So the results are in – Boris is once again Mayor of London (well they’ve been in a while now, but like the London Underground system during the Olympic Games I’m afraid I’m running a little late). And, in best Rhyming Couplets tradition I’m not going to talk about his politics…I’m going to talk about his hair (arhh how I fly to the trivial, like an surface-to-air missile freshly place a-top a block of East London residential flats , after zero consultation of the residents, in order to “ensure” security during those said Olympic Games)!
Whatsmore, in linking him to William Dunbar’s famous poem of praise to London and its Mayor (“Maires”), In Honour ofthe City of London, please believe me that I’m in no way saying that Boris is, “Above all Maires as maister most worthy” or that “With sword of Justice [he] ruleth prudently”! No, it’s more like his shiny platinum blonde barnet (arhh, Barnet NW) could well serve as a “loode-ster, and guye” – that is a landmark beacon in the sky! (Oh I do love that there’s a biography of Boris called Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition…although any vision it conjures of him grinding around to “Material Girl” is surely more surreally bendy than any of London’s short-lived bendy buses).
So, let me reassert my disclaimer that is all really just an excuse to talk about poems, and although written in the 1500s, the Scottish makar, William Dunbar’s poem of praise (or panegyric) still shines today – he could be describing his own poem when he describes London as “jasper of jocunditie” because the poem seems to whip itself up into such a state of joyous, jocund rapture. (I love that line, “Most myghty carbuncle of vertue and valour”).
Written at this time, the poem contains many antiquated spellings of words (I’m afraid I don’t know if they are English or Scottish spellings)– so, at the risk of being insultingly patronising, when Dunbar talks of “flour” this is a way of spelling “flower” rather than anything to do with bread making. Once you get your eye in the spellings can even be a source of pleasure, though I appreciate they can be a barrier too.
The one thing that pains me about the poem is how much it raises the contrast between romantic ideas of London and some aspects of it’s reality now. I really love my home city, but now that London primarily produces financial services it can hardly be said of it’s “merchants”, “Rich be thy merchauntis in substaunce that excellis” – although its bankers are without doubt rich. As Marina Hyde recently wrote in The Guardian the sad truth is that London is in some senses one of “the most grotesque city in the world” (though it has to be said I’m still luckier to be living here than oh Basra or Homs!). It remains to be seen how much Boris does to change any of that grotesqueness.
In Honour of the City of London London, thou art of townes a per se. Soveraign of cities, seemliest in sight, Of high renoun, riches and royaltie; Of lordis, barons, and many a goodly knyght; Of most delectable lusty ladies bright; Of famous prelatis, in habitis clericall; Of merchauntis full of substaunce and of myght: London, thou art the flour of Cities all. Gladdith anon, thou lusty Troynovaunt, Citie that some tyme cleped was New Troy; In all the erth, imperiall as thou stant, Pryncesse of townes, of pleasure and of joy, A richer restith under no Christen roy; For manly power, with craftis naturall, Fourmeth none fairer sith the flode of Noy: London, thou art the flour of Cities all. Gemme of all joy, jasper of jocunditie, Most myghty carbuncle of vertue and valour; Strong Troy in vigour and in strenuytie; Of royall cities rose and geraflour; Empress of townes, exalt in honour; In beawtie beryng the crone imperiall; Swete paradise precelling in pleasure; London, thou art the flour of Cities all. Above all ryvers thy Ryver hath renowne, Whose beryall stremys, pleasaunt and preclare, Under thy lusty wallys renneth down, Where many a swan doth swymme with wyngis fair; Where many a barge doth saile and row with are; Where many a ship doth rest with top-royall. O, towne of townes! patrone and not compare, London, thou art the flour of Cities all. Upon thy lusty Brigge of pylers white Been merchauntis full royall to behold; Upon thy stretis goeth many a semely knyght In velvet gownes and in cheynes of gold. By Julyus Cesar thy Tour founded of old May be the hous of Mars victoryall, Whose artillary with tonge may not be told: London, thou art the flour of Cities all. Strong be thy wallis that about thee standis; Wise be the people that within thee dwellis; Fresh is thy ryver with his lusty strandis; Blith be thy chirches, wele sownyng be thy bellis; Rich be thy merchauntis in substaunce that excellis; Fair be their wives, right lovesom, white and small; Clere be thy virgyns, lusty under kellis: London, thou art the flour of Cities all. Thy famous Maire, by pryncely governaunce, With sword of Justice thee ruleth prudently. No Lord of Parys, Venyce, or Floraunce In dignitye or honour goeth to hym nigh. He is exampler, loode-ster, and guye; Principall patrone and rose orygynalle, Above all Maires as maister most worthy: London, thou art the flour of Cities all. WILLIAM DUNBAR