Guest article: Victor Keegan on the poetry of London (and a poem of his own)

by Victor Keegan

Victor Keegan is a former leader writer for the Guardian with great knowledge of technology and economics. He is also a poet and the writer of a blog called London My London. His first (and I hope not last) piece for On London introduces his fifth book of poems. It goes by the same name as his blog.

London is made of poems. Each generation leaves a repository of experiences that often give us a more realistic vision of what life was really like than transient newspapers ever could. Centuries later children still chant “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady”, a satire aimed at Queen Eleanor of Provence (1223–91), wife of Henry III. She was given the monopoly revenues from London Bridge but kept them for herself, allowing the bridge to deteriorate.

What would we know of the depths of debauchery of Charles II’s court without the poems of the Earl of Rochester or of the dangers and congestion of the streets of London, far worse than today, without John Gay’s epic poem Trivia? Wordsworth, a visitor to London, famously wrote from Westminster Bridge that, “Earth hath not anything to show more fair”, while at the same time William Blake, a true Londoner, writing on the Lambeth side of Westminster Bridge, vividly described what was really happening in the sordid underbelly of the capital. 

Whether contemporary poems about London will outlast the seemingly ephemeral tweets and text messages remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure – there is no shortage of subjects in London and poetry is the most flexible medium for writing about them. These days, there are no fixed rules. Poems can be one line or book length, artistic, descriptive or political; they don’t even need to scan properly and they can rhyme when it feels right or not at all. Anything goes.

Well, almost anything. Poems don’t drop from the heavens, they have to be looked out for. Any subject can be turned into a poem as long as you are minded to do so. In my new (fifth) book of poems, London My London, subjects range from the Necropolis Railway in Westminster Bridge Road, which ferried dead bodies to Woking (no joking), to the little known history of Trafalgar Square (Nelson wasn’t meant to be there). And, of course, London’s most ignored treasure, the River Thames which glides softly down from the Cotswolds only to be thrown backwards by the incoming tide. Why I suddenly decided to write about a Nun on a Train or what would happen if someone stole Carl Andre’s infamous bricks installation from Tate Modern, I have no idea. It’s a bit like asking people why they collect stamps. They just do.

The other thing about about writing poems about London is that it is such good exercise. During my meanderings around the backstreets I regularly stumble across potential poems, whether Graffiti Grove in a tunnel near Waterloo Station, Thomas Hardy’s amazing tree at St Pancras old church, or the way aggressive rural animals become tame in St James’s Park. I once walked – with a witness – from Trafalgar Square to Islington . . . er . . without crossing a road. That was later extended into a walk (which is in the book) from Trafalgar Square to Margate also without crossing a road. I wonder what that will look like in a hundred years time. They will probably have to look up the word “walk”.

NECROPOLIS RAILWAY (By Victor Keegan)

Necropolis Railway at Waterloo,

Conveyed dead people no matter who

From a station in London’s centre, no joking

To a fresh built city for the dead in Woking

No probs as long as you paid for a pass

Which could be first, second, or even third class

As in life, so in death, you must know your place

As well as being in a state of grace.

The most famous customer so history tells

Was Communist founder Frederick Engels

Whose principles should have – oh let it pass

What does it matter if he travelled first class

You don’t want dead bodies to lose any face

When you’re gone, class distinction leaves no trace.

On arrival at Brookwood, there’s a religious test

One station for Protestants and a second for the rest

(Remember – even when you bury your dead,

There’s a risk that a religious virus could spread)

So, let God give thanks to the railway of Necropolis

For helping him sort bodies before the Apocalypse. 

Victor Keegan’s London My London poem collection can be bought here and here. His London blog is here. He tweets as @LonStreetWalker and as himself. He took the Necropolis Railway photos too.

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