Tuesday, April 05, 2005

London, A Short History

My very first attempt at a book review - they can only get better!

London, A Short History. A N Wilson.

To borrow a phrase from the world of advertising, it does exactly what it says on the tin. This is indeed a short history of London – one which left me feeling dissatisfied and even disconcerted.

I first read the book in a couple of sittings in the sunshine of Gran Canaria and I was greatly disappointed. I had expected better from the press reviews and comments on the back cover.

I had to ask myself whether I’d given the book a fair hearing – I’d had my concerns from the start. Firstly, how could Wilson say much in such a thin book? I devoured Stephen Inwood’s ‘History of London’ and have recommended Ackroyd’s Biography to virtually everyone I’ve ever met who has even hinted at the word London.

Secondly, Wilson himself. Not only does he write for the Evening Standard (I occasionally buy it on a Friday as I like the ‘My London’ page of the accompanying magazine) but I have the overwhelming sensation that he is an upper-class twit looking down on us mere mortals. This was certainly reinforced by the way he charges through the chapters of London in the style of an old-school history textbook.

My second reading was no better. I think, if anything, it may have been even more prejudiced in that I had a point to prove – namely, that this is an ambiguous and irritating book. Armed with a freshly-sharpened pencil (I did once think it was sacrilege to write on a book but needs must), I again set about reading this little tome.

Wilson’s words immediately strike a negative tone. In the five pages devoted to Tudor and Stuart London Wilson writes that the first of London’s great historians, John Stow, “saw London as being steadily wrecked by overpopulation, overbuilding and by the greed of developers, City men and speculators”. This is clearly what Wilson still believes over 400 years on. At the end of the Prelude he writes about the two historical ‘camps’ – those, like Ackroyd, who believe the spirit of London lives on and conversely those who “think that the London of old has actually died – at best, gone underground – to be replaced by a confused, overcrowded multinational conurbation”. I think you can work out where I’d place Wilson.

For me one of the most disconcerting subjects in this book is that of immigration and cultural diversity. I cannot work out where Wilson stands on this. He writes that London has taken in more asylum seekers than any other city in the last ten years and mentions as a ‘coincidence’ a few lines on that at the same time there has been “a colossal increase in crime, and a near-crippling of such resources as council-owned housing, hospitals and schools”. Surely he wants us to think there is a direct link between the two?

Wilson reflects the opinions of many who have written about London when he refers to London as being unwilling to “absorb foreign or alien elements” but to me that is one of the strengths of London – anyone can come here and fit in. They can be as much a part of London life as they choose. London, in my mind, is built on immigration and it is about time we celebrated the fact. Today’s hostility towards Eastern Europeans and London’s Muslim communities mirrors the welcome shown to the Irish immigrants of previous centuries. Successive waves of immigrants have integrated into London. This process takes time.

Yet much further on in the book, where he performs the most amazing about-turn and shows that perhaps, yes, he does actually like modern London, Wilson points out that the NHS and the transport system (to name but two areas) have largely survived because of immigrants prepared to work for low wages. Wilson also points out that the relatively high crime levels linked to Afro-Caribbeans is the fault of the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor. These problems do not have a “racial cause” and I applaud Wilson for making this clear.

Wilson also bemoans the fact tourism has filled the gap left by the banking and manufacturing industries, claiming tourism has cost London its historical character. I do not agree. There are so many links to London’s history – if you know where to look for them. Yes, much has been damaged or destroyed - the Fire, the Victorians and the Luftwaffe have collectively seen to that - but fine buildings still stand. One could also argue that what does remain is likely to do so in the future with the promise of tourist’s pounds and pence.

Comments on the back cover refer to Wilson’s “passion and authority” and his “love for the city”. Until the last few pages where Wilson does declare “London is good” and decides that London “will meet the challenges of the future”, his tone is one of a grumpy old man lamenting the old way of life. Modern buildings are referred to as “silly” and a racist graffito scrawled on a wall is “nasty”. One cannot help but think Wilson is hiding stronger opinions behind these seemingly inoffensive words. A more forcefully-written, more controversial book may have convinced me that Wilson does indeed love this beautiful city.

1 comment:

Rehan Qayoom said...

Excellent Review. I think the recent palava with Mr. Wilson's Betjeman biography and his insensitive remakrs about the splendid 3 volume tome on his life proves the truth of your views of him. He is just an upper-class Oxonian snob who should not have had the good fortune of befriending people such as Iris Murdoch, on whom he has also written a very insensitive offensive if revealing book which, I think, quite frankly, says more about him than it does about Iris, more 'The Iris I thought I knew' than the one he knew.