Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — the boosterish, droll, dependably bedheaded current mayor of London and former editor of The Spectator, known to all as just “Boris” — will be quite the presence this summer at the Olympics. He didn’t land the Games for London; that feather belongs to his predecessor Ken Livingstone and the former Olympic champion runner, Lord Sebastian Coe. But he will surely act the audience’s best mate at the pub, Churchillian in inspiration, Pythonian in delivery.
Just go on YouTube to see Boris’s infamous “Ping Pong” speech from the Beijing-to-London handover ceremony in 2008. He enters the room gamely waving the Olympic flag and blusters that the British “invented or codified” nearly all Olympic sports including table tennis which, he reminds, was born in 19th-century Britain as “wiff waff.” Then he boasts about 2008’s gold medal-winning Brit cycling team; Boris is famous for biking to work.
Next he touts the London police, who won a tug-of-war competition at London’s 1908 Games. (There was a tug-of-war? Quite so.) Along the way, he also cheerfully pushes to bring back lost Olympic events like the pankration, whose “chief exponent was Milo of Croton, whose signature performance involved carrying an ox the length of the stadium, killing it with [one’s] bare hands and then eating it on the same day!”
As you’d expect, “Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World” (Riverhead, 2012) is pots of fun. Boris begins by claiming that London was founded “by pushy Italian immigrants,” meaning Roman legions in 43 AD. Afterwards, he gives us a chapter on Boudica, the red-haired, big-bosomed Iceni tribeswoman (whom he admiringly compares to Margaret Thatcher) who later routed the Romans. Entries ensue on Alfred the Great (“a proper Saxon toff”) and William the Conqueror, who lived in “a universe of toothache and constipation.” Shakespeare, Lionel Rothschild, Florence Nightingale, Keith Richard, and so on: All get the reverent-but-irreverent Boris treatment.
If you take more importance in being earnest, there’s the absorbing “A History of London” (Carroll and Graf, 1999) by Stephen Inwood who teaches at New York University in London. It’s Boris’s favorite source, and it expertly guides you through the newish discoveries on Londinium (what the Romans called London) made by 19th century scholars and augmented by findings unearthed by the Blitz. From there we move through London’s umpteen stages of recovery from disaster — massacre, fire, plague, Hitler — to become the greatest city in the world. Well, at least it was in the 19th century.
Peter Ackroyd, the ace biographer (Chaucer, Shakespeare, William Blake) , splendidly splices his craft into “London: The Biography” (Chatto and Windus, 2000). Theme trumps chronology here, with ebullient passages on everything from London theater to weather to politics to crime to noise. About that last: At its height in the mid-19th century, the din of the perilously crowded city made it so “[c]onversation with a friend whom one chances to meet in midday is out of the question . . . one cannot hear a word the other says.’’
And if “hell is a city much like London,” as Shelley famously quipped, Ackroyd is only too happy to tote up why. The soot. The poverty. The sordid crimes. You’ll especially want to nose around his rendition of the “Great Stink” of 1858, in which cresting Thames sewage prompted the upper classes to flee and finally spurred a proper sanitation system, thanks to the heroic engineer Joseph Bazalgette, whose 165 miles of cement chutes still work well today.
But enough of auditory and olfactory London. To feast your eyes, instead, try “London Street Photography: 1860-2010” (Dewi Lewis, 2011). The Victorian era shots, especially, stun with their immediacy. There’s old Aldgate, with its darkling streets full of barrels and shop signs (Boris would love the art-nouveau-ish one for “City Bicycle School”). Flip to later years, and we see drab children pressed up to a basement window on the East End in the mid-1930s, a crowd eyeing a dancing monkey in Shoreditch in 1952, toughs versus hippies in Piccadilly Circus in 1969, a posh young umbrella’d couple on Oxford Street in 1998.
This kind of vivid impressionism also colors, of course, London-suffused fiction. My short list would include: Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” Muriel Spark’s “A Far Cry From Kensington,” Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” and Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane.” Oh, and Penelope Lively’s “City of the Mind” (Grove, 1991) about a divorced architect working on the 1980s Docklands revival. “The city, too, bombards him,” Lively writes. “The whole place is a chronicle, in brick and stone, in silent eloquence, for those who have eyes and ears.”
Speaking of chronicles, turn to “Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London” (Yale University, 2012). Author Judith R. Walkowitz, a Johns Hopkins history professor, writes a spirited story flawed by bits of ivory tower jargon. But don’t be disheartened. It’s fascinating to gaze on as she scrapes to see the pentimento of the area’s Victorian past of sex, crime, political protest, and ethnic diversity, then on to its later reputation as the spot for fine food and “bright young things,” to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh. Learn all about the rise of the Italian restaurant (in a world of Scotch eggs and Bubble and Squeak, a minor miracle), “women of the painted class,” and such pioneers as Mrs. Kate Meyrick, who ran the hottest nightclubs between the wars (like the legendary 43).
Just to orient us Yanks, Soho is in London’s West End. The Olympics will unfold in the East End, home of the most bombed part of the city in World War II, now full of empty warehouses and postwar housing. It’s also home to many recent immigrants from Bangladesh, various countries in Africa, and the Caribbean. East Ender Iain Sinclair, a poet, novelist, and
“psychogeographer” (someone who chronicles how place matters) has long been protective of the area’s rusty authenticity. As such, he’s also one of the leading gadflies of the 2012 Olympics.
All Olympics, Sinclair writes, are “the scam of scams” and “[o]rgies of lachrymose nationalism.” There’s more where that came from in the provocative, meandering “Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics” (Faber and Faber, 2012). To make way for the Olympics’ 500-acre set-aside, neighborhoods have been disrupted, green parks supplanted by car parks, and most ominous of all, radioactive thorium, a byproduct from local factories, seems to have been dug up during construction, perhaps tainting the water supply. If you love London, as I do, and the Olympics, as I do, get ready to feel conflicted.
But take some comfort, for I’ve saved the best for last: “Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now — As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It” (Ecco, 2012). Canadian journalist Craig Taylor, whom everyone justifiably compares to Studs Terkel, is genius at getting moving, surprising oral histories — from a hedge fund manager, rapper, rickshaw driver, Buckingham Palace guard, street cleaner, you name it. He turns up plenty of trademark Brit glass-half-empty stuff. One source, for instance, suggests a new city slogan for London: “It just gets worse.” But another revels in the city at night, and “the sad gorgeousness of light in the streets.” In a few weeks, London will fill your screens. In the meantime, read it and dream.