Saturday, January 11, 2014

Roy Porter's "London: A Social History": Book Review

Although this appeared a few years before Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography, medical historian Roy Porter's social history possesses its own many merits, even if Ackroyd's book appears to have benefited more from promotion and sales. Like Ackroyd, Porter looks at the broad evolution; less so than Ackroyd, Porter concentrates on the emergence of The City in the Renaissance, as before that, the enclave remained small and separated for many centuries from its royal neighbor and purported ruler, Westminster, two miles away. Purported because Porter argues for Whitehall vs. Guildhall.

That is, the independence shown early by London for much of its dominance enabled its vibrancy, confidence, and diversity. The gravel banks under the Thames, forty miles from the sea, assured a calm waterway for trade. While the Church ruled, with a hundred parishes starting under Norman rule, one every three acres, the mercantile class settled and attracted migrants from the rest of the island and abroad. The Corporation that ran the city began to emerged by Tudor times. "London was on the road to becoming a small, highly regulated corporate city lapped by a turbulent metropolitan sea."

The distance between Westminster and the City persisted; during the Great Fire, the King and his brother did not know of the blaze until they were informed. Porter, given his expertise, provides vivid descriptions of the plague that preceded the conflagration, and the Civil War that pitted royalists against Parliament there. After the fire, guided by Christopher Wren, London began to stretch out, and by 1800 a "hierarchy of ranks was stamped upon the topography of the town." The bulk of this book takes place since that period, for after all, more London and more residents means more data and more detail as the city, already the world's largest at a million, kept booming. "Addresses assumed weight." We begin to see the separation of East from West End, and the class connotations that still mark the property of the latter expanse today. 90% already lived two centuries ago outside the City, and by 1911 seven million called Greater London home, but the ancient Corporation tended to resist reform, as the medieval guilds which had allowed so many ancestors of the London establishment to gain a steady job and a respected livelihood, turned into gentleman's clubs and privileged livery.

The tension never exploded into unrest as it did elsewhere under radicalism in modern times, but the necessity for London to adapt to its own generated, centripetal and centrifugal energy led to rail and then the Tube as methods to balance, to a degree, the influx of the masses with work demands and settlement. While London grew in population 1921-31 by 9%, the land it took up as the megapolis leaped into the outer stretches of Metroland doubled its size, Attempts for Garden Cities and a greenbelt later helped, but this type of planning led to much destruction, of nature and farms for the worse, of slums for the better. Still, London could thrive, for a good long while as the imperial center.

Do-gooders of Victorian times might be mocked, but Porter refuses easy stereotypes. He shows how Henry Mayhew's depictions of the poor and of laborers memorably evoke the East End, and he realizes that reformers helped engage all Londoners in creating out of so many peoples from so wide a series of places a common civic identity. The deprivations of the Blitz and the displacement of 40% of Londoners during WWII show how post-war London had to adapt, and how its manufacturing and docking bases soon felt the tug of outer borough relocation and foreign competition.

As Porter writes this in the aftermath of Thatcher, and the abolition of the Labour-led GLC, he castigates her and the determined greed that fueled so much of what London looks like now. (I'd like to hear from Porter if the later 90s on have improved this or not...)  "The balkanization of the metropolis encouraged rotten boroughs, political localism and extremism of all stripes."

Many workers fled for cheaper and healthier suburbs, and he shows how transport allowed this. Congestion, all the same, grew worse, and pollution persisted. Crime was on the upswing, and decay and unrest followed. Immigration altered large parts of the inner ring and older neighborhoods, while others turned gentrified. Porter does not place his hopes for recovery in luring visitors; "tourists are vultures" and the low-wage, often immigrant workers are exploited.

Rebuilding in the post-Blitz, capitalist-frenzied contemporary decades, 400 of Richard Seifert's high-rise blocks of "conveyor-belt modernism" failed to beautify the London panorama as had Wren's designs. Traffic, noise, crime, high rents, low quality of life: the new Brutalism left heavy marks. Speculation, it seems, has poisoned London since John Stow lamented it in Elizabeth's era--the first Queen, that is.

It can be challenging for a non-resident to follow, but Porter doggedly shows how the urban patterns proliferated. This may be of more use to a specialist or insider or a local, but it's valuable information. Reading lists append this and a good index, but there are no endnotes so his wonderful quotes cannot be traced. The lack of good maps with enough detail to chart the intricate sprawl, moreover, precludes a one-volume understanding of its later growth as told here.

He concludes with praising his city as "a muddle that worked." But he is guarded. He doubts "that this good fortune will continue"; again, nearly two decades after this book first appeared, it's intriguing to test his case against what's transpired. (11-20-13: Amazon US 2000 paperback and 1995 cloth)

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