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Book Review

London: A City That Has Always Led the Way

A HISTORY OF LONDON; by Stephen Inwood; Carroll & Graf $38, 1,112 pages

May 17, 1999|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A seat of government; a den of vice; a forcing-house of trade, productivity, wealth, poverty, crime, fashion and intellectual creativity: London's variety, like Cleopatra's, is infinite. In recognition of this fact, Stephen Inwood's wonderfully variegated history of the great city has, as he puts it, no single "overarching theme." But running through the colorful tapestry he has woven are a few threads that lend thematic coherence to the proceedings.

First and foremost, as he explains, "London has always . . . relied on migrants. . . . It was founded in an almost deserted spot by foreign conquerors, and its population has been replenished by invaders--with swords or suitcases--ever since." Indeed, for much of its 2,000-year history, the teeming city's overcrowded dwellings and poor sanitation made it a breeding ground of disease. Without a constant stream of newcomers, Inwood argues, London's population would have been decimated.

But, as his book admirably illustrates, London has always had a lot to offer, attracting people from everywhere: the English countryside, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Europe, Africa and Asia. Inwood examines London's many facets: marketplace, port, trade and banking center, seat of government, hub of cultural and intellectual life, a magnet for doctors, lawyers, journalists, architects, playwrights, actors, scientists, and, in earlier days, astrologers.

In many ways, London is a typical great metropolis. As Inwood notes, "a city's similarity to others, as much as its uniqueness, gives its history . . . an importance beyond the parochial. What happened to Londoners happened to others too, and sometimes in devising ways of coping with problems of urban growth, they beat a path for other cities to follow." From sewers, roads and public transport to housing, public safety and recreational space, Londoners have sought--and often found--effective solutions to urban problems.

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In some ways, however, London is, if not unique, then certainly unusual. As Roy Porter notes in his foreword: "When other European towns were going up in flames during the 16th century Reformation, London by and large evolved peacefully from Catholicism to Protestantism. In the 17th century Civil War, London remained a stronghold of order. . . . In more recent times, while other European cities were being taken over by communist putsches or fascist coups, London remained remarkably free of civil bloodshed."

Naturally, Londoners were often unruly and rebellious, and the city's history includes its share of riots and demonstrations. Yet, as Inwood aptly phrases it, "London's revolutionary power was often feared, sometimes deliberately exaggerated, but seldom experienced." One factor that may have helped was that London was generally not short of food supplies: Londoners might have struggled hard to make a living, but they seldom faced the terrifying specter of starvation.

Inwood's book abounds with thoughtful insights, juicy anecdotes and intriguing facts that challenge many prevailing stereotypes. Almost everyone thinks of Oliver Cromwell as the grim Puritan who closed down theaters and turned London into a joyless place. Yet, Inwood reminds us, Cromwell was a great patron of music and opera. It was also he who invited the Jews to come back to England, after 365 years of banishment. Ale houses and coffeehouses flourished, even in Puritan London, and, indeed, as Inwood tells us, "[i]t was not Cromwell, but the fun-loving Charles II" who tried to close down the latter.

To browse through this book is like wandering through the great city itself, but with the added advantage of being able to roam through time. We can revisit Regency London, or the mean streets of Dickensian London, or London of the blitz. We can catch a glimpse of Elizabethan London, where swans and pleasure boats adorned the Thames, and a visitor from Venice commented on the extraordinary degree of freedom enjoyed by Englishwomen, who "go out of the house without menfolk . . . serve in shops . . . play with young lads, even though they do not know them." The English, according to this Italian, "kiss each other a lot. If a stranger enters a house and does not first of all kiss the mistress on the lips, they think him badly brought up."

Inwood has brought together a wealth of fascinating material, and, like London itself, he seems to have arrived at just the right balance between molding all this rich variety into a meaningful form and allowing it to take its own shape.

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