London Review by Phil Baker – A 100,000-Year Investigation of the Capital | History books

IIf you love London but live elsewhere, it is a heartwarming experience to read a book that immerses you in the depths of the city after a year of forced removal. Rejuvenating myself with the place via this fiery tale of its past and present left me amused, nostalgic, energized and happily remembered, as I sat in Norwich in a locked state of boredom, sensations that I metropolis instills: fear of its flow and complexity, warm detachment in unknown nocturnal streets where a thousand lighted windows evoke other lives, fascination for the countless historical buildings steeped in centuries of history… Soon, soon.

Phil Baker eschews Dr Johnson’s overused observation of tired Londoners and draws inspiration from a lesser-known observation by James Boswell. Johnson’s biographer noted “how different a place is from London to different people” and that it contains “all human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible”. baker contemplates the countless city from various points of view to create an image of depth and detail. Its text has two parts: a spiritual description of the development of the capital from prehistoric times to the present day, then a ruminative study of its state today. The timeline opens over 100,000 years ago when, as fossil finds have revealed, hippos waded through what is now Trafalgar Square, but the actual story begins in Roman times. After Londinium came the Anglo-Saxon Lundenwic, a settlement by Strand (at the time the river bank its name suggests) which was replaced by Lundenburgh. The suffixes indicate the transition from a trading town to a walled town, but an “old wick” ghost survives in Aldwych. By the end of the 19th century, this small network of streets along the Thames had spread into the world’s first major metropolis, which gained about 40 miles of roads per year and had a population of 5 million. Two-fifths were of foreign origin: it was still a multicultural city, and even in Londinium residents were from Greece, Germany and Spain.

The visit takes us between crowded pubs and felted Gothic cemeteries, through the museums of architect John Soane’s light-filled treasure house to the artist-curator The Dark One by Viktor Wynd wunderkammer from grotesques and delicacies in Mare Street, to public spaces like the “psychically sordid” Speakers’ Corner, to the city’s terrible steel and glass towers. We see the debauchery of William Hogarth’s London and the disturbing mixture of misery and grandeur known to the Victorians. Their lit streets have become a backdrop for furtive characters: the pseudonym “Walter” who has detailed his thousand and more sexual conquests in My secret life, the madmen and desperate crooks interviewed by Henry Mayhew, the stranglers who made fearful pedestrians wear studded collars.

Along the way, we glean a cornucopia of facts. We learn why a giant grasshopper hovers over Lombard Street, that local life expectancy drops by a year with every tube stop from Westminster to Canning Town, and that author and occultist E Nesbit have burnt effigies of suburban houses as they encroached upon her in Eltham. We see the London that was, the one that is, the one that could have been – Trafalgar Square built around a 22-story pyramid, sewage-eating crocodiles introduced to the 19e– the Thames of the century – and the one it seems determined to become: a hollowed out city, unapproachable, overlooked by a collection of absurd skyscrapers. Skyscrapers have exploded in the past decade since then-mayor Boris Johnson applied the laissez-faire approach that governs his privacy to the sphere of architectural regulation, creating a legacy through which, says Baker, “in addition to its three hundred languages, the Hubristic towers make London the new Babel.” Gone are the suffocating fog of the Victorian city, and instead the streets are darkened by the shadows of buildings such as the huge 22 Bishopsgate.

Baker opens his second section by surveying London from the highest of all, before leaving the Shard to dive into the scene below in a lively meander through its parks, cemeteries, pubs and historic areas. In a gentrified Whitechapel cluttered with Ripper tours and overpriced hipster ventures, he comes up against the question that looms over all of the capital’s heritage. When the ubiquitous capitalism that powers a global city cooperates relentlessly in a business sales pitch, what chance is there of retaining an authentic character? Old London is gone, he said; it is “as if the song is over, but the melody persists”. We are left to listen to echoes, to search for ghosts, to search for books like this.

London: city of cities is a sleek, glossy hardcover with lavish color artwork. Baker’s acknowledgments section presents the usual admission that she may contain errors despite her best efforts. There are, alas, enough here to warrant warning. Baker repeats false etymology that Charing Cross derives from French Dear Queen; the name predates the time when Edward I erected a cross there in memory of his dear Queen Eleanor. This king expelled the Jews from Britain in 1290, not 1291. It is estimated that 66 people died in the Balham Tube disaster during the blitz, not 600. The winged statue commemorating Lord Shaftesbury in Piccadilly Circus does Don’t shoot an arrow into the ground in a “burial pit” Visual pun – sculptor Alfred Gilbert dismissed this myth. There are still others. Approach this book as one of the long, lonely walks through the city it describes: appreciate its wit and energy, be captivated by its sights, remember to stay alert.

Austrian novelist Joseph Roth’s Keiron Pim biography will be published next year by Granta. London: City of Cities by Phil Baker is published by Reaktion (£ 14.95). To support the Guardian, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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