38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: A History of London (Paperback)
Stephen Inwood has put together perhaps the most complete single-volume history of London to date. While many historians focus on a particular London (and yes, there are many Londons -- literary London, political London, et al.), and Inwood is no exception in taking particular focus at different times, this book touches on all the facets, by concentrating largely on London's inhabitants, and, as they belong to different Londons, exploring their native Londons and the interactions between the differing Londons.
Inwood from his childhood looked upon London as a 'remote and fascinating place'. His father as a London cab driver (as one finds, when living in or visiting London, often those who know the city best). Inwood infuses his memory of this fascination on every page of this 1100 page text, eliminating the remoteness by description and analysis that is excellent. As Inwood says, 'You can still walk the streets that Boswell and Dickens walked, and even, if you look carefully, see some of the buildings they saw.'
Inwood, realising that many histories begin with the 'easy bits', tackled the problem of writing history from the beginning, with Londinium, and even before. 'The first known inhabitants of the Greater London aea were the late Ice Age (8000 BC) hunters whose flint tools and reindeer bones were found in Uxbridge in the 1980s. From there he traces the founding of Londinium through Boudicca's revolt to Flavian Londinium to its virtual abandonment. London again had a revival during Anglo-Saxon times, being rebuilt by Alfred the Great or his son, Edward the Elder.
Edward the Confessor and his briefly tenured successor, Harold, helped intensify the significance of London by building, consecrating and then turning Westminster Abbey into a fundamental symbol of royal power -- the coronation at Westminster Abbey has remained a strong tradition for 900 years. London the city, however, had a love-hate relationship with royalty, and to this day the Lord Mayor has a ceremonial power to refuse the monarch entrance to the city, much in the way the door to the House of Commons is slammed in the face of Black Rod, the House of Lords representative sent to summon the Members to attend the proceedings in the house of peers.
Inwood's sensitivity to issues grand and small is in evidence throughout, by attending to sweeping urban planning issues to taking up a discussion of the role of Gentlemen's Clubs, 'Those who could not gain access to the best dining rooms could enjoy many of the pleasures of London society (the exclusively masculine pleasures, at any event) by becoming a member of one of the West End clubs...'
Inwood makes the observation that 'in the 1990s they could find England's most extreme social and economic contrasts within 5 miles of Parliament Square', and this is true on the whole, for the wealthy and the destitute both tend to flock to the urban scene. London has suffered by not having a central government, the only major city without such government, not that the GLC was effective, but that something needs to be done -- and perhaps the new mayoral initiative will bring some hope. London's 1993 GDP was about 110 billion GBP (180 billion USdollars), bigger than the GDP of Russia - 'a city with the capacity to generate wealth on such a scale does not need to endure overfilled railway carriages, understocked classrooms, decaying social services, underfunded libraries, neglected housing estates or families living in fire-trap bed-and-breakfast accommodation.'
Inwood concludes with an early comment on London: 'The city is delightful indeed, when it has a good governor,' penned by William Fitzstephen in 1173. Of course, today's problems are not unique even to London, as this history demonstrates admirably.
This is a history that is well worth the investment of the time it takes to read.