London: The Illustrated History by Cathy Ross and John Clark
|London: The Illustrated History by Cathy Ross and John Clark|
|Reviewer: Paul Harrop|
|Summary: A massive, thorough and attractive survey of the development of the capital. It covers nearly every aspect of the city's life – from glaciers to The Gherkin.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: November 2008|
|Publisher: Allen Lane|
London is seldom out of the news, and those of us north of Watford often resent the media's focus on their metropolitan base. But few of us would deny the capital's importance in the political and cultural life of our country, and indeed the world. I also suspect that few would doubt the difficulty of organising the city's teeming history into a book which forms a coherent, understandable whole.
Which makes this extensive illustrated history doubly impressive. It not only does justice to the key events of London's long development, but also manages to identify the more elusive essence of the place. Produced by the staff of The Museum of London, the book is the work of many contributors, each a specialist in their own field. It comprises a series of attractively-designed double-page spreads, chronologically ordered, each covering a particular aspect of London's past, from pre-history to the present day.
The spreads are generously illustrated with maps, paintings, photographs of objects, period drawings, and reconstructions, both drawn and three-dimensional. Tackled end-to-end, the book is daunting in its scope, and I suspect few would approach the book in this way. Most readers are likely to dip into it, following a particular theme or randomly chancing upon unexpected snippets or pictures.
However, reading chronologically does give you a feel for the haphazard, initially chaotic growth of the city from a collection of farms to the hub of an empire. That said, certain themes are re-visited, clearly showing how religion, immigration, trade and conflict have shaped the metropolis. The latter is especially interesting - London has, it emerges, been visited by many episodes of civil unrest, but somehow these have rarely boiled over into uncontrolled destruction. It is as if the city has the capacity to absorb and balance out extremes.
Among such broad themes and long timescales, there is still room for the detail which brings the history to life. For instance, a ship's manifest reveals that a cargo of 1481 included a barrel of shears, glass beads and a griffin's egg. We also learn that, following bad harvests in the 15th century this time there were no reports of people eating cats, dogs or children. And the more scatalogically-inclined will delight to learn that in Victorian times pure pickers lived by gathering dog dung, known as 'pure', for sale to tanning yards.
If I have minor reservations about this book, the first would be that, despite its bulk, it cannot be totally comprehensive. For my part, I felt that the capital's literary life received short shrift, with only passing references to Pepys (of course), Shakespeare, Wilde and Dickens.
The other concern would be exactly who would buy it. I can see it as a valuable addition to a school library for example, but am not sure how many domestic coffee tables it might adorn. But for anyone who lives or works in the city, or who seeks an overview of Britain's developing society and economy in microcosm, they could do worse than to leaf through this impressive history.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
London: The Illustrated History by Cathy Ross and John Clark is in the Top Ten Books About London.
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