Why James Boswell’s London still seems familiar

No one has captured the capital’s allure better than a Scot, 250 years ago
Capital characters: James Boswell (right) on Fleet Street with Samuel Johnson

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Samuel Johnson is widely considered the singular London figure. Massive and melancholic, the writer was at the belly of literary life in the 18th century. He coined the capital’s unofficial motto for those with the temerity to tire of London. But for me it is his biographer, James Boswell, who best encapsulates the enduring attraction of this furious city.

Boswell was 19 when he left a starchy life on his ancestral estate to visit London for the first time in 1760. He was besotted and returned for a longer stint two years later. His London Journal of 1762-63 — which Johnson suggested Boswell have burnt after the Scotsman’s death — is a raw tale of being swept up in love for a city. Having planned to join the army, Boswell soon found his calling as a reporter. London was his first and best beat. The London Journal fizzes with wide-eyed, drop-jawed enthusiasm. As the American writer Christopher Morley put it: “Maybe there was never anyone so young as Boswell was in the spring of 1763.”

Like many an ambitious Scot who crossed the border to scribble in London, I love Boswell for the way he tried to crack the English establishment. (“Indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it,” he told Johnson at an early meeting.) I understand his struggle between the patriotic pull of home and the push of the city that allows us to “be to some degree whatever character we choose”.

It would, however, be a shame to see Boswell as either Johnson’s stooge or merely a Scot on the make. He is a figure of the Enlightenment: his appeal should be universal. He is also the ultimate antidote to a trendy miserabilist genre.

This year there has been a spate of essays written by soon-to-be emigrants from the capital about why they are leaving it. There is a proud pedigree of urban elegies, most notably Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That” about New York City. Unlike Didion’s, which is an essay about the city disguised as biography, the contemporary tracts tell us more about the writers than the city. All that I learn about London from these accounts is that journalists can buy houses more cheaply elsewhere.

One would think that the population was shrinking. In fact, since the early 1980s, the city has grown at a clip: this year its population reached a record high of 8.6m. Its super-diversity makes many outcasts feel at home. Hundreds of thousands of young Europeans are choosing London over the moribund economies of Rome, Paris, Lisbon and Madrid. Millions more would follow them if they could. Few seem to think the city has lost its “edge”. Perhaps even fewer care.

I suspect they would see a likeness in what Boswell found on his arrival: “The noise, the crowd, the glare of the shops agreeably confused me.” He ate at a steak house. He saw some cockfighting. He met with wits and scribes. On London Bridge, he “sauntered in a pleasing humour”. This is the visceral feeling of being embroiled in the city. Or what Johnson meant when he wrote that “the happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it.”

Boswell’s motives for coming to London are our motives, too. He wanted excitement and new experiences. He wanted to test himself against the best in his field from around the world. He wanted a shot at the big time. He wanted money, renown and romance.

There is no doubt that London can be brutal, though probably not for those who have the time to write “thinkpieces” on its ostensible demise. But the complaints are hardly new. William Hogarth, Boswell’s near contemporary, painted and satirised a city in supposed moral decline. A century later, Fyodor Dostoyevsky visited and declared it “catastrophic”. Somehow London has survived.

On my first day in London, also aged 19, I stepped off the train at King’s Cross station and walked to Carnaby Street in a whirl of astonishment. I dropped my bag at a youth hostel and went to a bar, which turned out to be a heavy metal joint. The rockers took me in. Soon there were different bars and new friends. The next morning, having woken in a daze and not at the youth hostel, I got on a heaving Tube from somewhere in Zone 4, which might as well have been beyond the asteroid belt. Alighting at Oxford Circus, one of the few station names I recognised, I stumbled back to the hostel via a hearty breakfast with some builders.

I picked up my bag and went to the National Portrait Gallery. I can’t remember if I caught the knowing portrait of Boswell but, later, heading back to the train to return north I pledged to return as soon as possible.

I have been “agreeably confused” ever since.

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