A good read but variable as history
A Short History of London is good on architecture but a more sophisticated analysis is needed
It is very difficult to be original in tackling this well-trodden path. Simon Jenkins offers a focus on buildings, on the fabric as he puts it of life. The emphasis is very much that of a concern about change, and, more specifically, about planners. At the same time, he applauds “where the city has kept its nerve and not run screaming into the market place… I shudder to think what generations to come will say of our handling of London’s skyline…. I believe urban politics should never privilege the current generation.” And so on. Highly understandable, and Jenkins, who has a fine aesthetic judgment and loves his subject, writes with panache. And given that the prestige, charm, ability and connections of the author are likely to lead to uniformly positive reviews, I would like to suggest certain doubts.
The first category are already clear. Given Jenkins’; disquiet about planning, capitalism, and the consumerism and perspective of the present, it is not surprising that there is a degree of incoherence. The comparison with Charles Dickens, like Jenkins a newspaper editor as well as much else, may please Jenkins, who cites him as a novelist with approval. However, Dickens’ offered a simple incoherence, part of a more muddled or very individual, or both, response to Liberalism. In addition, Dickens, including in his journalism, was a novelist, whereas Jenkins wishes to be an historian.
So let us turn to that aspect. First, and this is the common failing of works on London, there is a woeful lack of two, related, aspects: the wider dimension, and the comparative account. To understand London, we need to know what it meant to Cheshire or Birmingham, Dublin or Norfolk; and Jenkins, like others, is very weak here. We also require the comparative account. This book is subtitled ‘The Creation of a World Capital.’ Fair enough, but Jenkins could have started off by better explaining why London within the British Isles. He mentions Winchester, but does not really explain its passing under the shadow of London. And so also for York. As far as a world capital is concerned, there needs to be a more sophisticated analysis of the shifting character of imperial mastery, of its relationship with particular cities, and of the relationship between West and East. Some of the comments are simply confusing. To say that mid-nineteenth century Paris and Vienna were aware of their deficiencies, but London not, is flawed. To praise Haussmann’s product and underplay London street-building is mistaken, and, indeed, Jenkins goes on to reverse gear within three pages.
As in Paris, there was a determination to destroy ‘rookeries,’ though in London the use of the army was not the goal. Again, the dating of ‘London’s conscience, reflected in both a rising tide of philanthropy and ever more insistent demands for governmental reform’ to the late nineteenth century, and underplaying earlier efforts, is unhelpful.
More generally, Jenkins is good on architecture and less so on industry, and is better on governance than religion. At times, there is a thwarted progressivism and, at times, a nostalgic Conservatism. A good read, but variable as history.
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