Streetlife: The Untold History of Europe’s Twentieth Century, by Leif Jerram, Oxford University Press, RRP£18.99, 480 pages
London Under, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99, 208 pages
Hidden City: The Secret Alleys, Courts and Yards of London’s Square Mile, by David Long, The History Press, RRP£19.99, 240 pages
The ceremonial centre of London, as last week’s royal jamboree reminded us, makes a magnificent political theatre. When a million people lined the streets to watch the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s triumphant procession, they were following in the footsteps of millions more who once poured on to the streets to celebrate Victory in Europe or the relief of Mafeking, or to mourn the deaths of George V and Queen Victoria. Almost every yard of the processional route was steeped in history: when the carriage rolled past Whitehall’s Banqueting House, I wondered if the ghost of Charles I was waving a little flag from the spot where he met his end in 1649. And although we often think of politics as a battleground of ideas and interests, it is also, of course, a struggle for place. Throughout history, people have shed blood to control not just the streets themselves, but their meaning. Is Parliament Square a place of pageantry and patriotism, as the royal wedding crowds suggested, or a place of protest, as it might seem to student marchers on the same spot? Or both of those things and more?
When we describe ourselves as products of our environment, we usually think of class, money and parenting. Only rarely do we reflect on how our identities are shaped by space, and specifically by the random spaces of the modern city, what the historian Leif Jerram calls “the myriad nooks and crannies, backstreets and thoroughfares, clubs and bars, living rooms and factories”. We forget, for example, that the London Underground, now merely another element of our mundane daily lives, was once novel and exciting, forcing people to behave in entirely new ways. Travelling by Tube is both an intensely solitary experience, each of us cocooned in our thoughts, and an eminently collective one: inside the carriage, all distinctions of class and status are forgotten. No wonder, then, that in the early 1930s, the Soviet authorities saw the building of the Moscow Metro as the ideal way to create a new communist man. As hundreds of thousands of rural peasants flooded into the capital, taking up new identities as technicians and engineers, it seemed that a new proletariat was being born. “How many people,” asked a Pravda headline, “recreated themselves making the Metro?”
In Streetlife, an enjoyably idiosyncratic and provocative journey through 20th-century Europe, Jerram argues that headlines of wars, governments and nations miss the story of the modern city, a story running underneath the conventional accounts just as the Underground runs beneath London. In 1900, seven out of 10 British citizens already lived in urban environments, as well as five out of 10 French and Germans. Democratic politics was already an exercise in street theatre, a battle over not just ideology but “whose brass band played loudest, whose street discipline was clearest”. Communism and fascism were born in the streets, amid the tumult of crowds. By contrast, Jerram suggests, the comparatively humane, self-consciously moderate conservatism of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain was relatively unusual, reflecting Britain’s early suburbanisation: a politics of the privet hedge.
In Jerram’s account, it is the street, not the individual, that makes history. Revolutions broke out in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918, he argues, because of particular “spatial relationships”, with “warships moored near industrial cities and starving populations in urban centres”. By contrast, France avoided civil war and extremism in the mid-1930s because the forces of order maintained control of Paris’s great squares and boulevards. Three decades later, Parisian geography again played a crucial role in headline-grabbing disorder. During the events of May 1968, Jerram suggests, “where people were is more important to understanding what they were doing than what they thought”. In his narrative of the Nanterre student protests that launched the famous événements, space is everything. Why did the protests break out there, and not somewhere else? Because it was an isolated campus in the middle of an industrial wasteland; because the last train left at 10pm; because you had to trudge across fields of mud to get to the station; because there was only one café on campus and the vending machines only operated at inconvenient hours; above all, because there was nowhere else to go. In this environment, going to a protest meeting was simply the most attractive option.
Although Jerram sometimes overstates his case – my old geography teacher might be delighted to hear that history can be reduced to a story of place, but I am not entirely convinced – he is excellent at showing how space matters. In one insightful passage, for example, he demonstrates how the geography of the typical French town, with its network of small squares, helped to determine the fate of the tondues, the women shaved and humiliated after the liberation of France in 1944. Earlier in the war, the square had been “the site and symbol of occupation”, the place where German soldiers swaggered from café to café. Now it became a “theatre of a macabre and vengeful misogynist performance”, as women accused of collaboration were surrounded by jeering crowds. Perhaps similar scenes might have unfolded in Britain, had it been occupied in the same way. But as Jerram points out, the geography of British towns, which were then much more haphazard, higgledy-piggledy places, meant that such rituals would have been much harder to enact.
To many intellectuals at the time, this very haphazardness was a matter of deep regret. By the 1940s, the idea of planning – the imposition of order by the well-meaning and high-minded, often over the objections of those who lived in inner-city districts themselves – had become deeply embedded in European intellectual and political culture. Town planning went hand-in-hand with ideas of cleanliness, hygiene and national regeneration; at its core was the idea of the city as a place of crime, disease and corruption. There was much truth in this, of course. A century ago, the slums of London, where families slept six to a bed in conditions of appalling filth, were not unlike the shanty towns of modern Rio or Mumbai.
At the heart of progressive politics was the drive to banish such conditions forever, using the same rhetoric of surgery and cleanliness that right-wing demagogues used when talking about racial minorities. Although modernist planners often had good reason to claim that they were saving the poor from dirt and disease, a kind of high-handed destructiveness was built into their project from the very beginning. Around nearly every British city centre, Jerram notes, you will today find “a ring a mile or two wide of near-total destruction of the Victorian city”. Unforgivably, every single tram line in Britain was pulled up in the decades after 1945, an act of vandalism from which we have yet to recover. It would be churlish not to admit the planners’ successes, not least the elimination of damp and smoke; but it would be foolish, too, not to acknowledge the costs.
What the planners of the 1950s and 1960s often failed to recognise is that the city in reality is a necessarily messy, dirty, anarchic place, where individuals and crowds are constantly breaking rules and subverting expectations. Designers may dream of a clean, classless future, but history has a habit of breaking through, like weeds pushing through tarmac. Even in the City of London, now a place of gleaming glass towers and soulless office blocks, the past is all around. David Long’s intriguing alphabetical survey Hidden City – the approach itself an attempt to impose order on chaos – lists hundreds of little courtyards and alleys, many almost forgotten among the banks and businesses. Their very names often reflect centuries-old associations. Bear Alley, long since amputated to make way for the Holborn Viaduct, once hosted a tavern famous for bear-baiting. Bevis Marks, near Aldgate Tube station, is a corruption of the phrase “Bury’s Marks”, which referred to the medieval residence of the abbots of Bury St Edmunds. Love Lane, near Moorgate, was renowned for its prostitutes. Disappointingly, however, nearby Mincing Lane derives its name from a community of nuns who rented the land in the 15th century and were known as mynecen in Old English.
But the names are not the only remnants of a past that many Londoners have now forgotten. As Peter Ackroyd reminds us in London Under, his short but fascinating history of the capital beneath the surface, the city is built on a shifting mixture of clay, sand and gravel, from which historical relics have a habit of unexpectedly appearing. Digging beneath Oxford Street in 1865, a gang of workmen found a trapdoor. Opening it, they went down a flight of 16 steps, which led to “a room of considerable size”, built of red brick, with a bubbling spring at its centre. This was probably a Roman baptistery, the water flowing from a tributary of the Tyburn stream. Almost unbelievably, it was demolished to make way for new buildings, a victim of the Victorians’ restless thirst for novelty.
The story fuels one of our deepest and most lingering fantasies: the idea that beneath the streets, beneath the surface of things, lies another world with rules and conventions of its own, an underground utopia or a hidden hell. Satisfyingly, there is more truth in it than we often realise. In the autumn of 1940, thousands of Londoners took refuge from the Blitz in the stations of the Underground. They brought deck chairs and rugs, umbrellas and flasks; by six o’clock every evening, the crowds were so thick that dozens of people had to bed down on the escalators. Alarmed, the government installed wooden bunks and drew white lines on the platform, regulating this spontaneous movement of people; and so, gradually, a city beneath the city, a world beneath the world, began to take shape, with its own underground lending libraries, cigarette machines, even newspapers. Yet it remained a place of fear and desperation: a “fetid and noisome world”, writes Ackroyd, resembling “the rookeries of nineteenth-century London”.
Underneath the hubbub of the capital are no fewer than 44 “dead stations”, abandoned but often still in surprisingly decent condition. Then there are the great vaults and tunnels of the Bank of England, or the bunkers and passages that run beneath Whitehall, a secret underground network with more than 30 access shafts linked to hidden entrances across the city. In 1980 the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell found a way in through a manhole on a traffic island in Bethnal Green Road. He took a bicycle down the 100ft ladder and cycled through the tunnels, following signs on the walls to Whitehall, the Mall and even Lord’s cricket ground. When he published his story, all the entrances were rigorously secured. But the network is still there, waiting to be used.
The writer Andrew Martin once remarked that when he began in journalism, the two classic standbys for feature articles were the survival of afternoon tea-dances and “London under London”. Although little of what Ackroyd recounts is new, it is nonetheless irresistible. There is something fascinating, for example, about the existence of the vast sewer network beneath the capital, with its great brick cathedrals, its arches and crypts, its tunnel walls with their fatty deposits 30 inches thick, its tides of filth, its numberless armies of rats. When I was a child, the London sewers were always being invaded by aliens in Doctor Who; even now, it is faintly unsettling to think of the tides flowing beneath our feet.
The truth is that from Greek myths and medieval theology to Jules Verne and HG Wells, the idea of a world beneath our world still haunts our collective imagination. We may build higher and higher, hoping somehow to escape the dirt and disease, the crime and chaos of the modern city. But like our forebears, we are inevitably drawn downwards, to the ground beneath our feet that holds our “dreams and desires, fears and longings”.
Dominic Sandbrook is author of ‘State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974’ (Allen Lane)