August 2012

Josh Zajdman


A People's History of London by Lindsey German and John Rees

A People's History of London should have been riveting. German and Rees took one of the world's most interesting cities and the fascinating world of uber-leftist radical politics and somehow by combining the two came up with a dry, lifeless, encyclopedic treatise. It's not that potential was wasted, but stamped out by inordinate amounts of detail applied to each and every uprising without differentiation or a sense of narrative momentum. This "history of radicalism," as they see it, stems from London's simultaneous positioning as a "centre of wealth and power [and] a centre of dissent and radicalism." This is the first in a series of obvious truths presented as fact. Unfortunately, it's followed by another one; namely, that this combination over centuries "has made London politics peculiarly volatile." By the time the introduction is over, we've also found out that the juxtaposition of social classes in London is a large factor in its displays of unrest. Blimey.

Fortunately, the first section, "Origins," begins with an inarguable claim. "London was established by invaders: The Romans. There were pre-Roman settlements in the Thames valley, including the area of Modern London, but it was not until after the Roman invasion of AD 43 that a large urban area was settled." That was the birth of Londinium, which became Lundenwic, then Lundenburg, and finally, London. By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, London was justifiably the eye of the world. The American Revolution was in its rearview mirror, industrial progress was dead ahead, and there were more people streaming in and out than ever before. German and Rees seem to wake up for a bit around this point. After all, they are introducing London's most vital and transformative period. This is in large part to the surge in population.

They continue, "In the first twenty-five years of the 1800s London's sheer scale stunned all who visited the city. With a population of 1 million at the turn of the century, London was already the largest city in Europe; just twenty years later the population had grown by more than a half to 1.6 million." Unfortunately, I got too expectant. The authors fell back into their same monotone mode of presentation. Dependably, they offer up the frustratingly clichéd reference to Dickens and his ability to mirror the political and social miasma of his time. It's possible that unbeknownst to me this is a requirement in considering nineteenth century London. "Dickens famously used the London fog as a metaphor for the legal system and the endless case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but it was also a literal account of the London environment for much of the year. And it could just as easily have been used as a metaphor for the political system in which all but a tiny elite were lost for influence on those that governed them."

Both metaphorical and literal fog! German and Rees won't leave their readers hanging. With the obligatory Dickensian reference out of the way, they leap wholeheartedly into some name-dropping with the brief but interesting section entitled "Marx in London." It's interesting for the oft-told narrative to which the title refers, but also for the wild array of protest Marx incites, takes part in, or inspires. He and his family arrived after his exile in 1848 and remained till his death in 1883. All around them was revolt -- whether it be the International Working Man's Association, a variety of other activism groups, or unions, this was London's time to shine. German and Rees saw "the formation of the IWMA mark[ing] the creation of real unity between revolutionaries and those like the British trade-union leaders who had a much more limited outlook politically." This was the first inkling of the previous fringe elements (read: radicals) beginning to attain a level of seriousness and wielding some power as defined legally and politically. It was no longer the mob mentality achieving through pressure of numbers. However, this was another in a series of short-lived resolutions, and the IWMA would shortly be torn asunder amidst the economic strife following the Napoleonic wars and, in a nice bit of irony, immediately preceded Marx's death. "The 1880s were marked by growing social crisis and economic hardship in London. Living standards had fallen from the Great Depression of the 1870s and now there was the spectre of unemployment."

Yet there was a working class and movement afoot. The 1880s ushered in a period wherein "the working-class movement that had long lain dormant briefly revived." The mobilization of the working class resulted in several strikes and uprisings, with the most notable of these being the infamous Bloody Sunday. The first in name, this particular Sunday, November 13, 1887, was a result of support for Ireland from the Social Democratic Federation, an organization that came after IWMA and existed somewhat alongside the most popular, the Fabian Society.

As time and the book march on, there is revolution after revolution, upset after upset, social unrest, class struggle, and a variety of other unseemly examples of civic discord. There is hunger, disparity, anti-Semitism, race riots, fires, student riots, two Olympic games over a century apart, and of course, a great war. Yes, London has been in the thick of it for centuries, and continues to remain so. Regrettably, German and Rees couldn't provide a more stimulating history. Instead, a smattering of events stick out like raised bumps on a road of potholes. One reads through with inconstant interest and impatience. The Chartists and Royalists are long passed. Who knows what's next for that city on the Thames?

A People's History of London by Lindsey German and John Rees
ISBN: 978-1844678556
320 pages