Porter for Leader

Jenny Diski

  • London: A Social History by Roy Porter
    Hamish Hamilton, 429 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 241 12944 3
  • A City Full of People: Men and Women of London, 1650-1750 by Peter Earle
    Methuen, 321 pp, £25.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 413 68170 X

Rose was my next-door-neighbour-but-one when I lived in the furthermost reaches of Camden – three steps and one foot off the pavement and I was alienated in Islington. Rose was in her eighties and her husband had just died. I popped round to have a cup of tea and found her sitting in her darkened front room as glum as an old wife and new widow might be expected to be. ‘It’s terrible,’ she said. I nodded silently; even when tragedy isn’t surprising, it’s a bugger. ‘The bulb’s gone,’ she said, looking up at the ceiling. ‘Just like that. Bang! I haven’t got a new one, and anyway I get dizzy if I don’t have both feet on the ground. First him, now this. They say things go in threes. Gawd knows what’s going to happen next.’ Rose was a real Londoner. She’d lived in the same place since she was a child and told me once when we were chatting outside the corner shop, how she remembered the herds of cattle thundering up York Way from King’s Cross to the slaughterhouses in Market Road. ‘You could feel the ground shake under your feet well before you could see them. It was always dangerous crossing that road,’ she’d say, standing on the kerb, eyeing the cars and lorries as they streamed past.

There’s a grizzly, grumbling note in Londoners’ recollections of London. It’s not devoid of affection or sentiment or even delight of a kind, but there’s always a steady patter of complaint which matches the drizzle that bathes the city in its dirty yellow light. The authentic Londoner’s lament can be heard throughout Roy Porter’s history of London, which has, in addition, the other great metropolitan quality of cunning built into its very structure. What looks for all the world like yet another coffee-table picture book is in reality fat-full of angry words building to a lucid, polemical aggregation of all the tongue-clucking and head-shaking we get up to. Londoners are voluble experts on what’s wrong with their city; Roy Porter, in this incarnation, is a Londoner’s Londoner who relishes the chance to mix rage with historical research.

The woes of contemporary London, according to Porter, have their roots in the very beginnings of settlement. Uncontrolled and unplanned since the haphazard Saxons ousted the fetishistically orderly Romans, London has ever been the opportunist’s paradise. Centuries ago, its wall decayed and the neatly laid-out Roman streets went to potholes. The present sprawling chaos is just an echo of the past: ‘Today’s antipathy to planners may reflect Anglo-Saxon attitudes!’ But Porter does not settle for historical fatalism. From Tudor times, the refusal of the Corporation of the City of London to widen its area of responsibility to the growing suburbs around the Square Mile, and its determined protection of its privileges, helped create a climate where self-interested commerce could do virtually what it liked to boost its profits. The speculators and get-rich-quick merchants date from long before Peter Rachman’s Sixties and the Yuppie Eighties. In the history of London, Porter suggests, greed had carte blanche. The free-for-all continued, with neither local nor Parliamentary government overseeing London’s growth, until the setting up of the London County Council in 1888, by which time the metropolis was what it was and is, a monster that had grown by spreading its suckers in the dark. The City became a money-making machine, and the suburbs – ever-widening as industry moved out of the depopulated centre – places of escape for those who could.

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