Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt WEIDENFELD £25 £22.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Fogeyish writing and cranky evidence prevent Matthew Sweet from buying the posh historian's seductive ideas
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The Independent Culture

T here are a number of reasons why historians, in the main, are snotty about Tristram Hunt. For a start, he's prettier than they are. Secondly, he's richer than they are. (Thanks to the BBC, who signed him up for his own show on the English Civil War - not even his principal research subject.) Thirdly, he's posher and better-connected than they are. (Rothschilds, Sainsburys and Wegg-Prossers jostle on his acknowledgments page as they do on the Royal Ascot mailing list.)

T here are a number of reasons why historians, in the main, are snotty about Tristram Hunt. For a start, he's prettier than they are. Secondly, he's richer than they are. (Thanks to the BBC, who signed him up for his own show on the English Civil War - not even his principal research subject.) Thirdly, he's posher and better-connected than they are. (Rothschilds, Sainsburys and Wegg-Prossers jostle on his acknowledgments page as they do on the Royal Ascot mailing list.)

Only the latter objection, of course, adumbrates a legitimate critical position. There is something fogeyish about Hunt's approach to writing history - something that struck me more forcefully after reading his profile of the Prince of Wales in a recent issue of Prospect. This book, an account of the development and decline of British civic culture is constructed only from the most traditional building materials. The modern brutalism of critical theory has been roundly rejected in favour of the quiet accumulation of quotes and the thick application of nostalgic rhetoric. Methodologically, we're standing on the main drag of Poundbury.

Hunt grumbles about "the quagmire of postmodernism", rolls his eyes at his colleagues' predilection for expressions such as "heterotopia", "parasexuality" and "spatial aneurism", scorns the work of a "voguish historian" for daring to be sceptical about the political ideology of the Mechanics' Institutes; taps his pipe and chuckles over the minor hypocrisies of the Left: Engels, he notes, "spent his spare time funding Marx's days in the British Library, fermenting [sic] international socialism as well as riding out regularly on his fine stallion with the Cheshire Hunt".

The argument of Building Jerusalem is a seductive one - principally because it allows us to blame social divisions in modern Britain on Daily Mail readers, DIY enthusiasts and chrysanthemum growers. The book presents an image of the 19th-century city enriched by a complex network of societies, clubs and institutions. These, Hunt contends, endowed British cities with a passionate sense of collective local identity, turned inhabitants into citizens, and might have formed the organisational basis of a form of an idyllic urban society, had its aims not been thwarted by the growth of the dwarf conifer belt. "The civic pride," he writes, "which drove William Roscoe to found the Liverpool Royal Institution, inspired the conversazione of the Manchester Athenaeum, or encouraged the brightest and best to offer themselves as candidates for Birmingham City or London County Council, was quietly abandoned for mowing the lawn and a bit of tinkering in the garden shed." On the rubble of the nascent Jerusalem, then, a mooning plaster gnome.

It's easy to agree with Hunt that Britain would be a nicer place to live if Mr Barratt had never picked up his hod, if the 20th-century bourgeoisie had not made a shibboleth of property ownership, and if we all still lived as most Victorians did, in high-density rented urban homes. But some of the evidence he uses to support his theory seems a little cranky. It seems unfair, for example, to blame the rise of suburbia on the activities of late 19th-century journalists who compiled reports on inner-city deprivation - particularly when British writers had been happily turning urban squalor into Gothic entertainment since the beginning of Victoria's reign. And it seems unsporting to snipe at John Betjeman's ardour for Metroland when some of Hunt's own desires, it seems, would be satisfied by a hail of Exocets on Slough town centre.

The municipal society he most admires is the one created by Joseph Chamberlain, who hijacked Birmingham City Council in the 1870s, announced his intention to do for Brum what Baron Haussmann had done for Paris, and set about funding it with revenue generated by the gas and water companies. What this country needs, argues Hunt, is for "a new generation of Chamberlains to enter public office".

On the evidence of Building Jerusalem, Hunt could do worse than offer himself as a candidate. I don't buy his arguments, but I might be persuaded to vote for him - as long as no Rothschilds, Sainsburys or Wegg-Prossers appeared with him on the hustings.

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