British biographer and novelist Wilson (The Victorians, 2003, etc.) briskly recaps London's evolution from Roman outpost to multicultural metropolis.
As part of Modern Library's Chronicles series, this does not aspire to the epic sweep or narrative amplitude of the city's recent “biography” (London, 2001) by Peter Ackroyd, to whom this volume is dedicated. Instead, Wilson provides a highly selective chronological account, focusing on the “barely controlled social and architectural chaos” that has always accompanied London's generally unplanned growth. He sketches in broad strokes: Roman London existed to serve the empire's needs; Norman London centralized government functions to facilitate the conquerors' hegemony; Tudor and Stuart London was insular and paranoid; Georgian London gave birth to the gracious architecture overshadowed by the ugly buildings of the Victorians, who redeemed themselves with such practical achievements as the underground railway and a decent sewer system; under Nazi bombardment, London and Londoners stood as emblems of steadfast resistance; Swinging London marked the city's transition from a workplace to playground for leisure-time amusements. The author's personal opinions, evident throughout, become particularly marked in the final chapters. “London Cosmopolis” cheerfully depicts an international city inhabited by Mexican classroom assistants, Ethiopian janitors, Sikh upholsterers, and Pakistani newspaper vendors, but “Silly London” scathingly anatomizes the “ill-disguised euphemisms and clichés” of Mayor Ken Livingston's 2002 master plan. The underlying truth, according to Wilson, is “that very few Londoners any longer make or do anything specifically useful and that your best chance of a job . . . is work as a waiter, a domestic servant in an hotel, or a prostitute.” It's punchy, all right, but despite tributes to London's “unquenchable life,” the author doesn't convey much affection for his place of residence, and his assertion that “in spite of all the mistakes made by its administrators, [London] will meet the challenges of the future” sounds decidedly halfhearted.
Not rah-rah enough for the tourist trade, and too sketchy for the armchair traveler.