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.
London thrived, Porter explains, even while Londoners died: ‘the city was a killer, for burials far exceeded baptisms, at least till around 1780. Had not newcomers congregated there from all parts of the island, from Flanders and from every other place, filling the shoes of those felled by pestilence, London would certainly have proved self-destructive.’ There may not have been gold cobbling the streets, but there was the promise of apprenticeship in the enterprises of shopkeepers and merchants, and it was enough to override the depleting effects of plague and other epidemics.
London took Protestantism to its heart. The ‘massacre and mayhem’ the Reformation inflicted in the Netherlands and France bypassed London, where the City fathers, looking for stability, moderation and a suitable creed for businessmen, gentled in the new religion. ‘For many citizens the spread of the gospel, the progress of trade, and England’s deliverance from popish Spain’s Armada were all manifestations of divine Providence.’ Tudor confiscations of Church property amounted to a privatisation of land and buildings, creating ‘a hectic property market ... encouraging opportunistic redevelopment comparable perhaps to the speculative fever following the Second World War.’ The economic expansion of London might have been God’s voice unmediated in the believing Protestant ear.
Without planning controls, London just grew. By the mid-18th century, Defoe was feeling it had all got out of hand. ‘When I speak of London, now in the modern acceptation, you expect I shall take in all that vast mass of buildings, reaching from Black-Wall in the east, to Tot-Hill Fields in the west ... to Islington north ... to Cavendish Square ... and beyond to Hide Park Corner in the Brentford Road, and almost to Marylebone in the Acton Road; and how much farther it may spread, who knows?’ London was ‘straggling, confus’d ... out of all shape’. Already, he complained, ‘Westminster is in a fair way to shake hands with Chelsea, as St Gyles’s is with Marylebone; and Great Russell Street by Montague House, with Tottenham-Court. Whither will this monstrous city then extend?’ The solution, as it ever would be, was to find a place to escape to. The Rev. Dr Stukeley spent nine years searching until he finally found ‘a most agreeable rural retreat at Kentish Town ... an half-hour’s walk over sweet fields. ’Tis absolutely and clearly out of the influence of the London smoak, the dry gravelly soil and air remarkably wholesome.’
Nobody lives in London – any inhabitant of the city will tell you that. Whatever ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’ meant, it wasn’t intended to imply that the consciousness of a Pearly Queen of Brick Lane was as one with an accountant who gets off the Tube at Morden. Morden, the stop at the southernmost end of the Northern Line, exists purely in the imagination of most Londoners. I did once go there, and discovered that it was a place, but only just, and imagination had nothing to do with it. Prejudice and parochialism is everything in London. It’s too big to exist as a unity, so we carve it up into discrete and manageable areas of familiarity. We live north or south of the river, as in right side and wrong side, depending on which side is yours. Cross a bridge and you’re somewhere else, no matter that an outsider might not be able to tell the difference between Camden High Street and the Walworth Road. More specifically, we live in boroughs: Hornsey, Hackney, Brixton, Bermondsey, and even then, we feel restricted to certain areas within the borough. When I buy food I invariably turn right and head towards the shops in that direction, not to the shops in the other direction, although the two are equidistant. I would feel a nameless but distinct unease if I went the other way.
London, always something of an abstraction, seems conceptually to have burst like a bubble. But only those who are especially community-minded will find this an entirely negative quality. The medical model of London as a monstrous growth, a cancer within the harmonious cells of rural English life, is only one side of the story. There have always been those who rejoice in the urban dynamism and who flee to it, not just for its energy but also for its freedom. In A City Full of People, Peter Earle quotes Fielding’s Tom Jones on the positive side of urban living.
I hastened therefore back to London, the best retirement of either grief or shame, unless for persons of a very public character; for here you have the advantage of solitude without its disadvantage, since you may be alone and in company at the same time; and while you walk or sit unobserved, noise, hurry and a constant succession of objects entertain the mind.
Those of us brought up in London, nodding amiably but briefly at our neighbours before shutting our front doors firmly behind us, shudder at the prospect of life in a close-knit village community, and not without reason. Around 1968 I spent some time in a perfect and untouched village in the middle of Dartmoor. I was there during the revelation of a great scandal: it had been discovered that the couple – Major and Mrs Smith, as it were – who owned the local stables were not actually married.
Recently, thinking I’d like to return for a few days, I phoned the nearby hotel, but mysteriously got the local post office instead. The hotel had long closed, the post-mistress told me, had I been there before? I said I had, that a friend of mine had owned a cottage just outside the village twenty-five years ago. Impressively, or scarily, she remembered. ‘Well,’ she said helpfully, ‘Major and Mrs Smith do bed and breakfast as well as run the stables.’ Her voice dropped to a confidential whisper. ‘Of course, they’re not really Major and Mrs. She changed her name. They aren’t married. They live together.’ The unscrupulous Major and Mrs No Better Than She Ought To Be were, I calculated, pushing seventy by now. I let the unforgiving countryside go hang and stayed put in London.
Even two hundred years ago, things were allowed to pass in the big city more easily than in 20th-century Devon. ‘There came a man and a woman to the inn and asked me whether they could not have a lodging in the inn for that night ... and I imagining by their calling each other My Dear and My Love and such like kind of expressions, that they were man and wife, did prepare a bed for them.’ It was live and let live-in-sin in Bishopsgate Street, at least until the ecclesiastical courts interfered.
Peter Earle, having made in the first half of his book a respectable enough analysis of the social patterns of London life from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, gives over a more vivid second half to the voices of historical Londoners themselves. Mostly taken from the ecclesiastical court records, as above, and the Ordinary of Newgate Prison’s accounts of the lives of those about to be executed, they represent, as E.P. Thompson said, ‘the lives of unremarkable people, distinguished from their fellows by little else except the fact that by bad luck or worse judgment they got caught up in the toils of the law’.
It’s hard not to read the accounts without a sense of recognition.
We have bin soe disturbed with theifs that we have not bin suffer’d to lay in our bedd after 1 a clock this three nights. They have attempted Mr Slaughters house twice and one Mrs Bells but have not carried aney thing away with them as yet. Though they can’t be taken, I wish it don’t prove some of our neighbours when taken.
The current sense of alarm, not just about the amount of crime in the city, but the feeling that the nature of it – perhaps even the human nature of it – has changed, is not new either. Roy Porter quotes William Shenstone in the mid-18th century: ‘London is really dangerous at this time, the pickpockets, formerly contented with mere filching, make no scruple to knock people down with bludgeons in Fleet Street and the Strand, and that at no later hour than eight o’clock.’
Even then, Porter suggests, the apparent surge in violence had to do with the desperation of the increasing numbers of urban poor, unemployed and hungry as a result of the ‘ambiguities of capitalism itself’. But it’s possible that London has always been an alarmed city, its citizens working up each others’ anxieties with their whispered fears. Present police figures suggest that more people are frightened of violent crime than its actual incidence warrants. There seems to be a continuous sense of crisis and foreboding in the historical record. Though we cannot be sure that our present feeling of doom and disaster is not this time accurate, it may be something of a comfort to know that every generation of Londoners before us felt much the same.
Some aspects of London life, however, seem more cyclical than continuous. It is not doom-mongering for Roy Porter to make the point that by the beginning of the 20th century destitution was on the way to being eradicated, but that during ‘the Thatcher years the number of homeless shot up from eight thousand to 80,000’. It’s not a matter of figures, but of experience for anyone who grew up in the London of the Fifties. When I spent time in Paris in 1970 I saw people living, sleeping and begging on the streets for the first time in my life. It seemed to me to be as extraordinary and dreadful as the fact that the French police wore guns. There were drunks and tramps in London, of course, but not that many, and I have no recollection of seeing anyone shivering the nights away on the pavements. With the Government’s refusal to support local councils’ attempts to provide for their most needy residents, with the infrastructure of the city falling into decay, the sewers collapsing and public transport grinding to a halt, the disintegration of the inner city has been alarmingly fast and is probably irreparable.
But as Roy Porter reminds us, we did have some passing fun with the GLC. Livingstone and friends may have annoyed the tabloids and ultimately ensured their own demise, but for a while County Hall added greatly to the gaiety of the capital and its inhabitants. One policy after another was designed to enrage No-Society-Thatcher. Fares Fair gave us a taste of what it would be like to have decent and usable transport services, funding was given to ethnic and other minority projects. County Hall under Red Ken (voted runner-up to the Pope in the BBC’s 1982 Man of the Year competition) was London’s last cheer and its irritation value, if not its ultimate usefulness to the citizens, made it a memorable adventure. Roy Porter’s volume does the splendid trick of coming close to rabble-rousing without skimping on the underlying historical analysis. If we ever get the GLC back again, he is assured of my vote for leadership.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.