London brought to life through the eyes of famous writers

PUBLISHED: 14:22 17 March 2011

Author Robin Saikia on Parliament Hill London 07.03.11.

Author Robin Saikia on Parliament Hill London 07.03.11.

Polly Hancock

HAMPSTEAD travel writer Robin Saikia has taken a fresh approach to describing London’s rich literary heritage.

His Blue Guide Literary Companion London (Blue Guides, £7.95) includes extracts from diaries, novels, poems, letters and speeches to evoke life in the capital past and present.

The compact guide, complete with Saikia’s introductory essays, includes a description of Hampstead Heath in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the opium dens visited by Sherlock Holmes and Dorian Gray, and the Hampstead dinner party attended by John Keats, Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth that became known as the “immortal dinner”.

Saikia, whose usual job involves writing cultural and artistic guidebooks to countries and cities for the Blue Guide series, chose to lay out the book thematically rather than topographically under chapter headings such as addiction, war, crime and punishment, and fire and plague.

“I was faced with quite a challenge – it’s incredibly hard to be comprehensive – I decided to put the book together in terms of moods and concepts rather than places.

“More than half our readers are from the US and Europe and will be using the book for armchair reading before they come to London. Hopefully they will arrive with a sense of atmosphere, place and history and will want to visit some of the locations.”

One entry is an extract from Landlord by Hampstead author Peter Vansittart about a hot day in London. Another is from a 1987 speech by Prince Charles at The Guildhall on the disastrous 60s and 70s architecture and development that “wrecked the London skyline”. It is followed by DH Lawrence’s elegiac 1916 poem Parliament Hill In The Evening.

“I have kept one eye on questions of environment and urban decay,” says Saikia, who has lived near Parliament Hill for 15 years.

“Through atmospheric descriptions of London, you can see the extent to which the built environment has altered over the years. A poem like this paints a verbal picture of how beautiful London was and what we have done to it.”

The extract from Dracula is a “report” in the Westminster Gazette about local children on the Heath who see a beautiful lady.

“This dark and sinister figure who walks across the Heath is Lucy who as a vampire is abducting children.

“Like a great many literary figures, Stoker spent a lot of time visiting colleagues and friends in Hampstead and walking on the Heath. There’s division between writers about the location of the tomb of Lucy’s ancestors with some claiming Hampstead Churchyard and others Highgate Cemetery, but part of the fun is to explore both places.”

Although Saikia avoids quoting Hampstead’s most famous poet John Keats, he includes Hardy’s 1920 poem At A House In Hampstead, which imagines the poet leaving his grave in Rome to haunt the beautiful surroundings where he wrote Ode To A Nightingale.

And there’s a passage from the autobiography of Benjamin Robert Haydon describing the gathering on December 28, 1817 when he, Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb had supper.

He writes: “Wordsworth’s fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats’ eager, inspired look, Lamb’s quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation that in my life I never passed a more delightful time…it was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age.”

For the epilogue, Saikia has chosen James Elroy Flecker’s 1910 poem The Ballad Of Camden Town, in which the writer mourns a lost love and their walks on the Heath and Primrose Hill.

“It’s about remembering a time when he didn’t have much money but had fun, and about recapturing a lost love. Camden Town is the ultimate microcosm of urban life and to my mind the poem sums up all that is good and bad about life in a city – love-making, romance in the face of penury, bright lights and escaping the urban smog to find rural beauty in the Heath, but also loneliness, desperation and ill health. It is shot through with the optimism and stoicism that many city dwellers will recognise.”

He adds: “Although places have changed immeasurably, what’s striking about these extracts is how little people have changed. They fall in love, struggle to make money and forge ahead in the competitive, lonely environment of the city.”

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