[W]hen it is asked how London can be a triumphant city when it has so many poor, and so many homeless, it can only be suggested that they, too, have always been a part of its history. Perhaps they are a part of its triumph. If this is a hard saying, then it is only as hard as London itself. London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London. (pp. 778-779)
Category Archives: Peter Ackroyd
Boswell and ‘sexual favours’
Boswell’s diary of street life in 1762 provides an account of sexual favours currently on offer. On the evening of Thursday 25 November, he picked up a girl in the Strand, and ‘went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour [i.e. wearing a condom]. But she had none… she wondered at my size, and said if ever I took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.’ On the night of 31 March, in the following year, ‘I strolled into the Park and took the first whore I met, whom I without many words copulated with free from danger, being safely sheathed. She was ugly and lean and her breath smelled of spirits. I never asked her name. When it was done, she slunk off.’ On 13 April, ‘I took a little girl into a court; but wanted vigour’. Boswell, often a moralist after the event, does not regard the fact that it was a ‘little girl’ as of any significance; this suggests that there were many such thrown upon the streets of London. (pp. 374-375)
Is Ackroyd’s reading of ‘little girl’ too literal or anachronistic? Could there be other interpretations?
|From Hogarth’s “Morning” (the first in the Four Times of the Day series, 1736)|
What is London’s colour?
Red is London’s colour. The cabs of the early nineteenth century were red. The pillar boxes are red. The telephone boxes were, until recently, red. The buses are characteristically still red. The Underground trains were once generally of that colour. The tiles of Roman London were red. The original wall of London was built from red sandstone. London Bridge itself was reputed to be imbued with red, ‘bespattered with the blood of little children’ as part of the ancient rituals of building. Red is also the colour of violence.
The great capitalists of London, the guild of the mercers, wore red livery. The Chronicles of London for 1399 describe ‘the Mair, Recourdour, and Alderman off London in oon suyt, also in Skarlett’, while a poem commemorating Henry VI’s triumphal entry into London, in 1432, depicts ‘The noble Meir cladde in Reede velvette’. The pensioners of the Chelsea Hospital still wear red uniform.
Red was the colour used to mark street improvements on the maps of London, and to indicate the areas of the ‘well-to-do’ or wealthy. ‘Red’ was also the Cockney slang for gold itself. The London river-workers, who supported the mobs that poured through the streets in the spring of 1768, invented the red flag as a token of radical discontent.
Novelists have also identified the colour of red with the nature of the city. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton’s vision of a future London, a protagonist asks: ‘I was wondering weather any of you had any red about you’ and then stabs his left palm so that ‘The blood fell with so full a stream that it struck the stones without dripping’. This is a prelude to the success of ‘the red Notting Hillers’ in that novel.
Red crosses were placed upon the doors of households shut up with the plague, thus confirming the symbolic association of the colour with that London disease which was once considered ‘always smouldering’ like covered embers. The fire-fighters of London wore red jackets or ‘Crimson Livery Cloth’. Their commander, dying in a great fire in 1861, performed one telling act — ‘pausing only for a moment to unwind the red silk Paisley kerchief from his neck’. The colour is everywhere, even in the ground of the city itself: the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations which took place almost two thousand years ago. (pp. 217-218)