Ancient and modern: London is pure spectacle

“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.” – Samuel Johnson.

On 20 September 1777 the English writer Samuel Johnson and his friend, the Scottish lawyer and diarist James Boswell, were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin if he were to live there. Boswell was in the habit of spending one month a year with Johnson and the city’s literary crowd. The rest of his time was spent in Scotland or travelling abroad.

Boswell first met Johnson on 16 May 1763 and the pair became immediate friends. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is regarded as a milestone in biographical writing. In fact, the American critic Harold Bloom – as acerbic in his way as Johnson ever was – claims it is the greatest biography written in English. The book notes the first conversation between the two men, including the following repartee:

[Boswell:] “Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.”
[Johnson:] “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”

We can only wonder what they would have made of Scottish independence.

PoppiesAs a city, London is full of spectacle. This year it is the art installation “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London, marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War. Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, the installation is named after a poem written by an anonymous soldier who died in the trenches. Before the end of 2014, 888,246 ceramic poppies will fill the Tower’s moat. Each one represents a British military fatality during the war.

The poppies appear to flow from the Tower itself – a metaphor for a bloody wound in the side of England. The words of Shakespeare’s Henry V come to mind (but perhaps this has already been pointed out):

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.”

Henry V would have known the church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, which stands at a musket shot’s distance. Founded in 675 it was built on the site of a Roman building, traces of which have been discovered in the crypt. Its proximity to the Tower of London meant that it acquired royal connections, with Edward IV making one of its chapels a royal chantry and the beheaded victims of Tower executions being sent there for temporary burial.

All-HallowsIn 1650, the church was badly damaged by a huge explosion. According to contemporary records, in the evening of Friday 4 January there was “a lamentable and fearful fire in a ship-chandler’s house.” The shopkeeper, Robert Porter, had seven barrels of gunpowder stored in his house for the night, and (fortunately for the parish) had removed 20 more on board ship. The house and four others, including the Rose Tavern in Tower Street, were destroyed by the explosion. Ten houses “backward from the street” in Priests Alley were “quite blowne up.” Twenty-six others were rendered uninhabitable by the explosion or by the fire that followed and this “wofull accydent of Powder and Fyer” killed at least 67 people. Many others were badly burned or left destitute.

Having survived the explosion, All Hallows only narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London of 1666. It was rescued by Admiral William Penn, father of William Penn of Pennsylvania fame (baptised in the church in 1644), who had men from a nearby naval yard demolish the surrounding buildings to create firebreaks. But it did suffer extensive bomb damage during the Second World War, after which only the tower and walls remained.

The church was rebuilt and today it is overshadowed by one of those glass monoliths city people call a gherkin or a shard or a cheese grater or – as here – a Walkie-Talkie, rechristened Walkie-Scorchie after the skyscraper’s convex glass focused sunlight on a Jaguar parked below and melted its panels and a wing mirror. Ironic, since the Great Fire started just a pudding’s throw away…

In London there is history on every street corner.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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