A People's History of London, By John Rees & Lindsey German

What do we want? A touch more passion

Jo Lo Dicio
Saturday 28 April 2012 19:26
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In 2008, the Stop the War Coalition convener Lindsey German stood for election for London mayor under the Left List banner, garnering a grand total of 16,796 votes.

Four years later, German has decided that the book-buying public may be more sympathetic to her hard-left politics than the electorate, and has co-authored A People's History of London with John Rees, a fellow activist involved in the Stop the War Coalition.

The idea is a romantic one. In a year in which London is holding mayoral elections, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, all parading the muscle of the powers-that-be, Rees and German wanted to tell another story of London: that of its subversive forces. But it's a feat in itself that a history encompassing John Ball, Marx and Engels meeting in London, Ken Livingstone and the GLC can be turned into such a dreary book.

It starts in Roman London with a description of the city layouts and then trudges slowly through the desolate history of the Dark Ages up to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. For Rees and German, the latter should be rich fodder. The story of John Ball, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and thousands of Londoners rising up against Richard II and his unpopular new poll tax is one that should stir all those who remember the protests against the Thatcher government's poll tax in the 1980s. But with little characterisation or argument, and mountains of minute, dry detail, you might as well down your pitchforks now.

The rise of Oliver Cromwell and the ensuing civil wars fare little better under the authors' pens, nor the 1780 Gordon Riots, a Protestant uprising against the relaxing of discriminatory laws imposed upon Catholics, which turned during the course of a week in Rees and German's analysis from a religion-driven conflict into class warfare. And it is not until the beginning of the 20th century, in their book, that the definition of "people" seems to expand beyond revolutionaries to any serious analysis of conditions of ordinary Londoners.

In the final chapter, the authors pose a question: "Who would have predicted the student demonstration which ended up in a smashed-up Tory headquarters in Millbank?" Anyone who had studied the history of riots and of those who feel dispossessed, perhaps?

What the book fails to consider is why or even whether London is any different from other cities that spasm into revolt when the gulf between people and authority grows too wide. While Brixton saw race riots in 1981, so too did Toxteth in Liverpool. Londoners marched in their hundreds of thousands against the Iraq War in 2003 – protests in which German was a prime mover – but so too did citizens of many capitals in Europe.

It is not that German and Rees are from the Socialist Worker mould that makes this history so objectionable; it is the lack of passion for such a rich subject. Had these two been political pamphleteers through the ages, one doubts many revolutionary sparks would ever have been lit.

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