I flicked back and forwards. And again each extract is titled only with the work it’s taken from and the author’s name – personally, I’d have really appreciated the date of writing being included too, although there’s no doubt that the omission of a lot of detail adds to the clean look of the pages.

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Between his two conductors, Mr Snagsby passes along the middle of a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water – though the roads are dry elsewhere – and reeking with such smells and sights that he, who has lived in London all his life, can scarce believe his senses. Branching from this street and its heaps of ruins are other streets and courts so infamous that Mr Snagsby sickens in body and mind, and feels as if he were going every moment deeper down, into the infernal gulf.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

The physical quality of the book and the inclusion of so many great writers would make this a welcome gift to any lover of London or of great writing, I would think. As I was reading, I was thinking it might be particularly interesting for someone just beginning to read or study English literature, since it gives a real flavour of the style of so many authors and might inspire many excursions towards the full-length works. But even for an old hand like me, it reminded me of many books I’ve loved and several that I’ve missed…

It’s so cool when the heat is on
And when it’s cool it’s so wicked
We just keep melting into one
Just like the tribes before us did,
I love dis concrete jungle still
With all its sirens and its speed
The people here united will
Create a kind of London breed.

Benjamin Zephaniah, The London Breed

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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

Amazon UK Link
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35 thoughts on “London: A Literary Anthology selected by Richard Fairman

  1. Oh, that sounds like a lovely book, FictionFan! And although I agree with you that modern writers also have a wonderful perspective on London, I do like the variety of writers you mention. I’ll bet the ‘photos are superb too. A great-sounding virtual trip to a great city.

    • It really is, Margot! And there are so many other writers I didn’t mention too. The illustrations are great – interesting as well as attractive. My photos do them no justice at all, I fear, but altogether it’s a lovely book.

    • Great selection of authors, Gemma – far more than the ones I mentioned – HG Wells, Virginia Woolf…

      Yes, anthologies always seem to work for Christmas, don’t they? And this one is really lovely…

  2. Interesting. Very interesting. Hmmmm. It does sound like a PhD candidate’s reading list on literary London, in a good way. I also like that it contains prose and its often neglected step-sister, poetry.

    Oh, this is going to be a booky holiday season—as usual. 😀

    • Yes, there’s a fair amount of poetry although the bulk is prose. I loved the Zephaniah poem I must say, and it was really that that made me wish there had been more contemporary writers included. But every classic writer I can think of has at least ine entry – a great way to sample the styles…

      I, on the other hand, am going to plead with Santa to give me films or CDS…NO MORE BOOKS!!! Aaaarghhhhh!!

  3. You may have found the ideal Christmas present for one particular friend of mine.

    Could you work a little harder, if I send you some potted biographies of some other friends, and find the right books for them as well?

  4. Wow, what a beautiful looking book. Were there any extracts at all from authors that you hadn’t encountered before?

    • It is beautiful – the illustrations are great! Yes, several – some of the older writers that I’ve never got round to, like Tobias Smollett, and quite a few of the newer ones, like Zadie Smith and Sam Selvon – in fact, I particularly liked his extract from ‘The Lonely Londoners’ and will probably go on to read that one…

  5. Sounds a good one. As you know, I didn’t particularly like living in London, but I have always enjoyed “fictional” London, which I think has a mythic quality which makes it a character in its own right, and lots of these book are favourites of mine. Perhaps there are fewer modern extracts because modern writers don’t write about the city in the same way?
    I won’t be commenting next week – I shall be away for a few days with no Internet access, so I will have all your reviews to come back to.

  6. I’m extremely jealous that you have this book, it looks amazing so it is going on my Christmas list (except I think there may be an anti-list at work in this house) and if the worst comes to the worst I will have to buy a copy so that I can enjoy dipping in and out of it at my leisure.

    • D’you know, Cleo, I tried a little experiment a few months back of writing to various publishers asking (begging) for review copies of upcoming releases that took my fancy. I never heard from most of them but a couple of books popped through my door unannounced months later – and this was one of them. I may try it again sometime… 😉

      Well, I have no doubt you’ve been a good girl this year, so hopefully Santa will oblige!

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