The City as Body

The image of London as a human body is striking and singular; we may trace it from the pictorial emblems of the City of God, the mystical body in which Jesus Christ represents its head and the citizens its other members. London has also been envisaged in the form of a young man with his arms outstretched in a gesture of liberation; the figure is taken from a Roman bronze but it embodies the energy and exultation of a city continually expanding in great waves of progress and of confidence. Here might be found the “heart of London beating warm.”

The byways of the city resemble thin veins and its parks are like lungs. In the mist and rain of an urban autumn, the shining stones and cobbles of the older thoroughfares look as if they are bleeding. When William Harvey, practising as a surgeon in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, walked through the streets he noticed that the hoses of the fire engines spouted water like blood from a cut artery. Metaphorical images of the Cockney body have circulated for many hundreds of years: “gob” was first recorded in 1550, “paws” in 1590, “mug” in 1708 and “kisser” in the mid-eighteenth century.

Harvey’s seventeenth-century hospital was beside the shambles of Smithfield, and that conjunction may suggest another image of the city. It is fleshy and voracious, grown fat upon its appetite for people and for food, for goods and for drink; it consumes and it excretes, maintained within a continual state of greed and desire.

For Daniel Defoe, London was a great body which “circulates all, exports all, and at last pays for all.” That is why it has commonly been portrayed in monstrous form, a swollen and dropsical giant which kills more than it breeds. Its head is too large, out of proportion to the other members; its face and hands have also grown monstrous, irregular and “out of all Shape.” It is a “spleen” or a great “wen.” A body racked with fever, and choked by ashes, it proceeds from plague to fire.

Whether we consider London as a young man refreshed and risen from sleep, therefore, or whether we lament its condition as a deformed giant, we must regard it as a human shape with its own laws of life and growth.

Here, then, is its biography.

Some will object that such a biography can form no part of a true history. I admit the fault and plead in my defence that I have subdued the style of my enquiry to the nature of the subject. London is a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh. It cannot be conceived in its entirety but can be experienced only as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares, in which even the most experienced citizen may lose the way; it is curious, too, that this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion.

The biography of London also defies chronology. Contemporary theorists have suggested that linear time is itself a figment of the human imagination, but London has already anticipated their conclusions. There are many different forms of time in the city, and it would be foolish of me to change its character for the sake of creating a conventional narrative. That is why this book moves quixotically through time, itself forming a labyrinth. If the history of London poverty is beside a history of London madness, then the connections may provide more significant information than any orthodox historiographical survey.

Chapters of history resemble John Bunyan’s little wicket-gates, while all around lie sloughs of despond and valleys of humiliation. So I will sometimes stray from the narrow path in search of those heights and depths of urban experience that know no history and are rarely susceptible to rational analysis. I understand a little, and I trust that it will prove enough. I am not a Virgil prepared to guide aspiring Dantes around a defined and circular kingdom. I am only one stumbling Londoner who wishes to lead others in the directions which I have pursued over a lifetime.

The readers of this book must wander and wonder. They may become lost upon the way; they may experience moments of uncertainty, and on occasions strange fantasies or theories may bewilder them. On certain streets various eccentric or vulnerable people will pause beside them, pleading for attention. There will be anomalies and contradictions—London is so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything—just as there will be irresolutions and ambiguities. But there will also be moments of revelation, when the city will be seen to harbour the secrets of the human world. Then it is wise to bow down before the immensity. So we set off in anticipation, with the milestone pointing ahead of us “To London.”

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