The “City Metric”: a brief history of London in poetry

London from Greenwich Hill, Henry Dawson, c1870. Image: public domain.

Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist. The flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. A blackbird on a budding sycamore.  

To speak of poetry depicting Britain is often to speak of the green and pleasant parts of the land. The urban is often cast as dark Satanic mills and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells ,whilst the rural places are celebrated—a host of scenic views, of golden daffodils.

But there’s inspiration and beauty to be found in the more civic depictions, those poems which can make us envisage cities in new light and even uncover the histories of a place.

William Wordsworth was atop a coach at 6am one summer morning when he wrote (and later mis-dated) Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802;

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Can you imagine London so silent? Can you imagine the view from Westminster Bridge without the imposing modern buildings, without even the Houses of Parliament? It’s a poem from another world, a window into a city almost disappeared.

A View of Westminster Bridge and the Abbey from the South Side, William Anderson, 1818. Image: public domain.

Darker in its subject, though equally vivid in its imagery, is D.H. Lawrence’s 1916 two-part poem Embankment at Night, before the War. The uncomfortable juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, and the bleak circumstance of the poor as they huddle just beyond the golden lustre of Theatreland’s bright lights, is one that requires, sadly, less imagination today than a silent city.

There’s charity, though, in William Bowle’s 1876 poem, Greenwich Hospital;

Come to these peaceful seats, and think no more

Of cold, of midnight watchings, or the roar

Of Ocean tossing on his restless bed!

Come to these peaceful seats, ye who have bled

For honour, who have traversed the great flood,

Or on the battles front with stern eye stood,

When rolled its thunder, and the billows red

Oft closed, with sudden flashings, oer the dead.

O, heavy are the sorrows that beset

Old age! and hard it is,—hard to forget

The sunshine of our youth, our manhoods pride!

But here, O aged men! ye may abide

Secure, and see the last light on the wave

Of Time, which wafts you silent to your grave;

Like the calm evening ray, that smiles serene

Upon the tranquil Thames, and cheers the sinking scene.

Greenwich Hospital is today the University of Greenwich, its colonnades lined with students, rather than the retired sailors who received hospitality there for over 150 years. To think of such impressive buildings being built expressly for such a purpose is inspirational, even without the poem.

The Colonnade of Queen Mary's House, Greenwich, James Holland, 1833. Image: public domain.

Although many locales have changed over the years, it’s not always immediately obvious from the poem featuring them; we need to do our homework to understand them fully.

You might think of Vauxhall Bridge, or Vauxhall train station, as you read To A Lady Seen For A Few Moments At Vauxhall (1818) by John Keats – but the place it refers to is Vauxhall Gardens. Now a small park, it was then an extravagant pleasure garden that drew enormous crowds throughout its 200-year existence. Perhaps Keats saw the lady on a tree-lined promenade, perhaps at a raucous dance, perhaps whilst watching tightrope walkers; we can’t know the details, but it made such an impression that he was still writing about her four years later.

Vauxhall Gardens, showing the Grand Walk at the Entrance of the Garden and the Orchestra with the Music Playing, John S. Muller, after 1751. Image: public domain.

Poetic Places – a free app, made in collaboration between the British Library and TIME/IMAGE – aims to highlight these stories and moments and bring them out into today’s world. By notifying users when they physically stumble upon a place depicted in a poem, and by bringing together verse and visual art, the creators hope to give a renewed sense of place, to bring literature into everyday life in unexpected moments, to inspire new art.

The app in action. Image: Poetic Places.

These evocative urban poems explore the diversity, history, and complicated beauty of a city. The words take on new life and peculiar substance in the places we know, settling in our minds like memories of dreams.

Cities still inspire, and poets will continue to tell stories of the places and the people that make them in ways that no-one else can.

Sarah Cole is creative entrepreneur-in-residence at the British Library, and Creative Geek at TIME/IMAGE.

Poetic Places is free for iOS and Android devices.

And you can meet Sarah Cole and have a Poetic Places demo at the Creativeworks London Festival on Friday 29 April at Kings College. Get your free ticket for her session here.

Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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