The former Guardian journalist, Vic Keegan, has developed an app that might transform your view of London
It was the poet UA Fanthorpe who wrote about London’s secret rivers; “The currents that chiselled the city,” was how she put it. “Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy / Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet.” Now a new iPhone app, City Poems, hopes to do much the same for the capital’s forgotten poetic heritage, or the lines, if you will, that flow beneath its streets.
City Poems is the brainchild/retirement project of Victor Keegan, who was a Guardian journalist for 47 years. Keegan, himself a published poet, long ago recognised the potential relationship between poetry and technology – for many years he ran this newspaper’s text-message poetry competition, and his own second collection of poems was published in Second Life. His latest project allows iPhone users to source poems inspired by locations in central London via satellite location; so you could in effect conduct your own poetic tour of the city, following the streets, buildings, statues, buried remains and taverns that inspired the verse.
Keegan began by trawling the databases of the London Library, coming up with over 150 classic poems now out of copyright. “It was a lot of hard work digging out the poems,” he says, “but they really changed my view of London.”
Indeed, the London revealed cast new light on familiar locations – a statue of General Napier in Trafalgar Square, which Keegan regularly passed, took on new meaning once he had read Napier’s poetry, sent back as dispatches from his posting in India. Or Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which inspired John Gay to compose a poem about the danger of its footpaths. Or a 17th-century poem about a pub crawl through the city in search of the perfect glass of claret, which spoke of a tavern near Snow Hill in Holborn providing the last watering hole of a prisoner on his way to be hanged at Tyburn.
“It does give you a feel of what life in London was like in those days,” Keegan says. “The red-light districts of Shoreditch and Drury Lane, polemics against pulling down Charing Cross, the hangings at Newgate, the public burnings in Smithfield at which, one poem reports, ‘his guts filled a barrel’. And of all the churches, people, parts of the city that we have long since forgotten.”