“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” So said Samuel Johnson, the good doctor of letters, to his friend and chronicler James Boswell, who spent as much of his time as he could in Scotland or elsewhere away from the capital, while Johnson disliked both spending time alone and spending it away from the high street.
If A London Year, a lively anthology assembled by English writers (and, naturally, Londoners) Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison, has a tutelary spirit, it is Dr. Johnson, who first turns up a couple of hundred pages in and is, well, a little rough around the edges for all his brilliance. Writes Boswell, “He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice...his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable.”
Samuel Johnson as Johnny Rotten? The Sex Pistols/Public Image Ltd. singer turns up in Elborough and Rennison’s pages much earlier, in an entry for January 7, 1977, having just been rousted by the bobbies: “The police find some amphetamine on Rots,” writes confidant Nils Stevenson, “and he’s bundled into a van and taken to West End Central.”
Scores of diaries by Londoners make up A London Year, with each diarist showing a different aspect of Londoners and city life over the last several hundred years. And why diaries, and not other forms of writing? Because, Elborough explains, “the best diaries have an immediacy that few other forms of writing can match.”
That becomes evident when we add to the mix a third Londoner, the modern, obsessive self-recorder Dickon Edwards. A triumvirate begins to take shape: as well-read as Johnson and Rotten, but polished to a dandyish sheen, a celebrant of the modern London of the London Eye, the Millennium Dome, and a city of gleaming glass and steel rising above the old marble and cobblestones. All three figures are integral parts of the picture, all embracing what Elborough calls “a certain essential Londonness.”
The writer D. M. Low, prominent in the 1930s, once called this “Londinity,” a feeling that a proud New Yorker or fierce Chicagoan might well understand. That badge of identification with place has long distinguished residents of London, so much so that, if Johnson and Edwards had access to some sort of time-travel contraption, they would find similarities not just in the physical plan of the city but also with their shared sense of belonging to it, even if, as Rennison says, “they would be astonished and occasionally horrified if some form of time travel allowed each to visit the other’s London.”
It took Elborough and Rennison, dividing piles of reading, about a year to assemble their anthology. “There is so much material out there that we could have spent two years, five years, an entire decade on research,” says Rennison. “We needed to decide upon a definite cutoff point or we could have been working on it for the rest of our lives.” As it is, the editors note that other cities—they name New York, Paris, and Venice—could well be subject to the model of A London Year, and though they have no plans at present to undertake companion volumes, they say, a bit mysteriously, that they are planning “a volume for publication in 2015 which will make use of the basic format in a different way.”
A London Year travels across the centuries in search of material, taking in the splendors of the Georgian era, the dead-dog-in-the-street roughness of the early Elizabethan age, the terrors of the Blitz and so on. Many of the writers who figure in its pages will be well known to American readers, among them Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell. Yet, in ransacking whole libraries to make the anthology, Elborough and Rennison profess to discovering a couple of favorite writers who will be strangers to even the most literate of Londoners. Says Elborough, “Arthur Munby was a man about town and minor poet in Victorian London whose diaries reveal the 19th-century city in brilliant detail and color, while John Baptist Grano was an 18th-century musician who worked with Handel. He spent periods in debtors’ prison and kept diaries while he was there which are very lively and not nearly as well known as they should be.”
Thanks to A London Year, those authors now have a new audience, and devotees of the British capital have a rich new book to explore.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.
Travis Elborough is pictured above and to the right and Nick Rennison is pictured above and to the left.