Thursday, 1 October 2009

Google Books / London ruined yet again

From Zikkir: A Writer’s Plea: Figure Out How to Preserve Google Books by Rita Isaac, a science writer at

But let’s not let the litigation obscure that Google Books provides an unprecedented and irreproducible service to its users.


The searchability, accessibility and breadth of the Google Books collection do not just portend some future best-ever digital library. It’s already the best resource for research that exists.

I’m not a traditional library- or book-hater. I’m a visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Office for the History of Science and Technology and have dozens of books checked out from the UC system. I smell the insides of old books for pleasure.

But traditional library digging is almost unbelievably inefficient when you’re used to the instant access provided not just by the internet, but the Internet Archive, JSTOR, arXiv and newspaper archives like Proquest and Chronicling America.

We take search relevance for granted ...but libraries are still organized around keywords and subject headings

I couldn't agree more. Despite my complaints about the sometimes major metadata faults and the current legal disputes over the Google Books agreement, the fully indexed texts provided by Google Books (and other online services) are the only way to perform a "deep search" for words and phrases that may be only incidental to the text's main subject.

Case in point: I've been in correspondence for some years with David Platt at Stanford University, passing on finds for his excellent Where London Stood project (updated 16th September), which explores the recurrent imagery of ruined cities in art and literature, with a focus on London. To collect and collate such references, typically scattered across obscure publications, would be many years' work without the window into historical texts provided by Google Books.

I've just found a few more examples via the search "ruins of London", revealing that Victorian writers also enjoyed this kind of search, with a particular preoccupation in finding precursors to Macaulay's "New Zealander":

"She [the Roman Catholic Church] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul's.2
- Thomas Babington Macaulay, Ranke's History of the Popes, Edinburgh Review, October 1840, reprinted in Essays, critical and miscellaneous (1858)

A book of sibyls - Mrs. Barbauld, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs. Opie, Miss Austen (Anne Thackeray Ritchie, 1883) mentions a poem by Mrs Barbauld in which visitors may come to a ruined to the ruined London:

Night, Gothic night, again may shade the plains
Where Power is seated, and where Science reigns ;
England, the seat of arts, be only known
By the grey ruin and the mouldering stone ;
That Time may tear the garland from her brow,
And Europe sit in dust, as Asia now.

Yet then the' ingenuous youth whom Fancy fires
With pictured glories of illustrious sires>
With duteous zeal their pilgrimage shall take
From the Blue Mountains, or Ontario's lake.
But who their mingled feelings shall pursue:
When London's faded glories rise to view ?
The mighty city, which by every road.
In floods of people poured itself abroad;
Pensive and thoughtful shall the wanderers greet
Each splendid square, and still, untrodden street;
Or of some crumbling turret, mined by time.
The broken stairs with perilous step shall climb.
Thence stretch their view the wide horizon round.
By scattered hamlets trace its ancient bound,
And, choked no more with fleets, fair Thames survey
Through reeds and sedge pursue his idle way.
- "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven", The works of Anna Lætitia Barbauld: With a memoir (1825)

In 1886, Francis Jacox wrote an essay on the subject, About the coming man from New Zealand (The New Monthly Magazine, Volume 138, 1886) mentioning other precursors, notably a letter from "Miss Eden" (the novelist Emily Eden) imagining a reversal of fortunes between England and India.

This is a great place for ruins, and was supposed to be the largest town in India in the olden time, and the most magnificent. There are some good ruins for sketching remaining, and that is all. An odd world certainly! Perhaps two thousand years hence, when the art of steam has been forgotten, and nobody can exactly make out the meaning of the old English word "mail-coach", some black Grovernor-General of England will be marching through its southern provinces, and will go and look at some ruins, and doubt whether London ever was a large town, and will feed some white-looking skeletons, and say what distress the poor creatures must be in; they will really eat rice and curry; and his sister will write to her Mary D. at New Delhi, and complain of the cold, and explain to her with great care what snow is, and how the natives wear bonnets, and then, of course, mention that she wants to go home.
- Emily Eden, 'Up the Country': Letters written to her sister from the Upper Provinces of India, Richard Bentley, 1867

Jacox also mentions previous drafts of Macaulay's image of ruination. He had come up with a rather similar idea a decade previously:

Is it possible that in two or three hundred years a few lean and half-naked fishermen may divide with owls and foxes the ruins of the ruins of the greatest European cities — may wash their nets amidst the relics of her gigantic docks, and build their huts out of the capitals of her stately cathedrals?
- TB Macaulay, Mill's Essay on Government, Edinburgh Review, March 1829, reprinted in Essays, critical and miscellaneous, 1856

The letters of Horace Walpole, Jacox mentions, contain a number of passages to similar effect, such as:

At last, some curious traveller from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul's
- Horace Walpole, letter to Sir Horace Mann, 24th November, 1774 (cited in Jacox)

Another from Jacox: Shelley in 1819:

Hoping that the immortality which you have given to the Fudges, you will receive from them; and in the firm expectation, that when London shall be an habitation of bitterns; when St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets and reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream, some transatlantic commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now unimagined system of criticism, the respective merits of the Bells and the Fudges, and their historians.
- Percy Byshe Shelley, prefatory dedication, Peter Bell the Third, written 1819, pub. 1839

Another nice find via Jacox is Excursions to the Ruins of London (Albert Smith, in The Comic Album: a Book for Every Table, 1844) in which spacefarers from the Martian port of Anteros visit the site of London. I ran into a couple of other sources that list similar passages. Predictions realized in modern times, collected by Horace Welby, John Timms, 1862, has a section "The New Zealander visiting the ruins of London" mentioning Constantin-François Volney's The ruins, or, A survey of the revolutions of empires and Henry Kirk White's poem Time. Oldest yet, perhaps, is Thomas Lyttelton's 1780 Poems, by a Young Nobleman, of Distinguished Abilities, lately deceased; Particularly the State of England, and The once flourishing City of London. In a Letter from an American Traveller, Dated from the Ruinous Portico of St. Paul’s, in the Year 2199, to a friend settled in Boston, the Metropolis of the Western Empire. Also Sundry fugitive Pieces, principally wrote whilst upon his Travels on the Continent. I can't find it online in full, but a deal of it is quoted in the London Review, Volume 11, 1780,

I could go on, but it eventually gets very samey and I'll stop before it gets too boring. Punch thought the same at the time, and on 7 January 1865 it issued a moratorium, via a Proclamation to consign to limbo "used up, exhausted, threadbare, stale and hackneyed" constructs, and Macaulay's New Zealander was number one:

The retirement of this veteran is indispensable. He can no longer be suffered to impede the traffic over London Bridge. Much wanted at the present time in his own country. May return when London is in ruins
- page 9, Punch, January 17, 1865

Still, the sheer number of examples show this to be an astonishingly enduring meme in mid-Victorian Britain, and it's strange to see, in mid-Empire, such an obsession with post-apocalyptic images of a future after its fall. The articles Contemplating the Ruins of London: Macaulay's New Zealander and Others and "Tourists at the Ruins of London" (Cercles 17, 2007) , both by David Skilton, explore possible reasons.

PS Further to discussion with Dr C in the comments, see for comparison John Ames Mitchell's 1889 The Last American (Gutenberg EText-No. 27307). "A Fragment from The Journal of KHAN-LI, Prince of Dimph-Yoo-Chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy" it takes a Persian visitor to the ruins of New York in 2951. One of the Gutenberg formats is an illustrated edition.
- Ray


  1. Two poems in the Skilton text are interesting in that one could substitute New York for London. It is hard to contemplate the demise of your own civilization. It may be even harder than contemplating your own demise.

  2. Two poems in the Skilton text are interesting in that one could substitute New York for London.

    Just so. I've occasionally wondered at what appears a Japanese obsession with the destruction of Tokyo, as in the Godzilla films, and thought it might be about some cultural subtext involving earthquakes ... but that doesn't wash elsewhere.

  3. PS - see the postscript to the blog post, which links to an equivalent account of a ruined New York.

  4. I too have often wondered about all this, and, as far as London goes, it began with the early rise of the city to preeminence. There seemed to be, for Renaissance dramatists, a point at which London achieved the stature to be able to compare itself to the cities both distant and past, and so, of course, to the ruin. Is ther contemporary Spenser's the Ruines of Time, where again the river is the setting for the reflection, sequel to The Ruines of Rome, one of the first such poems to consciously project itself into the future as setting? The relation of this topos to the river seems interesting, the vector of movement by which London can be connected to Rome. Right down to Morris the melancholic river plays its part.

  5. Having happily posted the last comment, I lay back on the sofa to re-read the Ruines of Time. The melancholic river setting is there, the cities linked, etc., but there's no explicit reference to a future ruined state of a present city - that was the projection, in fact, of my own memory (not inappropriate in a poem so rich in dream visions?). Thought I'd better get that straight before someone else does!