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London: A Historyby A.N. Wilson
Synopses & Reviews
Prelude: A London History
One of the best ways to see London, at once and as a whole, is to climb Hampstead Heath and look down from Parliament Hill. On a clear day, from this northern vantage point, the eye can stretch across the teeming, chaotic expanse, taking in familiar landmarks, such as the winking giant tower of Canary Wharf to the east, or the dome of St. Paul's directly ahead, or, to the west, the Palace of Westminster and the Abbey. From this height, we see the northern conurbations of Kentish Town and Camden Town immediately beneath us, we see Regent's Park dotted with trees, and Hyde Park and, far beyond, south of the river, we can look to the suburban sprawl of south London, its terraced houses, its villas, its tower blocks, its churches and cinemas.
What we are looking at is not a city which has been built according to one uniform plan. Here is no grid of numbered streets as in New York, no architectural homogeneity as in St. Petersburg, no rigidly pure urban plan as in post-Napoleonic, post-Haussmann Paris. We see, rather, a group of boroughs, former villages, bursting with life and vigor, but existing in barely controlled social and architectural chaos. From where we stand, with the natural beauties of the Heath behind us, we see little of beauty. This is not one of the great city views of the world, such as we might take in from the Pincio or Fiesole when gazing upon Rome or Florence. Little that we look upon would seem to have been planned. The two great centers of old London-the City of London itself, the square mile, in the east; and the city of Westminster, to the west-are distinct, even today. The villages, swollen to boroughs, which surround and join them by a multitude of overcrowded, trafficky streets, all have their own identity and history.
The history of London is therefore by its very nature a collective history, a kaleidoscope of many stories rather than a book with one author or one theme. Moreover, because of the size and fluidity of London's population, because of its constant change and growth, much of its story is hidden from us. Workmen gouging out the earth for a new building can suddenly unearth for us evidence of a lost London, the outlines of an old theater where Shakespeare acted, the conduit of a medieval waterway, or paving of Roman times. Sentiment will always be stirred by such discoveries and, in some cases, the few fragments of a forgotten past will be preserved or reclaimed by archaeology. One suspects that there have been many more cases in the history of London's construction industry when, to avoid delays on the new building, the pick or the electric drill has merely obliterated the vestiges of the old in order to make way for the new.
Most London history, like the lives of most Londoners, has passed into oblivion, and what we choose to recover of it, especially in so short a study as this, will be arbitrary. Even as we stand here on Parliament Hill, looking down on the London of the twenty-first century, we become aware of how much is concealed, how much has gone forever. We can see the physical properties of London geography, for example. From this height we can see that the cluster of conurbations which we call London grows up on and around a group of low hills: but although we catch a glimpse of silver sunlight on the great Thames, which snakes between the gray buildings, we see nothing of the rivers and streams that once
A passionate two-thousand-year history of London includes coverage of such areas as the Restoration, the Great Fire, the Royal Society, the South Sea Bubble, and the engineering achievements of the Victorian age. By the author of Paul: The Mind of an Apostle. Reprint. 25,000 first printing.
In its two thousand years of history, London has ruled a rainy island and a globe-spanning empire, it has endured plague and fire and bombing, it has nurtured and destroyed poets and kings, revolutionaries and financiers, geniuses and visionaries of every stripe. To distill the magic and the majesty of this infinitely enthralling city into a single brief volume would seem an impossible task–yet acclaimed biographer and novelist A. N. Wilson brilliantly accomplishes it in London: A History.
Founded by the Romans, London was a flourishing provincial capital before falling into ruin with the rest of the Roman Empire. Centuries passed before the city rose to prominence once again when William the Conqueror chose to be crowned king in Westminster Abbey. In
Chaucer’s day, London Bridge opened the way for expansion over the Thames. By the time Shakespeare’s plays were being mounted at the Globe, London was a dense, seething, and explosively growing metropolis–a city of brothels and taverns and delicate new palaces and pleasure gardens.
With deftly sketched vignettes and memorable portraits in miniature, Wilson conjures up the essence of London through the ages–high finance and gambling during the Georgian age, John Nash’s stunning urban makeover at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the waves of building and immigration that transformed London beyond recognition during the reign of Queen Victoria, the devastation of the two world wars, the painful and corrupt postwar rebuilding effort, and finally the glamorous, polyglot, expensive, and sometimes ridiculous London of today. Every age had its heroes and villains, from church builder Christopher Wren to jail breaker Jack Sheppard, from urbane wit Samuel Johnson to wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, and Wilson places each one in the drama of London’s history.
Exuberant, opinionated, surprising, often funny, A. N. Wilson’s London is the perfect match of author and subject. In a one short irresistible volume, Wilson gives us the essence of the people, the architecture, the intrigue, the art and literature and history that make London one of the most fascinating cities in the world.
From the Hardcover edition.
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