I’m reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, a 750-page book with one dominant theme. Fire, riot, real-estate speculation, bombs, and state planning have caused constant and brutal change throughout London’s 2000 years. But despite all this disruption, many streets and districts mysteriously retain consistent functions and characters over very long periods. Sometimes a place will have a modern use (and name) that evokes the same site before the Romans arrived.
I think Ackroyd sometimes stretches a point and is not perfectly reliable. However, his theme has personal resonance for me. I partly grew up in London, spending five school years there, plus every summer (save one) until I was nineteen. We usually rented a new home each year, so we lived all over the city. Now I return with my own family almost annually. Thus I have seen London’s evolution since the 1970s in a kind of freeze-frame–skyscrapers sprouting; cockney cafes giving way to Starbucks; Bangladeshis following Ugandan Indians and Jamaicans; bowler hats, Mohawks, and backwards baseball caps in procession. In my lifetime, London has extended its ancient pattern of destruction, immigration, and reconstruction.
As a child, I was deeply interested in London’s history. This interest came from two main sources, my parents and my school. My mother took us down to the muddy banks of the tidal Thames to dig up clay pipe stems from pre-industrial times and helped me find chalk fossil shells deposited eons earlier. We also went on guided walking tours. I especially recall a geologist’s tour of the stone used in West End buildings; a walk along the remains of the Roman wall (which now runs through the glass blocks of the financial center); and nighttime visits to the Tower of London, led by a Beefeater. We went to the theater often, and such plays as Bartholomew’s Fair and The Knight of the Burning Pestle evoked old London for me.
For three years, I attended the only state primary school within the City of London, Prior Weston. The imaginative, progressive faculty emphasized local history. They made their mix of cockney and yuppie students feel citizens of the old London “commune,” with its guilds, monastic orders, councils, traditions, and civic privileges. The city was being torn up then, as usual, huge towers rising from bomb sites. Ugly and anonymous as the new buildings were, they followed ancient roads and their foundations laid bare the remnants of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, and Victorian London. I was especially possessive of the bomb site next to our school, which we viewed as a “nature preserve,” since it had sprouted wild flowers and sheltered hardy urban birds. We agitated to preserve it, but a massive building soon appeared in its place. Meanwhile, outside the school’s main door, vegetables were still sold from wooden barrows as they had been for a thousand years.