Aldermanic Depression

Andrew Saint

  • London: A History by Francis Sheppard
    Oxford, 442 pp, £25.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 19 822922 4
  • London: More by Fortune than Design by Michael Hebbert
    Wiley, 50 pp, £17.99, April 1998, ISBN 0 471 97399 8

A hundred years ago, when London ruled half the world and the snarl-up in front of the Bank of England passed for ‘the hub of the Empire’, only dedicated puffers and slummers plus a smattering of tourists had much good to say about Britain’s capital. Literary folk like James and Conrad slipped into the illusionary language of the dark sublime. London was dismal, blackened, sick, cruel and unplanned, concurred the charitable and the analytic; the sooner the authorities could draw the working population and their smokestacks out to the countryside and lance Cobbett’s ‘wen’, the better.

By the Twenties, London was becoming more orderly but remained drab, far drabber than it is today, and intellectuals still sneered at it. Look at any postcard of an interwar Islington street, and you will see why. Soon though, as the young started to heap their avant-garde disdain on suburbia, the centre embarked on a come-back, only to have its fragile renaissance crushed by bombers and planners. Since then, hopes and fears for London have yo-yoed, along with the values on its Stock Exchange and the less hedgeable policies of governments on metropolitan urbanism. When the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986, there were visions of political chaos, race riots, deskilling and the crumbling of services on a scale that would have gladdened the ruralist heart of a Richard Jefferies. Five years ago, Roy Porter still diagnosed ‘a downward spiral of infrastructural and human problems that will prove hard to halt’.

Yet now, when London has slipped way down the table of city-sizes and tours round the eerie magnificence of the Foreign Office induce a Venetian sense of pathos, boosterism is back. It is even corroborated by scholarship. ‘In comparison with other great cities of the world London has ... for centuries had a uniquely ascendant position,’ asseverates Francis Sheppard. From their respective standpoints of two millennia of ebullient trading and a century of, to put it mildly, muddled planning, Sheppard and Michael Hebbert paint their pictures in the same bright colours: of a healthy, wealthy conurbation, unfathomable, inchoate, yet liveable and boundlessly energetic. London confers prosperity on the rest of Britain rather than drains it away, they say. It is solving its social problems, and awaits the imminent return of some measure of self-government and respect.

Why then should the planet’s most consistently stable and resourceful great city have generated so jittery an image? The answer seems to lie in a hidden equilibrium of forces that London has always been less able to articulate and institutionalise than the nation, and has often been deliberately balked from getting into balance by national institutions. Freedom of trade or representation versus security; the metropolitan whole versus the fissile borough or parish (medieval London had more churches to the acre than Rome or Venice); the centre versus the outskirts; cultural elegance and symbolism versus pragmatism and profit: these are the issues that have made London’s constitutional history contentious. Crown and government always had an interest in reining in or dividing such dangerous power and wealth as the city might muster – and did muster just once, to devastating effect. The Civil War lies as deep as the Great Fire in the psyche of the capital. ‘One insurrection in London and all is lost,’ epitomised the sage Lord Liverpool.

We think now of Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone, but the pattern can be traced back to King John, when London sneaked its own municipal charter under the lee of the barons, and even before. From almost the start, the dominance of Roman London in the affairs of Britain was a surprise, and shakily defined. But the climax came in the 17th century, in episodes which Sheppard handles with the evenness, lucidity and pace that are the hallmark of a lifetime’s writing about the capital, and destine London: A History to be the exemplary politico-economic narrative of its subject for decades to come.

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