‘My London has no hours, no seasons, no years or centuries’
The capital may be a flawed masterpiece, says Simon Jenkins in his new book, but it is still a masterpiece
06 February, 2020 — By Peter Gruner
Northchurch Tunnel, Primrose Hill in 1838 by SC Brees
PLANS to build an underground tube tunnel beneath Hampstead Heath met with uproar among the local residents back in 1900. Simon Jenkins, in his book A Short History of London, describes how locals feared the scheme linking Hampstead with Golders Green would drain water, ruin trees, and even create earthquakes.
Residents had good reason to be concerned. Much like the free-for-all railway revolution of the 1840s, there was little in the way of planned co-ordination of London’s tube network. The system was built by speculators, including American entrepreneur Charles Yerkes, who had previously been in prison in the US for fraud.
Jenkins writes: “Hampstead had saved its heath from buildings, and it now wanted no trains full of Londoners teeming over, or rather under, its delicate contours.”
However, the book quotes Islington rail historian Christian Wolmar arguing that without Yerkes many of today’s tube lines would never have been built.
The capital has grown relentlessly since Roman times but when it comes to planning there is, of course, one rule for Mr and Ms “average” resident and another for the rich and powerful.
Jenkins is no fan of architect Richard Seifert, who he suggests “blighted London’s streetscape with no feel for context or horizon,” in the mid-1960s. Seifert devised the 33-storey Centre Point office block at Tottenham Court Road in 1966, which was empty for more than 10 years and has now been partly converted into posh flats. He also produced a dozen other “prominent slabs and towers,” becoming the most prolific London architect since Wren.
Then there was former prime minister Harold Macmillan, who allowed Conrad Hilton to build a 28-storey hotel overlooking Hyde Park, in defiance of a local ban on high buildings. The decision also freed the defence ministry to follow suit, with a lofty 33-storey residence for cavalry officers at Knightsbridge. And when Shell threatened to move its HQ to the Netherlands the government overruled County Hall to allow a block of “Muscovite” proportions on the South Bank.
Governments have never been in a rush to improve the capital’s filthy air. The famous “pea-souper” smog of the 1950s and 1960s, said to be the cause of 8,000 premature deaths, was a case in point.
When backbench MP Gerald Nabarro introduced a private Clean Air Bill to control coal emissions it was opposed by the government, under pressure from the coal lobby. An amended bill was finally passed in 1956. However, as we know, air pollution today, mainly from traffic, is still a major health problem.
As a child Jenkins, former editor of The Times and the London Evening Standard, lived close to Regent’s Park.
He celebrates views from Parliament Hill but shudders to think what generations to come will say of our handling of the capital’s skyline.
He writes that by the 18th century London was the biggest metropolis in Europe and by the 19th century the biggest in the world. The population is expected to exceed nine million by 2025.
In the 19th century the railway benefited Lord Camden’s town, which was on the up while nearby Somers Town and Agar Town were under threat.
London in 1862 contained areas of extreme poverty and overcrowding. Writer Dostoevsky, a visitor in that year, was shocked by the contrast between rich and poor.
Jenkins writes: “He was entranced by the gas lighting, jostling crowds and easy communion between rich and poor. But he was appalled by the beggars on the streets, and especially by the West End prostitutes.”
In the 1840s London overtook Peking as the biggest city in the world. “But unlike other major cities like Paris and Vienna it was not aware of its deficiencies,” he writes.
The Great Fire of London inspired architect Wren to rebuild the city although he came across much delay and obstruction. St Paul’s Cathedral was mired in planning disagreements and took 30 years to complete.
The book provides lots of information, some of which is a bit meagre. Perhaps Jenkins is at his best when describing what he likes. A walk from the Embankment, through the Adelphi into the back streets of Covent Garden, is particularly vivid. He takes in Seven Dials before turning into Chinatown.
Today’s Soho, he says, is impossible to categorise, being part red light, part up-market dining, and part of the movie business.
“My London has no hours, no seasons, no years or centuries,” Jenkins writes. “It is always going about its business, we can take it or leave it, but it does not care. It may be a flawed masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece without question, the most exhilarating human construct in the world.”
• A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital. By Simon Jenkins, Viking Penguin, £25.