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London A Social History by Roy Porter

Book Review London a social history

Book Review. London A Social History by Roy Porter

A Londoner by birth, albeit a ‘sawf’ Londoner like myself, Roy Porter’s book is written by a man who loves history and who adores London. He seems on a crusade not just to document the ups and downs of the capital but to explain the interconnected reasons behind each ebb and flow of the city’s shaping over the centuries.

He refers to London as ‘A city of contrasts, a congregation of diversity’, he calls it, in admiration, the ‘uncontrolled city’ and rues the fact that ‘London is not the eternal city; it had its hour upon the stage. Between the two Elizabeth’s, between 1570 and 1986 to be precise’. 1570 was when Elizabeth I set up the Royal Exchange and 1986 was when Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC. It is worth noting that Thatcherite Britain was still a very recent memory when this book was originally published in 1994 and, whilst there might be the occasional outdated feel about the commentary, it is without doubt a worthwhile window on its time.

Porter has intentionally beaten a particular path with his by calling his history A Social History of London. Whilst acknowledging that events and buildings are both obviously important in their own way, he claims that if buildings take precedence over people we get heritage, not history and that we need to be clear to make the distinction between the city as stage for events and the city as the actor. This book is very much about the organism that is London and how she affects her children.

It is possible not to read the book from cover to cover, although I fear one might lose a necessary overall pattern if one does. The chapters on Georgian London and those relating to the social problems of Victorian London are particularly good, as is his survey of post second world war London.

Undoubtedly there are more facts and statistics included in Porter’s book than it s possible for most brains to hold on to but because he is writing about such important things they never feel superfluous. Despite its denseness London A Social History never becomes overly dry because there is such a passionate narrative at its heart. We are reading about the minutiae that produce the headlines, the real-life happiness and hurt that are on the end of the “history”

Here are a few locally related tit bits to whet your appetite:

You will be pleased to note that ‘Railways did, however, encourage new housing for the middle classes. From the 1840s, stations shot up a few miles out from the centre – in……Crouch End, Stroud Green, Hornsey and Wood Green – sparking the construction of middle-class villas and respectable terraces.’

However, by 1890 ‘The Building News’ commented that, ‘we find suburbs, once the delightful retreat of the busy man, fast losing their…reputation. ……Hampstead, Highgate, Hornsey, are already being irretrievably spoiled…

And lastly, to end on a high, ‘suburbia offered much the Victorians cherished: home sweet home, safe streets, a nest for the children. It had solidity, respectability, residentiality. The games developers played provided status symbols in places like Muswell Hill or Raynes Park where the very name implied something superior or rustic, Bless. Something to mention to the estate agents perhaps?