Capital assets

4th November 1994 at 00:00
London: A Social History By Roy Porter. Hamish Hamilton Pounds 20 0 241 129443 The City of London: volume 1 A World of Its Own 1815-1890 By David Kynaston Chatto amp; Windus Pounds 25 0 7011 6094 2

Richard Tames welcomes social and financial histories of London.

Anyone who thinks that London plays a disproportionate role in our national life should take comfort from the thought that things are getting better. Three centuries ago London's population was greater than that of the next 60 provincial cities added together. "Social" belies this fine book's breadth of treatment. It does not omit London's politics, defined with characteristically alliterative irreverence, as "bumble and bungle", and achieves a fine balance between the competing claims of period, place and personalities.

Roy Porter, a Londoner born, has little use for "urban theory" ("a blind alley"), but does offer much shrewd analysis. Placing London in its global context - the growth of Britain's trading empire - he observes that "for several centuries nowhere could be quite like London". Knowing that he has a great story to tell - "I have tried to make the city itself my hero" - the author cracks on at a rattling pace. His style is crisp and studded with gems of compression - the Lord Mayor is "a ceremonial stuffed shirt", Westminster is "an eleventh century Versailles", the Presbyterian "saints" of Cromwell's day are likened to a spiritual version of the militant tendency, the corruption of Templar austerity by filthy lucre meant that their fine riverside property "was appropriately taken over by lawyers".

Infelicities of expression (eg "densification"), are as infrequent as misprints, repetitions (figures for plague victims) or misquotations. It was William Shenstone who said that "Nothing is certain in London but expense". It was Isaac D'Israeli who recorded the remark.

Porter even manages to make the medieval guild system both interesting and comprehensible but he does not linger over the early centuries, and rather more than half of the book is devoted to the period since 1800. His sure sense of place enables him constantly to relate the physical past to the present with insight and accuracy, noting, for example, that Westminster Abbey was built on an island "formed by the forking of the Tyburn, near the present St James's Park Underground station". His tour of London's expanding 19th century suburbs is a tour de force.

The author's infectious enthusiasm never blinds him to the darker side of London life. He is particularly scathing about the impact of "the Thatcher years". Porter believes that "commerce civilizes . . . absorbs and assimilates". London has always been able to bridge the gap between its striking contrasts of rich and poor because its economic buoyancy has enabled it to buy its way out of trouble, to be "a muddle that worked". But now? London's inner city is not yet an "anti-city" comparable to the devastated central wastelands of Detroit or Newark. But the unemployment rate is higher than Belfast's and in 1990 one in ten of the city's population either committed a crime or was the victim of one.

Like many other Londoners he remains incredulous that it alone of the world's great cities now has no government of its own and that "market forces" can be expected to reverse its all too evident loss of civic competence.

Nevertheless, the overall tone of this chronicle of metropolitan everyman is upbeat and uplifting, combining the elegance of an essay with the tautness of a textbook. It also has a magisterial critical bibliography almost 20 pages long and an index even longer. The book itself is a handsome production - sewn binding, fine paper, clear illustrations. This is likely to remain the best single volume history of London for the next decade and quite possibly much longer. No small beer, this - but porter, double strength.

David Kynaston's much tighter focus is on "The City" during the century in which it was transformed from a place where people lived and made money out of things to a place where nobody lived and money was made out of money. As the historian of the Financial Times and Cazenove amp; Co, the author is supremely qualified to tell a spell-binding story of sleaze and speculation, marshalling a cast of characters as packed and florid as the sort of narrative canvas the Victorian public delighted in. The book stands in its own right as a densely-researched chronicle of the pivotal institution of our national economy, but is also the first volume in a projected trilogy to bring the story to the present.

Richard Tames is the author of Soho Past (Historical Publications).

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