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After roughly seventeen hours of travel, I have finally arrived in London. The title of this post, which belongs to the sixteenth century poem “To the City of London” often ascribed to the Scottish makar William Dunbar (b. 1460), describes my experience well so far (though I think Vancouver, like many other wonderful urban centres around the world, presents an admirable rival for being “Soveraign of cities”). Indeed, London has proven to be a most welcoming and inviting city; I have chatted with quite a few folks on the streets, shared a glass of wine and good conversation with my new flatmates, and had a few people not only help me find my way around labyrinthine Paddington station, but also carry my heavy luggage bag up an entire flight of stairs. The immigration officer, an older gentleman, didn’t even ask me any questions at the border. Upon hearing I was a PhD student, the officer immediately perked up and revealed he had also once been a PhD Candidate (and then proceeded to reminisce about his long-abandoned PhD dissertation on a modernist Swiss writer).

I also successfully registered for my Reader’s Pass today at the British Library (henceforth, BL). For PhD students traveling to the BL, I recommend bringing a ‘letter of introduction’ from your supervisor in order to receive a three-year pass. Incidentally, a ‘letter of introduction’ is also required in order to access many early manuscripts and incunabula (this bit of fine print does not appear on the Reader registration website pages). I’d also recommend acquiring an Oyster card, which provides discounted transport on all buses and rails throughout the city.

Similar to other European cities, the London cityscape is beautifully dotted with architecture from bygone centuries. The photo above captures one such view of London from my bedroom window. Directly in front, the Victorian smokestack building betrays a modern, eclectic dance studio and theatre, The Place. The empty large-paneled Victorian windows peeking out at the bottom-right transform into iconic mercantile shopfronts in the clever British sitcom Black Books.1 I wonder about what shops may have existed there in days past (e.g. perhaps a pie or toy shop?) I read somewhere that the Georgian-style building located to the right of the photo was once a schoolhouse, but I’d have to research further to confirm (unless someone would like to chime in!). Historically, this area—named Bloomsbury in the London Borough of Camden—sits between Euston Road and Holborn and was first developed in 1201 when William de Blemond, a Norman landowner, acquired the land (hence the name ‘Bloomsbury’). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Russell Family expanded Bloomsbury into a residential area. I am currently staying directly across from the British Library on the northern end of Bloomsbury.

All in all, the cityscape seems to illuminate a motley of stories,  whether an idyllic, pastoral urbanism (which, for early modern writers, is not an oxymoron):2

Gemme of all joy, jasper of jocunditie,
    Most myghty carbuncle of vertue and valour;
  Strong Troy in vigour and in strenuytie;
    Of royall cities rose and geraflour;
    Empresse of town{.e}s, exalt in honour;
  In beawtie beryng the crone imperiall;
    Swete paradise precelling in pleasure:
  London, thow art the floure of Cities all  (“To the City of London,” 17-24).

Strong be thy wallis that about the standis;
    Wise be the people that within the dwellis;
  Fresh is thy ryver with his lusty strandis;
    Blith be thy chirches, wele sownyng be thy bellis;
    Riche be thy merchauntis in substaunce that excellis;
  Fair be thy wives, right lovesom, white and small;
    Clere be thy virgyns, lusty under kellis:
  London, thow art the flour of Cities all (ibid., 41-48).

or a plague-ridden cesspool of death, as in Thomas Dekker’s description of the 1603 plague in The Wonderfull Yeare (c. 1603):

In this pittifull (or rather pittilesse) perplexitie stood London, forsaken like a Louer, forlorne like a widow, and disarmde of all comfort: disarmde I may well say, for fiue Rapiers were not stirring all this time, and those that were worne, had neuer bin seene, if any money could haue bene lent vpon them, so hungry is the Estridge disease, that it will deuoure euen Iron: let vs therefore with bag& baggage march away from this dangerous sore Citie, and visit those that are fled into the Country. But alas! Decidis in Scyllam, you are pepperd if you visit them, for they are visited alreadie: the broad Arrow of Death, flies there vp & downe, as swiftly as it doth here: they that rode on the lustiest geldings, could not out-gallop the Plague, It ouer-tooke them, and ouer turnd them too, horse and foote.

I find great satisfaction in such a juxtaposition: that the landscape (and its events therein) continues to shape cultural memory. For this trip, I hope to make do without the ‘plague’ (or cold, or strep throat, or other illness)!

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  1. The series is set in the eponymous London bookshop Black Books and follows the lives of its owner Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), his assistant Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey) and their friend Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig). I highly recommend watching the series, which is available on Netflix. Spaced is also a similar British sitcom, but features other prominent areas around London. []
  2. See, for instance, Drayton’s portrayals of London and other towns in his lengthy chorographical poem Poly-Olbion. []