This is the first book by Dr Matthew Green, an academic historian who has turned his hand to popularising London history through his speaking engagements and immersive guided tours of the City and Westminster. Given the idea behind this book, it’s notable that Green in person has something of a Tom Baker mien, in appearance at least.
We visit London at six different years in history and in the tradition of time travel genres they are chronologically random:
1603: A Whirlwind Tour of Shakespearean London
1390: A Descent into Medieval London
1665: A Mournful Walk through Plague-struck London
1884: Depravity and Wonder on a Tour of Joseph Merrick’s London
1957: London Rising – A Tour of the Blitzed City
1716: Four Days in Dudley Ryder’s London
This works rather well. You’ll notice a cluster of three between 1603 and 1716, so this work is a draw for Early-Modern aficionados in particular. The remaining three years are deftly chosen. Fans of the “long 18th Century” may be disappointed, but they needn’t be: there are compensations aplenty in this brilliantly-observed work.
Green starts each chapter by plonking you in a very specific location – richly described – in the London of the year featured. You then visit various parts of the metropolis by both day and night, usually on foot though a sedan-chair journey is nicely described in 1716. Not just a comic book staple, this was a viable, quick and much-used method of getting around town, by the wealthy at any rate.
Though the book is quite long at 450 chapter pages of around 75 pages each, the author ladles in plenty.
In flavour, A Travel Guide is simultaneously engaging, breezy, scholarly and yet solemn in the obvious places such as the plague year of 1665 or where describing the crushing brutality of the penal system from Newgate Prison to Old Bailey to Tyburn in 1716.
The author guides you the time-traveller to contemporary phenomena worthy of note. And like a skilled guide or conversationalist he succeeds in making them genuinely interesting. As a former addict, I enjoyed reading about tobacco in 1603: even at that early date it had London in its thrall and yes, from the off we knew of the health hazards. Hawking and jousting in 1390. In the grim plague year of 1665 we examine The Royal Society; Pepys and Hackney; dog massacres; the emergence of coffee and chocolate. Late Victorian 1884 takes us “slumming”, a preoccupation of the well-to-do, and introduces us to the era’s take on pornography – quite the opposite of the period’s self image.
The passage I enjoyed most of all – perhaps surprisingly – was the most recent: 1957. Brutalist housing estates, the Chelsea Set, Bohemian Soho, and the slow-fading scars of the Blitz still all too apparent. In particular it’s delightful fun to track the rising star of working-class Mary Quant and her irresponsibly louche side-kick Alexander ‘Plunket’ Green, along with their wider set of bohemian bon-viveurs, anticipating as they did the Swinging Sixties. Throughout the book, in fact, we meet a wonderful set of characters, old favourites (and several new ones) the mad, bad Earl of Rochester (1665); Charles Jamrach, petshop owner (1884); William Dugdale and Henry Ashbee, pornographers (1884); General Monck in his less well-known role and plague tzar (1665); and many, many more.
There are almost 50 pages of Notes and Further Reading at the end of the book which are as engaging as the rest of the work and readable in their own right. One is reminded of the end notes in George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels.
This is a wonderful debut and goes straight in our shortlist for Book of the Year for 2015. It is also our book prize for this month (Members only).
London: A Travel Guide Through Time (512pp) by Dr Matthew Green is published by Penguin. Cover price is £12.99 but it is available for a bit less.