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Richard Fairman: There’s nowhere like London, you know

From Dickens to Zadie Smith, Richard Fairman explores how generations of writers have captured the spirit of London

Imagine a walk round the streets of London. We see the great sights like the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral. We walk in the open spaces of Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. We admire their grandeur, perhaps remember something of their history, and move on.

A writer does that, too. But when it comes to putting that place into a poem or a story, something extra is needed – an appreciation of its spirit, an understanding of how it relates to the city and its history.

When The British Library asked me to compile an anthology about London, I had no idea just how much material there would be. Of course there would have to be some Charles Dickens – but what?

Almost every book he wrote lives and breathes London. You feel the terror of Oliver Twist as he makes his way to Saffron Hill (a poor area near Exmouth Market) for the first time. You smell the squalor in the air at Tom-all-Alone’s in Bleak House, where the sick and dying haunt the streets like ghosts. It would have been easy to compile the entire anthology just from Dickens.

Who else needed to be included? My favourite description of London is the famous passage from book seven of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. As a young man, Wordsworth started to get to know London on a visit in 1791. Much of The Prelude is a hymn to nature but the poet is just as awestruck by the urban environment – the din, the energy, the variety of people: “Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese, and Negro ladies in white muslin gowns.”

My favourite description of London is the famous passage from book seven of Wordsworth’s The Prelude

An outline was starting to appear in my mind. The poets and writers who make you sit up and take note are those who tell us how people have interacted with the city. They express their feelings on their first visit. They live alongside people of every religion and ethnic background.

They see poverty and riches. They witness the city changing about them. And they fear for its – and their own – future. Here were my themes.

If Oliver Twist was the poor boy arriving in London, there had to be others with contrasting experiences. Henrietta Temple by Benjamin Disraeli tells how young Ferdinand marvels at the big sights and the grand hotels.

Others were not so lucky. In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot has a lost and lonely Jewish girl in search of her mother. Arnold Bennett’s ‘pretty lady’ is a prostitute walking the streets. In The Lonely Londoners Samuel Selvon tells of Caribbeans arriving in London in the 1950s and finding a gloomy world where the sun hangs in a melancholy sky like a “force-ripe orange”.

Wordsworth is not the only writer who has seen London as a melting pot. Israel Zangwill describes Jewish immigrants causing a riot when a school wants to inoculate their children. Zadie Smith’s brilliant novel White Teeth features a culture-clash encounter between Samad, a Muslim, and Mad Mary, dreads and feathers and cape afloat, spitting at anybody in her way.

In The Black Album Hanif Kureishi describes a house in Kilburn, where the flats are rented by “Africans, Irish people, Pakistanis and even a group of English students”. Don’t tell Nigel Farage about that one!

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Open the papers and they say inequality in London has reached new extremes. But just try the 19th century. Here is Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair revelling in fine dinner parties in Mayfair. Or Trollope describing a party in Grosvenor Square where the hall had been turned into paradise, the staircase fairyland, and the police outside had been bribed to get pedestrians to cross the road.

At the other extreme, a short story by Arthur Morrison – a celebrated chronicler of the East End – tells what happens when a woman with a dying son has to choose between buying him medicine or paying for a finer funeral. It is a story to make you weep.

Do I have favourites among the 67 items I chose? Yes, of course. There is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – I chose the inspiring passage that describes a bus journey up the Strand. I love the effervescence of Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem The London Breed. Then, how many people knew London was bombed in WWI until they read John Buchan’s Mr Standfast? There is Hugh Walpole’s vision of ancient times when dinosaurs ranged in Piccadilly Circus.

Open the papers and they say inequality in London has reached new extremes. But just try the 19th century

And, not least, how dry is Evelyn Waugh’s sense of humour as he describes a drab, late-night scene at a bedsitter in Ryder Street, where an upper-class girl and her boyfriend drink whisky on the bed while the host is sick next door. “There’s nowhere like London really, you know,” she says.

London: A Literary Anthology (The British Library, £20) by Richard Fairman is out now in hardback