Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The Pepysian paradox

  • 21 April 2006

London is a driven city. The energy of the Thames’s tidal flow between the Temple and the Tower is metaphor: the same energy is on display every day in the thousands who turn up for work, freshly disgorged from rail stations and tubes, to pursue the main chance. Proud ambition drives London: in few other places would so many young men—boys commuting from their outer-suburban bedsits to earn a pittance flogging mobile phones or computers—wear such stentorian pinstripes and luminous shirts and strut, peacock-like, through the town, their gait out of kilter with their wealth and influence.

Perhaps there are more dynamic economies in the world; perhaps there are more creative and hard-working people and places, but give London its due: it is the home of brass. There is a confidence in the commerce of the city that has rarely been diminished since the great mercantile days of centuries past. Like the similarly Protestant and pragmatic Dutch, it would seem English traders took the religious contention over usury—the scourge of money-lending—and ran with the opportunities it presented, while Catholic France and Spain looked on in pious hesitation. The results still refract along the Thames.

Such qualities can be glimpsed by any visitor today, or they can be read in dramatic renderings by English writers; perhaps most conspicuously in Dickens, although there are modern equivalents. But it is rarer to find the demiurges of London’s city life documenting their own days. Perhaps this is one part of the explanation for the evergreen popularity of Samuel Pepys’s diaries. Evidently, the patron saint of London is Erconwald, the city’s seventh-century Saxon bishop. It might cause a stir in the Holy See, but an argument could be made for appointing Samuel Pepys to this position. For beyond all others, he renders for us the practicality, ambition, vanity, gaiety, wit, sure-footedness and strength of a Londoner in excelsis. And for those who make the choice to leaf through his many-volumed diaries, he has more qualities than this again, as a man moving across and through the lines of a fascinating society. That he could move from the mundane and bawdy to the thoughtful and intellectual and back again, every day, is a testament first to the man, but also to his time and his city.

Diaries can be a clearing house for thoughts and ambitions untried in real life; a solace to those feeling put