There are literally thousands of books on London, but few match up in terms of readability in a fun, accessible way to Boris Johnson’s Johnson’s Life of London.
If you have ever heard Boris Johnson speak, you will straight away see that the current Mayor of London writes as he speaks. You can detect the boyish grin, the cheekiness, the humour and the mercurial wit.
This is a historical canter through the people that made London … well, London. His choice of the important characters in the past 2,000 years of London is interesting. For example, take Mellitus. Not many will have heard of him, but he was a hugely important bishop of London who, in the seventh century, reintroduced Christianity to London following a couple of hundred years of Anglo Saxons and Vikings. Johnson makes the point that without him, we could still be worshiping Norse gods. But there is scant mention of Charles Dickens, not much on Christopher Wren or diarist Samuel Pepys. All three were hugely important; without them the picture of London is incomplete.
Johnson includes other important, but little-known individuals who made London their home, such as the Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar, who gave us the some of the best drawings and maps of 17th-century London.
And there’s one of my unsung heroes, scientist Robert Hooke, a true genius often forgotten in the shadow of his contemporaries, Robert Boyle and Wren, yet one of the great minds behind the 17th-century scientific revolution during the age of enlightenment. This was a time when England moved from agriculture to industry, making London one of the richest cities in the world.
However, if you included everyone who made a contribution to London, you would likely end up with a 20-book compendium.
Many other chapters are dedicated those we will know: Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London; William the Conquerer; John Wilkes; Chaucer, Rothschild, Churchill. There is a wonderful chapter on Samuel Johnson, whose celebrity status and general respect were matched only by his crass political incorrectness, quite acceptable in his time.
Keith Richards gets a chapter, centred on when Boris met Keith, with the premise that the Rolling Stones gave rock and roll back to America from London, and that without the Stones, bands like the Eagles simply wouldn’t have existed.
Johnson comes up with the interesting idea that London is a like a nuclear reactor, with quark and neutrinos bumping into each other to produce the exciting results. This is true of any major city, but London has been doing this on a scale wider than the confines of the city, pretty much for the last 550 years.
Besides people, Johnson looks at pioneering inventions from London that changed the world. The subway, or tube, the first in the world, opened in 1863; gentlemen’s suits; the Cashpoint (or ATM); the King James Bible; the modern bicycle, which is close to Johnson’s heart as he is often seen hurtling round his city on two wheels.
He reminds us that Marx’s Das Kapital was written in London and, at the other end of the political spectrum, that Thatcherism too was developed and practised from the city. And that is the point about London; not many cities allow, or even encourage, such wide political debate.
But, in essence, London was born of the Romans. One empire gives birth to another empire. Johnson gets it right on the importance of the Romans and the development of London. London wouldn’t exist as we know it, certainly where it is, without them. When the Romans invaded, they set up their garrison around AD 43 at the first point they could ford the River Thames at low tide. This is approximately where London Bridge stands today. There is little evidence of anything pre-Roman, other than a few settlements along the Thames Valley.
Throughout the book, Johnson highlights the importance non-Londoners had on the city. Romans, Gauls, Saxons, Vikings, Danes, Normans, the Lombards (from what is now Lombardia in northern Italy), who replaced the 13th-century Jewish bankers. The Huguenots, booted out of France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and, from the 19th century on, former British Empire communities from the Caribbean, South Asia and further afield who have called London their own.
The latter part of the 20th century saw huge influxes of Europeans from the EU, who have come to the city to work and live. And that was and is one of the reasons London has been so successful. London is well known to have visitors, welcome or unwelcome, make the city their own and ultimately thrive and prosper.
Johnson, Samuel rather than Boris, is remembered for saying that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life. That’s as true today as in the 18th century. London remains one of the most vibrant, interesting and diverse cities on the planet.
This is a great read for anyone who loves London. It is stuffed with amusing stories, anecdotes and little-known facts about the city and those who lived there, all of it delivered in Johnson’s unique style.
A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750
By Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph P. Ward, Cambridge University Press, 413 pages, $28.95
Two U.S. historians offer an in-depth study of the period when London came to dominate the social, political and cultural life of the British Isles. They trace the elements and circumstances that helped London move from backwater city to the powerhouse of an empire that ranged from India to Canada.
A History in Verse
Edited by Mark Ford, Belknap/Harvard University Press, 745 pages, $35.95
Nearly every British poet has written a poem about London, beginning with Chaucer, Spenser and Shakespeare, and continuing through Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Eliot. Ford, a poet and English professor, also collects from Jacobean comedies, nursery rhymes, contemporary satires and anonymous ballads.