Books: No Smoke without fire

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A History of London

by Steven Inwood Macmillan pounds 30

D espite a plethora of London statues, there is nothing set up to the memory of Ostorius Scapula, Thomas Farryner or Charles Tyson Yerkes. But if you are a Londoner - circumspice.

The shade of Ostorius has the most right to feel aggrieved at this neglect. He was the Roman Governor who thought a bare hillock in a swamp might be a good site for a market. Almost 2,000 years and countless billions of pounds later his hunch has proved right. But an ungrateful city has chosen to commemorate the ghastly Boudicca, who burnt Ostorius's first attempt to the ground 15 years later in an orgy of torture and destruction (most of her victims were Britons). It was not to be London's last fire, however.

Thomas Farryner at least has the consolation of a monument to his achievement. He appears to have been the man responsible for burning down almost the entire town in 1666. Fire was a common hazard in medieval and early modern towns but London seems to have been more prone than most. There were six great fires between 1077 and 1136. Thomas FitzStephens, a contemporary chronicler, thought the fact that Londoners were drunk all the time was an important influence on this string of disasters.

The world-famous conflagration started by Farryner deserves its spectacular reputation. From a safe distance one Thomas Vincent was moved at the sight of the stone Guildhall heated red hot "as if it had been a palace of gold or a great building of burnished brass". Less articulate but equally dramatic is Lady Hobart: "Oh pety me," she wrote to her husband with all her possessions packed but unable to hire a cart at any price. "I hop if it com to us it will be Thursday but it runs fearsly, O i shall los all i have." Among other things, Farryner ruined all possibility of London town planning forever. With everybody living in tents there wasn't time to organise compulsory purchase so Sir Christopher Wren had to discard his plans for an elegant, canal-based city and rebuild along the medieval street plans, which, bar a bit of road widening, are still the pattern for Central London today. As Steven Inwood remarks, for those who like the idea of history dominated by personalities, Farryner is the most influential Londoner that ever lived. When the Monument was erected, however, the responsibility for the fire was blamed on the Pope.

Two and a quarter centuries later, the problem of reconciling a medieval city with modern transport was solved by the Philadelphian entrepreneur Charles Tyson Yerkes. Others had conceived and even built a deep-tunnel train system powered by electricity. But it was Yerkes who had the energy, the vision and the barefaced charlatanism to raise the finance for a system that linked the centre with the rapidly expanding suburbs.

In Inwood's estimation, the timing was everything. If Yerkes had had to delay for a year, the invention of the motor bus would have deflated public confidence. Yerkes timed his death well too: December 1904, just as his dismayed backers were learning what the Government has yet to grasp: you cannot run an underground railway at a profit.

To be fair, London has never been an easy place to govern. Ever since its Roman walls were reoccupied by Anglo-Saxons taking refuge from Danish raiders, it has been dominated by a wealthy elite fiercely protective of the privileges inside its square mile and utterly indifferent to anything outside. This parochial attitude was inherited by the districts that grew around the centre. Suburbs were originally an attractive location for those who wished to escape irksome regulations about keeping a brothel or running an iron foundry in the back garden. Only in the past century or so has the word come to represent a leafy retreat. In either case, Londoners have always taken their identity from the character of their immediate surroundings. Addison in 1712 was the first to describe London as "an Aggregate of various Nations distinguished from each other by their respective Customs, Manners and Interests". These distinctions are lost on outsiders, whose view of Londoners appears consistent throughout the ages. The Italian Andreas Franciscus's impression in 1497 of Londoners as "tall, well exercised, over-fed and under-educated" has stood the test of time. So will Steven Inwood's history, as crowded as its subject matter and as full of variety.