Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt

Cities of squalor and splendour
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The Independent Culture

In 1844, Disraeli travelled to Manchester to deliver a lecture at the newly-opened Athenaeum. He urged this city, the epicentre of the industrial revolution, to emulate Athens: to marry commerce and culture, manufacturing and intellect; to direct wealth-creation into artistic patronage. Further paradigms were found, more appropriately, among the Renaissance merchant princes and the republics of Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Siena and Venice.

In 1844, Disraeli travelled to Manchester to deliver a lecture at the newly-opened Athenaeum. He urged this city, the epicentre of the industrial revolution, to emulate Athens: to marry commerce and culture, manufacturing and intellect; to direct wealth-creation into artistic patronage. Further paradigms were found, more appropriately, among the Renaissance merchant princes and the republics of Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Siena and Venice.

After visiting Greece and Italy, or simply reading Ruskin, Victorian industrialists were keen to employ the rhetoric of temples and palaces to glorify town halls, banks and even warehouses. These ostentatious structures helped proclaim civic pride. They also suggested that Britain's great industrial cities had become the crucibles of modern civilisation. And, once erected, they offered a thunderous defence of the manufacturing ethic.

So Athens was rebuilt in Manchester. In Liverpool, the visitor leaving Lime Street Station is confronted with a Victorian parthenon, St George's Hall, its portico bristling with 16 Corinthian columns. It is rated by Pevsner as "the freest neo-Grecian building in England and one of the finest in the world". But his words do not entirely remove the suspicion that, like other Victorian monuments, it is a grandiose fake. It has, however, become inextricably part of Liverpool's identity.

The same cannot be said for much late-20th-century municipal building. Three years ago, Sheffield's "new" town hall, which had been nicknamed "the egg box", was pulled down after little more than 20 years. There was scarcely a murmur of protest.

Tristram Hunt's book uncovers the intellectual history behind the making of our great Victorian cities. He examines the political, cultural and religious debates and shows how certain fashions, such as medievalism, gripped the 19th-century imagination. His crit- ical re-evaluation of what the Victorian civic spirit achieved should be read, as AN Wilson's blurb states, by all politicians in local and central government.

Hunt ( right) also historicises our perceptions of the city and of urban living, with all its pleasures and difficulties. His wealth of knowledge is engaging, as is his style, and the drama of his subject. This, after all, was an era of unhampered vision and technological self-confidence.

But, as Hunt's title reminds us, Jerusalem was being built among "dark satanic mills". Our image of these industrial cities snags on the human misery caused by slum living, harsh labour and rampant disease. Hunt, while praising the pioneers of urban society who set up clubs and associations (including the Friendly Societies, the Literary and Philsosophical Societies and the Mechanics Institutes), is also sharp on social ills.

He acknowledges that industrialisation set back earlier improvements in standards of living. Writers, doctors and journalists exposed the putrid conditions of cities where open latrines and overflowing cesspits created a noxious stench. Infectious diseases - cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis - gave rise to tragic statistics: life expectancy at birth in 1841 in Manchester was 26.6 years; in Liverpool, 28.1; and in Glasgow, 27. This explains why Hunt is also an expert on sewage: how many miles of pipes were laid, where and when.

Attempts by the government to pass laws that would improve sanitary conditions were resisted at a local level, the municipalities fearing the threat to self-government presented by centralisation. Vexed relations between regional and central government continue to this day. But, as Hunt remarks, the question of how to sustain civic patriotism comes down to identity. Will Self recently admitted his Britishness on the grounds that there is now an absence of any defining national characteristics. How, then, with only the loosest affiliations to nation, race or class, are we to reinvent the notion of civic patriotism or civic pride? And build cities to which we can truly belong?

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