Successive Applications of Sticking-Plaster

Andrew Saint

  • The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Vol. III: 1840-1950 edited by Martin Daunton
    Cambridge, 944 pp, £90.00, January 2001, ISBN 0 521 41707 4

Do the authors of this volume of the Cambridge Urban History know how gloomy a book they have written? Pessimism suffuses these pages from start almost to finish. ‘Why have so many of Britain’s great cities fared so badly in the 20th century?’ Peter Clark, the general editor of the series, asks in his preface. Turn the page, and Martin Daunton’s introduction descends with unconcealed relish into the ‘decay, corruption, stench and stickiness’ of the early Victorian city – a hell from which the best escape reformers can imagine is the extirpation of stagnancy, and the setting of traffic, sewage and people alike moving on a joyless treadmill of ‘continuous circulation’.

Perhaps, you think, this adagio maestoso will break into an allegro hymning the triumph of public sanitation, better health and half-decent municipal services. Far from it. Soon, almost indeed before it had got going properly, ‘the autonomy of local government started to decline,’ Daunton says. By the interwar period, the institutional and social fabric that holds Britain’s cities together is fraying. New technologies of transport and power become slings for catapulting homes and industry clear of the tangled inner city. Reinforced by an improvident structure of taxation, these forces conspire to undermine civic leadership and create the moral vacuum familiar at the core of today’s conurbations. If nowadays British cities and major towns just about hang together, they do so more by successive applications of sticking-plaster than inherent unity or necessity. In his epilogue, Daunton toys with the argument that cities can no longer be meaningfully identified. ‘There is no place for an urban history of Britain after 1950: Britain is an urban nation, and a separate urban history is no longer realistic.’

No celebration of civic worthiness or progress here, then. Nor, saving a single essay in urban geography about London, are there set-pieces on individual cities. The book is just as chary of institutional structures: it includes little on education, and nothing to speak of on law and order. The burden of the 25 chapters is unremittingly analytic and causative. Here are academics signalling from their cells to one another rather than to ‘urbanites’ – as one of them calls the citizens whose fate is their concern. Indicative are the few pictures, thrown in without the affection lavished on the distribution maps and statistical charts and tables. Hackneyed images of overcrowding from Doré and Frith, balanced by drab photographs of empty streets, reinforce the tendencies of the text. No mayors decked with chains of office, no children drilling or scampering in the playgrounds of new schools, no patients prostrate in municipal hospital wards, no sturdy policemen or firefighters, not even men and women toiling or going about their business. Some planning sneaks in, but very little architecture: such things are vieux jeu. From today’s austere perspective of urban history, culture means a way of life, and the arts are bidden to the feast only to strum background music and interpret or ‘represent’ the city.

The various sub-disciplines of political economy have broadened and democratised our understanding of cities over the past forty years. They have transformed historiography and deserve respect. Nevertheless, the dominance of their methodologies in the present volume makes its prevalent gloom the more curious. Over its particular time-span, there is surely much to celebrate.

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