London: a short history by A N Wilson

Despite some glib omissions, Jah Wobble can't help warming to a writer who puts the traditionalist boot in
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A N Wilson's book begins with a description of London viewed from the lofty heights of Hampstead. Not a good start, I thought: another upper middle-class arriviste has done a book on the greatest city on God's earth (after Stockport, of course). As I read the book I never entirely lost the sense of somebody writing about this big smelly beast "London" from the safe distance of his (grim up) North London enclave. It feels like it's a bit distanced from the general populace. For instance, Wilson talks about his liking for London's cosmopolitanism, but predictably that takes the form of good working relationships with his Brazilian cleaner and Polish builder. It also means that there are new and exciting Russian restaurants to check out with his wife.

There are a few occasions when this book feels as if it's moving at too fast a pace, giving an impression of glibness. Discussing the long period between the last of the Roman garrisons leaving to the time of the Norman Conquest, Wilson writes: "Though some revival took place during the times of Alfred the Great, and the Danish king Cnut, it was not really until the Norman Conquest that London could be said to have resumed a history worthy of the name." That's sorted that out then. It's not unusual for the dark ages to be dismissed as ... err, dark; however, there is a revaluation of that period of English history currently in progress. I feel it is wrong to "lose" 600 years of your subject matter so glibly. The juxtaposition and inter-marriage of Danish nutcases, Germanic settlers and Romano-British laid the foundation stones for today's cosmopolitan London, as well as giving place names still used (albeit in a corrupted way) to the present day.

Wilson talks with passion and authority about architecture's effect on the populace. The buildings he likes include the stations of the Jubilee line extension, Senate House, Arnos Grove tube station and Broadcasting House. While discussing the latter, Wilson uses the opportunity to attack the present administrators at the BBC. "Broadcasting House ... with its Eric Gill relief of Ariel, this noble building is not only a thing of great beauty, but also a symbol of all that the British Broadcasting Corporation once was, central to London and civilisation, a beacon of truth telling and decency, [is] now threatened by its own suited executives, who mistake it for a commercial station like any other." That is by no means the only place in the book where Wilson, quite correctly, puts the traditionalist boot in. Tate Modern also gets an almighty kicking. On occasion, in spite of myself, I began to warm to the author.

Modernist brutalism gets short shrift. The Barbican complex takes a broadside and the architect Richard Seifert also gets a deserved blast of hot air: "His Centrepoint, which at 398 feet towers above all surrounding buildings, is much taller than any law allowed. But it made Seifert and his clients a lot of money, as did the many other atrocious Seifert buildings in London."

Harry Hyams was the property developer who employed Seifert. Wilson comments: "Seifert's genius was not for architecture, as Londoners are now painfully aware: it was for getting round planning regulations." This, according to Wilson, made him the ideal man for Hyams. The London property developers of the 1960s and 1970s are now notorious for the damage they inflicted on Londoners' daily lives, as well as the skyline. The author traces their emergence back to the years directly following the end of the Second World War when property developers were granted a golden opportunity to acquire acre upon acre of London. Another major factor, according to Wilson, is that many of the old landowners were crushed by the death duties enforced by the Socialist government. All that goes some way towards explaining why London's skyline is so unpredictable and mismatched. Wilson boldly states in regard to this architecture: "It is the dominant fact of post-war London."

The post-war period was not only the heyday of the property developers. It also witnessed the rise of "glamorous gangsters" such as the Krays and the Richardsons. As Wilson puts it: "Just as highway robbery flourished at the beginning of banks and stock broking in the reign of Queen Anne, it seems apt that in the era of Supermac, property speculation and protection racketeering should have become chief among London trades." As the book moves into the 1980s Wilson is equally damning of the Thatcher years. "In the Thatcher era, the largest and richest city in Europe contained, in such boroughs as Tower Hamlets, some of the poorest urban areas." No change there, then.

The book is at it most thought provoking in the last chapter, as it deals with London now (or at least how it was a year ago, when the author completed it). Obviously, without the benefit of hindsight it's inconclusive (that's why it's fascinating of course). Wilson offers the reader, via newspaper reports, a number of "snapshots" of contemporary London. These range from the upbeat, through the depressing and familiar, to the disturbing: the "potentially explosive" situation that exists in London, between young Islamic fanatics, and their young cosmopolitan counterparts (is it really a case of never the twain shall meet, I wonder? And I'm sure Wilson does too). Wilson is no Islamophobe, but he is obviously concerned. The author also notes the "extraordinary idleness" of present-day London: "The immediate thing to strike you is that most of the population are not working. Many of them are shopping. Many are sitting around in cafés or bars."

I too have noted this phenomenon with keen interest. I found that upon questioning, most of them claimed to be doing research on biographies of London.