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London: A History in Verse
London: A History in Verse

Belknap Press, 2012
784 pp., $35.00

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Brett Foster


All Eyes on London

The city in its many guises.

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As I write this, the torchbearer for the 2012 Olympics has just descended from helicopter to the Tower of London, marking a symbolic presence and official commencement to the upcoming four weeks of competition. The torch's journey began on May 17 in a ceremony in Athens' Panathenaic Stadium, when it was lit and given to an English delegation including Princess Anne, mercurial London mayor Boris Johnson, David Beckham, and Lord Sebastian Coe, former Olympian and current chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games. The torch arrived the next day in the UK, at Cornwall, and since then has been making its way to London. Now it's there.

The much more globally noticed commencement, the Opening Ceremony, is still a few days away, and rumors about its production offer cinephiles and the literary-minded among us reasons to tune in. Director Danny Boyle is overseeing the three-hour show, and apparently it will have a Shakespearean theme, with a special focus on The Tempest. (Lord Coe's first name was inspired by a character in the play—a rather nasty one, curiously.) Sports Illustrated recently reported that Boyle is incorporating a cricket team, ten ducks, twelve horses, seventy sheep, a parade of nurses, an underworld [!], synthetic clouds, and two mosh pits. It sounds like a wild mix—Cool Britannia meets All Things Bright and Beautiful. "London Live" events in Trafalgar Square, Victoria Park, and Hyde Park will broadcast the ceremony on giant screens, and feature free entertainment as well. Let's hope that the Hyde Park performers, including Snow Patrol and Duran Duran, have a better go of it there than did Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney two weeks ago. McCartney joined Springsteen and his band for two encores, "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout," but the musicians had ignored a 10:30 performance curfew, and so their microphones were abruptly turned off. It'll be interesting to see how residents of the exclusive neighborhoods adjoining Hyde Park react to the middle-aged members of Duran Duran singing that '80s hit, "Girls on Film."

The Olympics is only the latest Big Event in what is turning out to be a veritable Summer of London. It began with local-team Chelsea's first European Cup crown, clinched when Didier Drogba sent an overtime penalty kick inside the left post. In a magical tournament run, the club defeated heavily favored Barcelona, and then beat the German Bayern team in their home stadium. (Chelsea also had four starters suspended, but no matter.) Fast on the heels of this triumph came the Queen's sixty-year Jubilee, culminating in four days of celebration that included a royal flotilla on the Thames and a carriage procession through the city—and, of course, the obligatory concert featuring sirs Paul McCartney and Elton John. I was in London a few days before the Jubilee, and it was lovely to see the city defying the current era of austerity and decking itself out, with Union Jack banners guiding the high-end shopping crowds high above and all along Regent Street. (Using the "A-word" reminds me that the last Olympic summer games in London, in 1948, became known as the Austerity Games because of the scarcities and piles of rubble athletes encountered in the postwar city.) And then, shortly after the Jubilee, there was the thrilling men's finals tennis match at Wimbledon, between Roger Federer and native son Andy Murray (with Federer eventually winning his seventh title).

London has also been daily in the news for unwelcomed reasons, as its premier financial institutions have become increasingly entangled in the sort of scandals, jaw-dropping in scale, that have jolted Wall Street. Barclays' rigging of the Libor, or London interbank offered rate, has left London banking élites wringing their hands. This summer's fiscal misbehaviors have seemed ungentlemanly and, worst of all, indiscreet, all of which is to say, too American, while here in the States, perhaps there is some cold comfort in realizing that English banks are as unscrupulous and felonious as our own. The related economic downturn has likewise led to shudders of social support and cohesion in London, shocking a citizenry far less accustomed to politicians declaring that "government is the problem." Several British authors, including the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith, have objected in print and on foot to the closing of borough libraries and bookshops on subsidized Council properties. The Willesden Green Library is set to be razed, along with the adjoining Willesden Bookshop, where Smith didn't know she should read the books of David Mitchell until the proprietor there told her so. (Luxury flats will replace these local hangouts.) The Kilburn Bookshop has already closed, and on one May morning in Kensal Rise, authorities arrived in council trucks, entered its neighborhood library, and carried away the books. Philip Pullman and Alan Bennett have also protested the closing of this library, which Mark Twain (yes, that one!) opened in 1900.

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