Frank Stein's Reviews > London: A Social History

London by Roy Porter
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Feb 28, 2010

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Overall, Roy Porter has some great insights here that are unfortunately marred by excessive, unedifying lists and unnecessary editorializing.

Porter does discover a lot of great quotes about the city from a lot of great writers. Many know of Samuel Johnson's "If you are tired of London you are tired of life," but who knew a mere sight of London from Highgate Hill made James Boswell "all life and joy." Many today also know that pre-modern cities were death-traps that could not even replace their own population through natural births, but I didn't know that as early as 1774 a London physician could claim that "Great cities are like painted sepulchers." Lord Shaftesbury, the pioneering Tory founder of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, claimed that "The strength of the people rest upon the purity and firmness of the domestic system. If the working man has his own house, I have no fear of revolution." 100 years later William Levitt in America would say basically the same thing.

Porter also finds some great quotes by French women commenting on the wonders of London fashion shops and their "great glass windows," behind which, "absolutely everything one can think of is neatly, attractively displayed." This was a shocking experience at the time.

Through these quotes and anecdotes, the classic tools of the social historian, Porter does manage to give a sensation of lived life in London through the ages, but too often he merely goes through endless series of lists. At one point he spends twenty pages going over every new development in 1600s London (one fun fact, though, while early and modern US suburbs were named after trees, shrubs, and bucolic landscapes, the British showed a propensity for aristocratic family names whose "townhouses" they replaced - "Bloomsbury Square," "Berkeley Square," etc.). At times it seems Porter is almost impelled to write down every new cordage or blacksmith business that starts in a certain neighborhood, but all to what end?

Also, the last part of the book is one extended screed against Thatcherism combined with a lament for the impending death or destruction of London. Porter notes that many other false prophets had predicted the city's collapse before, but he ignores his own history and goes ahead with another jeremiad. Of course, given the success of the city in the 15 years since the book was published (1995), this rant was proven wrong earlier than he could possibly have imagined, making the whole book seem oddly dated.
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message 1: by Sophia (new)

Sophia But what if you are tired of a book about London? Does that make you tired of life? or just tired about a book about life?

Frank Stein If the book is by Roy Porter, probably the latter.

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