July 27th is a largely forgotten anniversary but on that date we are invited to remember an insignificant flower and the city that it has come to symbolise.
There’s a little city flower every spring unfailing Growing in the crevices by some London railing, Though it has a Latin name, in town and countryside We in England call it London Pride.
In the late spring of 1941, at the height of the wartime Blitz, Noel Coward was sitting on the platform of a bombed out London railway station watching people as they went to work. Despite the damage all around them, the fires, the smell of smoke and exposed sewers, despite the fact that many of them had spent sleepless nights in cramped air raid shelters, despite their exhaustion and their anxiety the people of London were picking their way through the rubble as if nothing had happened. London may have been down but it certainly wasn’t out and ordinary Londoners were proving it by ‘keeping calm and carrying on’.
On that grim springtime morning, confronted by this quiet scene of dignified courage Noel Coward was, in his own words, “overwhelmed by a wave of sentimental pride”. Out of this grew one of the most popular songs of the wartime years.
‘London Pride’ compares the courage and resilience of those wartime Londoners to the perennial garden flower Saxifraga x urbium. Although it is also known as ‘St Patrick’s Cabbage’, ‘Whimsey’, ‘Prattling Parnell’ and ‘Look Up And Kiss Me’, to most Londoners who would have seen it growing out of cracked pavements and in deserted back alleys it was simply “London Pride”. Gently invasive, it favoured dry, neglected urban areas with poor soil. The bombsites of London were to be a perfect environment for this hardy flower. No matter what might be thrown at it, nothing could stop its cheerful survival. In the spring of 1941, as Noel Coward sat on the platform of that bomb damaged railway station, London’s bombsites would have been carpeted by their small, pale rosetted flowers.
London Pride has been handed down to us. London Pride is a flower that’s free. London Pride means our own dear town to us, And our pride it for ever will be. Grey city Stubbornly implanted, Taken so for granted For a thousand years. Stay, city, Smokily enchanted, Cradle of our memories and hopes and fears. Every Blitz Your resistance Toughening, From the Ritz To the Anchor and Crown, Nothing ever could override The pride of London Town
As Noel Coward’s diary reveals, the song which bizarrely includes melodic references to the old Edwardian street cry “Won’t You Buy My Sweet Smelling Lavender” and the German wartime national anthem “Deutschland über alles”, didn’t come to him easily.
June 2nd 1941; “Started composing new song - ‘London Pride. Feels good.” June 19; “After lunch, did another refrain for ‘London Pride’.” June 21; “Spent morning with Lorn writing lyric of ‘London Pride’.” June 23; “Wrestled with verse of ‘London Pride. Finally got it. June 24; With Lorn, writhing over the effort of the last four lines of ‘London Pride’. At last, success crowned our efforts …
On the 3rd July 1941 the song was recorded. Ten days later, on the 13th July, Coward performed the song at the Hammersmith Palais. A reviewer later wrote…
The whole composition adds up to being “a genuinely moving sentimental song which more than summed up the qualities of both place and people at an extraordinary moment in its history”.
To today’s ears the song may sound overblown and mawkish but for all that it is still one of Noel Coward’s most popular songs. In the Victorian “Language of Flowers “London Pride” stood for ‘Frivolity’ - but for Londoners who lived through those grim wartime years it means so much more - and that is why it has its own special day - July 27th. Perhaps on that day, next Monday, we should take a moment to think of that remarkable generation who stood up to fascism all those years ago and to remember their battered city. Whatever may happen it still holds us all to its ancient heart.
In our city darkened now, street and square and crescent, We can feel our living past in our shadowed present, Ghosts beside our starlit Thames Who lived and loved and died Keep throughout the ages London Pride.
– from Martyn Day