"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" This is the question the 14th century priest John Ball asked his flock as he looked around at the enormous economic inequality in London.
It was a class system that was determined entirely by birth—you were either born lucky and wealthy or not, and you did not have a chance at rising above your origins. Ball was something of a radical priest, in constant conflict with the church leaders, and when mere words were not enough, he moved to action, helping to lead the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Read the last Bookslut on 'Privacy' with Garret Keizer.
The words that Ball used then to rally and to comfort still resonate more than 600 years later, in our time of increasing inequality and continued political inaction:
“They dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields, and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondmen, and without we do readily them service, we are beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right.”
Today of course, Ball would be a leader of the Occupy movement, and hopefully he would come to a better end. He was captured after leading up to 60,000 peasants into London, and he was hanged, drawn and quartered, decapitated, and his head was displayed for all to see at the London Bridge. And as Lindsey German and John Rees tell it in A People’s History of London, both Ball and the Occupy movement are merely two chapters in a very long story of riches and poverty, revolution and authority, protest and political complacency.
There is something specific about London that makes it cycle through these uprisings on a regular basis. Of course every large city has a similar history of radicalism, but Rees and German maintain that London is an especially difficult case. London is not just the largest city of the country, it is also its political capital, its center of publishing, its financial hub as well as a major international port.
And being such a large city on such a small island, the “mob” and the elites are going to be found in close proximity, often rubbing up against one another in increasingly uncomfortable ways. The visibility of both the poor and the rich can create resentment on both sides. The poor become “chavs,” layabouts and unworthy of the UK’s social programs, and the wealthy become heartless, amoral parasites feeding on the labor of the working class. Both groups dehumanize the other, making direct conflict more likely, if not inevitable.
The story of London’s radicalism begins in Roman times, when a woman named Boudicca had her land taken from her and her daughters raped by soldiers and she responded by gathering a small army and burning London to the ground. (German and Rees write, “its destruction [was] so comprehensive that today modern archeologists find in nearly every site a layer of charred remains up to half a metre thick.”) On and on the story cycles, spiraling in on itself and repeating themes of anger and destruction through century after century. The second half of the book is devoted to the last 200 years, when the revolts came more quickly through the industrial revolution, the anarchist movement, the bombing campaign of the suffragists, on through the Thatcher years and the religious conflicts of the last decade or so.
German and Rees are firmly on the side of the rioters. The government and the police force are almost always, in their depiction, on the side of preventing change and stifling progress (unless, of course, progress has financial benefits). And while we can understand the motivations of the frustrated and the thwarted who take up bricks or loot department stores, that does not mean that their acts are somehow inherently noble, which German and Rees come close to implying.
Also a problem is that title, which makes the people equated with so much rabble. By focusing only on the radical edge of the people, it leaves a lot of their humanity behind. The title is an obvious nod to Howard Zinn and his book A People’s History of the United States. But Zinn portrayed his people more fully, giving them dignity by showing them in life and not only in battle. It’s a more nuanced painting of a common figure in repose, whereas German and Rees paint their people with angry mouths agape, fists clenched around torches and rocks.
But at the end of the day, A People’s History of London is a story worth telling, particularly now. In the lead up to the Olympics, there was a tremendous amount of protest over the money being spent on a media spectacle in a time when education budgets, health care benefits and social programs for the poor were all being slashed. It made a few headlines, it led to one pretty great book, Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk.
But when the Olympics actually started, everyone stopped talking about any of the controversies and just gushed about what a great host London was being. And as those facilities are now abandoned and the relatively poor neighborhood that was taken over by the Olympic committee tries to go back to normal, probably few in the media will write much about the daily struggle to survive over there. Until another group of the disenfranchised picks up either tools or weapons and forces the world to pay attention.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.