A Narrative History of London
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Modern Times in London
By Langdon Jones

At the start of the new century, London was a larger, busier place than it had ever been before. One could buy fresh fish from Billingsgate, meat from Smithfield Market, flowers and vegetables from Covent Garden, clocks from Clerkenwell Road, diamonds from Hatton Garden; all kinds of goods were readily available. As a thriving centre of trade and commerce London had become very much the centre of the world’s largest empire.

Giant liners traversed the oceans; electric lighting was beginning to appear, and horseless carriages could occasionally be seen on the streets. Many of the things destined to play a major part in twentieth-century life were here already. But at the same time for most people there was little difference between this London and the city of fifty years previously. Victoria was still on the throne; there was still dire poverty, and those who were without work had to survive on charity and scavenging. The bad winter of 1902 caused great misery and degradation, and things became so desperate that an observer of the time might have felt that such a situation could not possibly go on for long.

But at the time the only alleviation remained the institution of workhouses, although philanthropists were constructing almshouses, cheap housing for the poor. Ironically those same almshouses that survive today are sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

London at the time was a curious mixture of ostentatious wealth hiding harrowing poverty. Although this was a period of extraordinary prosperity, the normal working man had a hard enough time of it. The music-hall song whose chorus goes, My old man said ‘Follow the van, and don’t dilly-dally on the way’ describes the plight of a couple who are leaving their lodgings owing rent and making their escape by moonlight - a predicament which was clearly one familiar to everybody in the audience.

The music-hall reached its pinnacle at this time, with many new halls being built; the performers achieved great fame, but the life they sang about was the life of the audience - there was a great sense of shared experience, the feeling that they had all been through the bad times.

In the burst of jingoism that came at the time of the first world war, the music halls were responsible for recruiting a large number of the young men who were to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of France and Belgium. It was only as the war dragged on, and death came in wave after wave that the war songs of the music halls began to have a slightly plaintive quality. While the singers had been exhorting their young men to go over and do their glorious bit for England, now they were more likely to tell them to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. People only need to be told to smile, especially in such an insistent way, when there is precious little to smile about. Perhaps the decline of the halls which began in the twenties was due to the fact that they were seen to have become the tool of the establishment, the fact that people felt a sense of betrayal, and that the performers could no longer count on the bond of shared experience.

The war was the first in which civilians had to face directly the blows of the enemy. Early bombing raids were carried out by Zeppelins, which had a hard enough time actually finding the city, and many of their bombs dropped in the open countryside - casualties were light. However, Londoners were outraged at this new aspect of war, and called the Zeppelins the ‘baby killers’. Towards the end of the war London had to put up with more sustained and accurate bombing, and this was an early foretaste of what was to come in a couple of decades.

Public transport expanded a great deal in the first quarter of the century, with tramlines being laid and omnibus routes being established. After the Great War there was a great expansion, largely due to the laying of new railway lines, and ‘metroland’, beloved of John Betjeman, was born, being named after the Metropolitan Line whose trains entered the Hertfordshire countryside and brought the suburbs with them.

Following the agonies of the war, London now became infected with a new gaiety, as many of the Victorian social strictures were finally discarded. Perhaps the shortage of young men had something to do with it. The era of the ‘flapper’ had begun, and it was to be nearly half a century before the same kind of easy-going morality and sense of hedonistic enjoyment was to be seen again.

In the thirties the depression and the growing unease about what was happening in Germany had a sobering effect. Since 1666 the skyline of London had changed only gradually; there was a sense of permanence about these dignified buildings. The first world war had not had a major impact on London, but the second one changed the city completely. In 1941 the blitz took place, and bombs rained down nightly on London. The East End felt the brunt of it, but the whole of London suffered. Those people who had to stay in London during the hours of darkness were used to the descent into the public shelters, or into the underground stations, emerging to streets which were different from the ones they saw on their way down.

After the destruction of war came a feeling of optimism and renewal as the rebuilding began. The London County Council, formed in the previous century, now worked to restore services and to exceed what had been before; to implement new standards of health and hygiene in an almost Utopian vision of what London could be. People began to look forward into an exciting future, rather than back into the grim past. Although in 1951 there were still bomb sites to be seen in London and the ration book was an essential part of shopping, the Festival of Britain was held, ostensibly to commemorate the Great Exhibition of a hundred years previously, but also to express the new feeling of optimism and resolve, exemplified by the modernistic design of the Festival Hall. The most popular exhibits were the Guinness clock - a mechanical fantasy - and the Skylon, an elegant tower of metal girders. Londoners had suffered from the machines of destruction, like the flying bombs, those pilotless missiles, or their successors, the V2 rockets which dived at three times the speed of sound to eradicate complete streets in an instant. But the Guinness clock was an endearing and friendly machine, like those which were building the new London. The Skylon was a mixture of building and sculpture, a finger pointing heavenward, apparently suspended in mid-air, a futuristic and aesthetic object which expressed the people’s feelings about the exciting years to come.

But there were still elements of London that would have seemed very familiar to any visitors to the original Great Exhibition. For a long time the chimneys of London had been pouring sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, and during periods of temperature inversion, these gave rise to fogs, the famous London ‘pea-soupers’. Because of the increase in industry, and also the larger number of houses able to afford coal, this problem seemed to be getting worse all the time. Things reached a crisis point, and London was subjected to a series of dense fogs (nicknamed smogs as they were supposed to be a mixture of smoke and fog) which began to kill a sizeable proportion of its inhabitants. So thick were these fogs, that it became virtually impossible to drive, and taxis found themselves on pavements, buses needed men with lanterns walking in front of them to guide them and the only way that pedestrians knew there were other people around them was because they could hear them coughing. Towards the end of the fifties the smogs were so bad that thousands of people would die in a single day, usually the very old and the very young.

The Clean Air Act of 1956, forbidding the burning of fuel that was not smokeless, was felt at the time to be authoritative and unfair by many people. But it worked, although it took time. The smogs eventually became a thing of the past, and the London air no longer smelled of soot.

Ironically, at the time all this was going on, the trolley bus represented a very futuristic environmentally-friendly method of transport, although perhaps it was not seen as such at the time. They were red, double-decker buses which ran on electricity, which they picked up from double poles which engaged overhead wires. The buses themselves were totally non-polluting, large and comfortable, very quiet, and set off with a powerful acceleration. Their only disadvantage was a distressingly frequent tendency for the poles to come off the wires, and it was a common sight to see the conductor with a long wooden pole trying to hook them on again. And the busy conductor also had the task of changing the points, wherever the routes diverged. Perhaps the trolley bus was ahead of its time, but it was certainly a non-polluting form of transport that worked.

A Londoner living at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties would have been very conscious of the forest of television aerials which were springing up, seemingly overnight. It seemed that every suburban roof sported its own letter ‘H’. It's unlikely that this Londoner, who might have heard of a new Liverpool group, The Beatles, or might have seen a writer called Jack Kerouac on the bookshelves, or might even have come across a duplicated amateur magazine called Private Eye, would have realised that he was seeing the first rivulets in a flood which would totally change his city.

Suddenly everybody started wearing colourful and extravagant clothes, an air of hedonism and pleasure became apparent, and London began to ‘swing’. Carnaby Street, unknown before the sixties, became one of the most famous streets in London, along with King’s Road, in Chelsea. The Portobello Road street market became a centre of music and fashion, and it was in this area that the first Notting Hill Carnivals began.

London in the sixties had its own unique atmosphere, a heady hallucinogenic gas that induced a feeling of well-being and sensitivity to colour. People flooded in and the tourist industry prospered. The sixties saw people crowding with equal enthusiasm to both open-air rock concerts and political demonstrations.

At the beginning of this decade, the architecture of the city began to change; and there was a brutalism which was out of keeping with the general social atmosphere of the time. Tower blocks were erected all over the city; St Paul’s became concealed in a concrete copse and this tendency came to fruition with the infamous Centre Point.

Since then many of the tower blocks have mercifully been pulled down, and a more imaginative approach has been taken with new buildings. London today has many examples of interesting and pleasing modern buildings, and the puritan aesthetic of the 60s architects is now not so plainly in evidence.

Various groups of immigrants have come to London in the latter part of the century, and have made this a very cosmopolitan city. It is now possible to sample cuisine from all over the world within a very small area, and London has benefited from the cultural influences of India, China, Thailand, Japan and Africa and many others.

With the decline of the docks, much building has been going on in the East End of London, and whole complexes of housing and commercial buildings have appeared on those sites which had been virtually unchanged since the days of Victoria. The most significant of these is the Canary Wharf development, with its own light elevated railway.

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It is perhaps significant that the Millennium Dome is being built at Greenwich; sitting it in an area of London which is changing rapidly perhaps symbolises the forward-looking view which prevails as the century draws to a close.

London is changing rapidly, is becoming a more vital, a cleaner, a more prosperous place. But there are still aspects of London which would not seem all that unfamiliar to someone who lived here at the beginning of the century. The new IMAX cinema at Waterloo symbolises what is new, but when it was built it was necessary for the authorities to clear ‘cardboard city’, a small shanty-town created by the homeless. It is now gone, but its inhabitants are still here, still to be seen huddled on the pavements covered by their blankets.

"The quarters of the Salvation Army in various parts of London are nightly besieged by hosts of the unemployed and the hungry for whom neither shelter nor the means of sustenance can be provided." This was Justin McCarthy, writing in 1903, but unfortunately his words are as apposite at the end of the century as they were at its beginning.

As always, London is a mixture of the good and the bad. For the tourist it remains a safe and a fascinating environment - providing a unique historical perspective, mixed with entertainment of the most up-to-date kind. London will go into the next millennium with the attributes it has always had - a cosmopolitan viewpoint, a feeling of optimism and excitement, the hum of history as its background, the clatter of commerce and business in the forefront, changing as it has always changed through the ages. As a person retains their identity as they move through a turbulent adolescence towards adulthood, so London will always remain at heart the same, despite the outward changes that will occur as this ancient city prepares to meet yet another century, another millennium.

Langdon Jones is an experienced writer and editor. In the early seventies, he published a collection of short stories which appeared in both the UK and the USA. He worked with Michael Moorcock on the magazine, New Worlds, and edited the anthology, The Nature of the Catastrophe, with him. A newly-edited edition was published in 1996. He was responsible for the reconstructed version of the third book in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, Titus Alone, which has appeared in various editions.

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