Wednesday 14 April 2021

London: A Social History at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Last night Doctor Johnson’s Reading Circle met on Zoom to talk about Roy Porter’s London: A Social History. But before it did, there were a couple of other things that happened first. We were given sneak-peeks at the programme for next year (our seventh) including books from both ends of the long eighteenth century. And we welcomed our newest and youngest member. Currently five days short of her first birthday, she did not seem to have enjoyed London: A Social History as her attention quickly turned to Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo. And to be fair, the rest of the group didn’t enjoy it much either.

That it was rather dull and was too full of lists was the general complaint. There was a pleasure in seeing a known person or place mentioned and there were some little details that were interesting, such as the ludicrous introduction of flocks of sheep into public squares to make them more ‘rural’. There was even a recognition that it was good to have a history of how the city was governed rather than another run-down of the same tired stories (though Pepys and his cheese did get a mention in here as well). 

It seems that what we wanted from a social history, is one that provided an in-depth look at how people lived with the nitty-gritty, revealing details that entails. Porter’s, however, is a social history in the sense of society in general. It’s a history of ‘the people’ rather than ‘people’. As such, this is a generally broad-strokes story of how London was formed and grew into the baggy conurbation it now is and how its governance always lagged behind.

In many ways, the book resembled the city it was trying to describe. While the lists of streets, of people, of jobs, of leisure activities - lists that went on for paragraphs and pages, seemed to exist to show the sheer size and fullness of London – they were allowed to spill over all the pages and were not governed or controlled by the author. 

Despite the dense foliage of lists, there is an argument through the book, that London has long developed due to economic and market forces and that those forces have created something huge and stupendous but also something that leaves the poor behind. The last couple of chapter contains a forceful polemic against Thatcher’s disbanding of the GLC and calling for a London that is properly governed in the future.

Perhaps this book would have been more pleasurably read by a politics reading group, or a group of town planners, but the more literature-focused Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle didn’t enjoy it very much. It did make us question what we would want from a history of London, and we generally though it too big a topic to write satisfyingly on without a more specific focus. Perhaps in a time before the internet was common (this book was published in 1994) a book such as this provided a good source of information that may now be googled. 

We also wondered what Roy Porter would make of today’s London, which has (so far) avoided the decline he predicted and has even created a more comprehensive form of governance in the democratically elected mayor. 

From there we started to reflect on the lost Londons we had known, whether pitted with bomb sites, receiving milk or beer by horse-drawn cart, or remembering what a telephone box was once actually used for. It will be interesting, as the grip of coronavirus lessens, to see what kind of city it will be now - and very exciting to return to Gough Square in EC4 and once again meet in Dr Johnson’s House.

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