“Writing the history of vast city like London is like writing a history of the ocean,” said Walter Thornbury in the introduction to the monumental Old and New London (1873–78), to which he contributed the first two volumes. “The area is so vast, its inhabitants are so multifarious, the treasures that lie in its depths so countless.” Writing at around the same time as Thornbury, the Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis, in his Memories of London (1873), described the capital of the British Empire in similar terms as “a mare magnum, a veritable Babylon, a chaos… a vast ocean”.
Indeed, not just for visitors or tourists, but for Londoners themselves, getting to grips with the mere scale of this metropolis stretching over six hundred square miles is a perplexing task, not dissimilar to sailing through a wide expanse of turbulent waters.
What struck me most when I first visited London, and what still amazes me having lived there for the last eighteen years, is the Protean nature of the place. Everything keeps changing in London: the skyline, the streets, the spaces, the buildings and their occupants. My first purchase on arriving at Victoria Station in the summer of 1991, Nicholson’s Student’s London Streetfinder, is literally “last-century” now, and just as outdated as the Tube map on its back, which features many stunted lines and no DLR.
But what’s even more bewildering for me is the pace at which things change in London. Coming from a country where nothing changes much, ever, I find it difficult to readjust in a city governed by the laws of constant transformation and permutation. In my native Rome, if there is to be a change, it is usually by accretion, not by destruction and reconstruction. Modern Rome was built from the ruins of ancient monuments, and many of its Renaissance and Neoclassical buildings and churches incorporate bits of the past – a Corinthian capital, the fragment of a frieze, a broken gravestone carved with Latin inscriptions. Most of the Italian town centres have remained virtually intact and unchanged since medieval times.
Not so in London, where the few extant traces of medieval and Tudor times are to be found in the occasional surviving church or castle keep. What the Blitz spared of Georgian and Victorian London was knocked down unmercifully to build new housing, and the “buildings of merit” still standing today – about half a million in the whole of Britain, or two per cent of the total – were only saved thanks to heritage-protection measures introduced over the past few decades.
If you wanted to follow Giordano Bruno’s nocturnal meanderings through central London as he describes them in The Ash Wednesday Supper (1584), you would need a great deal of imagination: any present or past map of the city would hardly be of any help. The French Ambassador’s house in Salisbury Court (off Fleet Street), where Bruno lodged during his two-year stay in London, was destroyed by fire or demolished. Lord Buckhurst’s Palace, from where he and his friends hired a boat over the River Thames that landed them in mire, was knocked down and built over more than once. The Charing Cross monument he walked past that night is no longer there, and even Whitehall, his final destination – the main residence of the English monarchs and possibly the largest palace in the world at the time – has long since disappeared: all these places and their rich history have gone, surviving at best in the name of a street or an area of the modern city. Conversely, if you want to follow Bruno’s journey to his place of execution in Rome in the early hours of 17th February 1600 – from the Tor di Nona jail across Ponte Sant’Angelo, down Via Florea to Piazza di Campo de’ Fiori – you would still be able, today, to lay your eyes on most of the buildings, spaces and skylines he saw on the day he was burnt at the stake.
The Great Fire and the ravages of the Second World War were certainly responsible for much destruction in London, but I believe there are more unromantic, more pragmatic and commercial reasons prompting Londoners incessantly to redesign and reshape their city. The house in Hans Place, Knightsbridge, where Jane Austen stayed with her brother Henry in 1814–15 was pulled down, and the site was redeveloped at the turn of the twentieth century by Cadogan Estates to make way for the plush red-brick mansions we see today. 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, the birthplace and childhood home to Virginia Woolf, was turned, in recent times, into six individual flats. The site of the house in Plough Court (off Lombard Street, in the City of London) where Alexander Pope was born in 1688 is now remembered by a blue plaque surrounded by steep marble-and-glass constructions. The fact that Pope was, at one time, one of the most celebrated authors in the whole world and that he is still regarded as a major poet didn’t save his Twickenham villa with its famed grotto from being bastilled. Demolished in 1808, the villa was replaced by a new house, which was in turn pulled down and rebuilt in 1845. The property now standing where the old villa was is Radnor House School. Its headmaster is also in charge of the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust, and what remains of the derelict grotto – which extends under the main road outside the school and some of its buildings – can be visited on the day of the Twickenham Festival in September or by special arrangement.
So what is my London? It’s any relic of the past that unexpectedly emerges unspoilt from the surf of time and history.
It’s the carved-wood-panelled rooms of Canonbury Tower, now hosting a Masonic research centre.
It’s the burial place of the poet Ugo Foscolo in Chiswick’s Old Cemetery. His ashes were moved to Santa Croce in Florence over a century ago; the great cypress tree that used to form a romantic arc over his tomb has been cut down since my last visit ten years ago, probably on health-and-safety grounds; the old Church of St Nicholas is still there, nearby, and so is the tomb of William Hogarth, but the picturesque surroundings and the idyllic riverside setting have been destroyed by a sprawl of modern gated developments – still, the monument hasn’t lost any of its charm and can still bring tears to the eyes of the rare visitors who come to pay their tribute to the great Italian bard.
It’s the house in Richmond where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived for ten years from March 1915 and where they set up the Hogarth Press in 1917 – soon to be redeveloped into two luxury homes.
Nothing stays, all changes, everything is “writ in water” here, on the choppy surface of this vast ocean. The past belongs to the present generations, who can do and will do what they want with it. It’s the brutal rule of this city: you must catch the present and enjoy it before it disappears. London is a city for the living, not for the dead.