I tuned into the Today show a few days ago, which is not something I normally do. Insomnia lately has meant that I am either up at 5 am or don’t sleep all night. So, in the morning there’s little else on. Anyway, I happened to catch a few minutes of Matt Lauer interviewing Boris Johnson, newly re-elected Mayor of London and the first conservative I’ve liked since Alex P. Keaton. In addition to talking about the Diamond Jubilee and the upcoming Olympics, he was plugging his new book, so I went out and bought it the next day.
I’m not sure I knew much about the Mayor when I was living in London, but I have seen him on TV a number of times since. Most notably, I saw him on Top Gear and he was hilarious. Recommended viewing! I can’t get the video to embed, so here is a link:
I think he’s probably a favorite with the Top Gear trio because a-his background is in journalism, including automotive journalism, b- he’s quite funny and can definitely hold his own in a conversation, and c- he’s got ridiculous hair.
Or maybe Clarkson, et al. are not particularly interested in his hair, but I like that he doesn’t look like everyone else. He also rides a bike to work every day, has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humor, and it’s obvious how much he cares about London. He doesn’t have a (or I have never seen him display it) cynicism about London that a lot of people from the UK fall victim to.
So, when I heard him talking about this book, which is basically a list of his picks for the most influential people in the history of the greatest city in the world, I knew I would enjoy it.
He has picked 18 individuals who have had the biggest influence on the future of London. Some of them are quite obscure. I took a whole class on pre-Norman Conquest England, read all of Bede’s works, but I don’t even remember Boudica. Some are more well known, like the obvious Winston Churchill. Some are surprising picks–Keith Richards over Mick Jagger? What’s interesting and worthwhile about the book is not who he has chosen, or even why, but how he has described their connection to the city and its place on the world’s stage.
He also includes four or five little snippets about important inventions and features in London history, such as the King James Bible, the flush toilet, the bicycle, and the tube.
Johnson also has a distinct point of view when it comes to describing the city–he is the one responsible for running it. As such, he places particular attention and importance on people and things that have improved the city infrastructure. The tube, the railways, the docks, the bridges. He starts with a discussion of London Bridge, and it is clear through numerous examples that a lot of what has allowed the city to grow and improve, or wane and falter, has been down to these tangible features. Much of the post-WWII decline could be set down to the destruction of docks and homes during the Blitz. The improvement in living conditions, population growth, and life expectancy that came at the end of the Victorian era can be attributed largely to the sewer systems built during the late 19th century, allowing for clean and hygienic living in a crowded area. Of course these things seem obvious once they’re stated, but I’ve taken multiple English/British history courses and never had anyone point out how directly and completely these physical features affect the city.
The other main point Johnson makes is one that most people know, but it is very true: London is a city with two cities and tons of villages. The main tensions and changes throughout the centuries have occurred because of the relationship between Westminster and ‘the City’. One is the home of politics, the other the home of banking and commerce. Such was true 1000 years ago, and is still true today. Perhaps more so today. Much of the changes that came to define London were due to merchants putting pressure on the crown and Parliament, and that tension meant that no one got too much of an upper hand. Unlike places like France, where the wealth and power was dominated by only the elite, in London there grew a (comparatively) reasonably large merchant class. As the aristocracy is often lacking funds to continue their lavish lifestyle, they often come to rely on the bankers and financiers for the money to finance their lives and their wars. This meant a give and take of power that you wouldn’t find in lots of other countries on the continent. This tension actually led to increased government stability, and the city grew as a result.
I think the growth of the city is how Johnson chiefly measures the success of the changes he is discussing. He explains that many of the chief geniuses of the history of London were spurred on by competition. Shakespeare was competing with tons of other playwrights, like Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Keith Richards was competing with Mick Jagger inside the group, and they were all competing with the Beatles. Turner was competing with other painters like John Constable. The competition of brilliant men (and women) with others is what leads to an explosion of talent and genius. And that competition is only possible, or for most of history it has only been possible, with geographic proximity.
I really enjoyed this book. I don’t read tons of non-fiction, but this was interesting and written in a very easy and readable manner. I really enjoy Johnson’s writing, and his history as a journalist is obvious. He writes well, he is funny, he is not taking any of it too seriously, which allows you to take him a lot more seriously.
A note of warning though. I consider myself to have a pretty damn good vocabulary, more so since I have been studying for the GRE and memorizing flashcards full of vocabulary. This man, however, put me to shame. I had to look up, on average 3-4 words per chapter. I mean, I may pat myself on the back for knowing the words denouement, apogee, and bellicose without the help of Webster, but I was flummoxed by coelenterate, impecunious, and contumacious. Have a dictionary or web-searching device handy.