Rare visits to London always turn this Orcadian to jelly, even though I’m never on my way to be locked in the darkness of Newgate or to stand trial at the Old Bailey. Arriving for my last visit, as the plane flow over the city (I’m sure the pilot flew as agonisingly slowly as he could without dropping out of the sky, just to give me a prolonged view), I looked down on mile upon mile of confusion. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. How was I ever going to get across all that mass to where I was supposed to be? I was sure I’d just disappear - become absorbed by it all and never be seen again. I made it though, obviously, alive. I purchased Peter Ackroyd’s, “London the Biography to read in bed. Brilliant first chapter! The very words, right out of my mouth. Is Peter from an island too?
London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St Paul’s has been seen trembling upon a vague troubled sea of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London.
If you look from a distance (or down from a plane), you observe a sea of roofs (yes, I remember) and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean (exactly). But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its torrents and billows, its foam and spray.
Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture on its currents look for prosperity, even if they often founder in its depths.
That first afternoon I ventured out for a walk, not getting more than a few hundred yards. What a noise! In the evening I reached chapter five of Peter’s book, Loud and Everlasting.
London has always been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomness it is part of its unnaturalness, too, like the roaring of some monstrous creature. But it is also a token of its energy and of its power.
John Gow and the Orkney men would have been as astonished and perplexed by the noise as I was when they were marched from their ship to Marshalsea.
From its earliest foundation London rang with the hammers
of the artisans and the cries of tradesmen; it produced more
noise than any other part of the country, and in certain
quarters, like the noise of the smiths and the barrel-makers,
the clamour was insupportable.
On the streets outside were the bells, the wagons, the cries,
the barking dogs, the squeaking of shop signs blowing in the
In Hogarth’s engraving of 1741, The Enraged Musician,
a foreign visitor is assailed by the sound of a slow-gelder,
by howling cats, a girl’s rattle, a boy’s drum, a milk-maid’s cry,
a ballad-seller’s plaintive call, a knife-grinder, a carillon of bells,
a parrot, a wandering “haunt-boy” or oboe player and a
It is the prerogative of Londoners to make noise; therefore
noise is a natural and inevitable part of their existence in the
city. Without that right, for example, many of the vendors
and street sellers would perish.
Today it’s the TRAFFIC and SIRENS.
Explore Gow’s London