Posted in Reading on Tuesday 11th May 2004 at 7:47am
I really enjoyed 'The Victorians', Wilson's last effort. It seemed to link the dominant themes of the Victorian era effortlessly - even when they seemed at odds (grinding poverty and the pursuit of culture for example). It avoided the 'lots of important men invented big things' mentality of many recent reviews of the 19th Century both in print and on television.
So, I had high hopes for this accurately titled little book. Its size certainly concerned me however. After the weight and authority of Stephen Inwood's 'History of London' and the sheer overwhelming emotional sweep of Peter Ackroyd's 'London - A Biography', one expects more pages from a history of London. From the outset however, it is clear that this is a different kind of book. Wilson's breezy dash through the accepted version of the history of London rarely digresses into the underbelly. Nods to Booth and Mayhew accept poverty as a given, and in a traditional 'history book' style the people of the city and the buildings and infrastructure are rarely related by Wilson.
By the middle of the book we are in the Second World War, and the book begins to change. From here in, Wilson becomes entagled in immigration, cultural diversity and modern architechture. He seems uncertain where he stands on any of the topics, and settles on padding out a variety of statistics on immigration, crime and transport with some pictures of buildings he deems 'silly'. In a sense Wilson is reflecting the quiet and rarely expressed ambivalence that British people feel here - wanting to accept a cosmopolitan society but terrified and misled by media representations of the 'unknown' of Islam for example. However, it seems to me that nowhere is this tension brought more to the fore than in modern London - and nowhere is it more often successfully resolved. Wilson, rather typically dwells on the incidents which have caused death and controversy, revisiting the crime scenes but drawing no conclusions. I sense that Wilson wants to say some controversial things here, but is very aware of the sort of people who read his work. He strikes a safe middle ground between Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, and besides a deep dislike for Ken Livingstone, doesn't give away any secrets.
Perhaps I expect more from a London book because I receive more from the city? In the closing chapter Wilson in fairness, does hint at the secret history of London, the dead who walk the ancient pattern of streets along with the living. Perhaps too, I'm far more prepared to accept the past as a rather closer neighbour than Wilson does, because I don't (indeed as Wilson justly points out couldn't afford to) live in modern London?
I am often accused of living in the past, which is a fair and accurate charge. This book however, by taking what seems a deliberately inconclusive position on the difficulties of a modern capital city, falls short of living in the present.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.