A.N. Wilson is a popular popular-historian (I know, I know). I knew of him, in a vague way, before I’d properly read him. Perhaps his “London” is not the place to start, and yet it may well be the place I finish. The book, commissioned as or purchased for some Modern Library Chronicles set affair, chronicles London history from beginning to 2003 in 192 pages. Here ‘the beginning’ is, effectively, the Romans—he makes little mention of the earlier ‘native’ (to the extent the Celts were native, but there’s also some evidence for earlier Bronze-age Londonish building) settlements. Which seems a rather ‘Paris was founded by fleeing Trojans!!’ bid for a classical origin-story to me, but.
Admittedly, a lot of “London” the book’s problems might be due to the fact that it’s popular history and so short. Yet these are choices Wilson and/or his publisher made, and every time I think ‘ah, I can’t criticize that statement, he didn’t explain because the book’s so short’, I must also think—no, Wilson chose this frame and his subjects and if he can’t be fair to them in the space allotted, or at least not dramatically incorrect about them, then they have no business being in this book.
Some notes of hate:
* The focus on LONDON is at times monomaniacal. Comparisons to other English, British and global developments and cities are decidedly lacking. Yes, I do know the title of the book and thus its project, but the contents should still be informed by a consistently-employed awareness that other cities exist and have developed in similar and divergent ways. Sometimes these omissions metastasize into outright distortion.
* Relatedly, Wilson’s conservative bias is a bit ridiculous in as much as it makes for inadequate history. I was not surprised to later read that Wilson was a sometime-Mail contributor. According to Wilson, Labour’s introduction of the death tax is responsible for post-war high-rises, despite how just about EVERY 20th century city in American and Europe, and most of the rest of the world, pretty much, has these and none of THEM had death taxes and this exact pattern of resultant property purchasing. Also, you need to talk about what else the death taxes DID if you’re going to offer this major criticism of them (while, confusingly, simultaneously admitting how much of London affected families still own)? You can still come out against death taxes! I just need to know the mechanism by which they were supposed to work, and whether they contributed to the development of the city in any other ways—this is a huge amount of money flowing to the government, so where did it go? I cannot believe that they did not impact London in a major way, other than just, via externalities, allowing for the building of high-rises.
I think this is related to how Wilson has NO investment whatsoever in what the welfare state has done for London. Just none, which—look, anyone would say that a lot of the major shifts in London in the 20th century involve this? The whole population lives differently because of the NHS. There’s this persistent vibe that what Wilson cares about is London as architecture, not Londoners per se.
* Also, Wilson moans about London councils supporting esoteric fringe theatre. This is an odd gesture, given that THE FRINGE is one of the UK’s big economic events and perhaps the world’s big theatre event. London companies are a huge part of that. Companies don’t spring fully-formed like Pallas Athena, they have a life-cycle, they develop. So you need to assure me that this support is whole disconnected from the larger circle of life of UK theatre. Which, frankly, sounds unlikely. (Naaaaaaants ingonyama–)
* I think I probably know as much or a very little bit more about the development of banking as your average joe. So not tons. But some stuff. The development of the City of London is very important to Wilson’s history, and I was often lost in his explication. That does not augur well for other randoms.
* I mostly agree with Wilson about London’s modernist architecture, which he despises (and in part it’s because I’m regressive trash, but I can also defend this along Richard Sennett lines), but I still think Wilson has to do due diligence and say other people do not think this. It is incumbent on him to acknowledge that other people do think the Barbican’s a triumph. Also that was a bad example for Wilson to pick to make his points, because the Barbican is so good-hearted and humanist. You can fault the realization, but it’s ambitious and thoughtful and purposive. It has good qualities Wilson has elsewhere been sympathetic to, so really, I would have avoided calling the Barbican out, were I him and trying to make this point.
Also, moaning about death taxes aside, Wilson certainly offers no alternative solution to the population expansion/blitz rebuilding housing issues. He just rolls up with a hate of high-rises. I get u bro, but no. Again, this is Wilson’s interest in London as buildings, not London as organic, living. A lecture I once heard pointed out the strange bodilessness of Wordsworth’s “Upon Westminster Bridge”, and compared it to Blake’s more visceral “London”. Wilson is definitely on that bridge. That London is peopled seems a recurring inconvenience to him.
* There’s a bit where Wilson whines about the Globe’s Disney-recreation of the Tudor era. This section assumes the plebs are too fucking stupid to understand that this is not a TOTALLY ACCURATE thing, here. Also the Globe does a lot of interesting practical research and education, so you’d need to work harder to justify a claim that it is, overall, a force for evil from an academic perspective. Mostly, the Globe provides popular history. Wilson finds that enraging, but bae–
YOU ARE WRITING A POPULAR HISTORY BOOK
WHICH RELIES ON MAKING SEVERELY REDUCTIONIST CLAIMS.
DO YOU FUCKING SEE
* I dislike that Wilson does say some interesting things that I didn’t know or didn’t quite put together, but that my trust level is so low I feel like I’ve obtained no reliable information here. How do I begin to trust this book, even about what looks like bare, unpoliticized geographic information?
* The treatment of class and empire and race wallows in back-patting liberalism, with a special focus on The Right Sort of Minorities (as an Ashkenazi Jew, a category Wilson is particularly keen to coo over, I am never particularly flattered to be in this Club, because I am not stupid, and thus I understand that my inclusion is a transient whim, a recent addition, a matter of someone else’s convenience, and that if you are awful about blackness you are a hair away from lumping me in the not-we pile, and that this threat is just a little tinsel decorating the intrinsic absolute unacceptability of being awful about blackness in the first place), and often just–vastly inadequate and thoughtless. There’s a section about the feeling of Londoners that ‘something primitive and savage’ had occurred with the murder of Constable Blakelock that made me think ‘hearts of darkness batman, did you miss the corresponding and precipitating imperialism?’ Where then was the primitive savagery?
* When Wilson claims only the modern era wants to recreate the past, I’m like—Victorian. Medievalism. THE RENAISSANCE. Malory’s harkening back to Arthuriana. The strategic creation of orders of chivalry intended to do the same hearkening for political reasons. What are drugs like Wilson, can I fucking have some?
* Oh oh oh ahhahahaha and when he’s like BANKERS WERE GREAT BEFORE THE 1986 CRASH BECAUSE IT WAS IN THEIR INTEREST TO BE CAUTIOUS AND INVESTED IN THE UK,
I’m like bitch
There is ALMOST an argument in there touching on ideas about speculation (per Gaskell’s “North and South”) and the material covered by Ian Hislop’s documentary on banking and philanthropy, and even that Dickensian and Chestertonian suspicion of European financiers ‘infiltrating’ UK business and having little allegiance to the UK as such (“Our Mutual Friend” and the almost-anti-Semitism of Chesterton’s reading thereof), but also Wilson just fucking accepts this arbitrary definition of bankers’ business-based morality? How uncritical, leave History and never return.
* Wilson makes an unsupported and baseless claim that aristocratic suspicion of trade in England was a Victorian folly, retconned. Um, Austen??
* Wilson makes a number of seemingly conflicting statements from chapter to chapter. Fool who beta’d you?
* Wilson is SO MAD about the death of industry in London, but doesn’t want to deal with the developing world, empire, and the end of manufacturing in the first world/the birth of the service economy. This is when the book’s inability to look outside London becomes not just myopic, but actively incorrect and ludicrous. Also, the ability of the British to conveniently forget about Empire continues to goddamn astound me. More on this in a moment. (How do you forget about that????)
* In 2004, the MAJORITY of Londoners under 20 use drugs, we are told. With no evidence. ‘Use’ as well, not ‘have ever tried’. Ooookay. Idk where you get the money for blow, but.
* ‘London is mostly dependent on its tourist industry now’—ok. is it? As distinct from—the more broadly-constructed service industry? Give me facts on that. Also: how does that reify the city’s Londonisity? What does that do psychologically? What are the material changes to the city this has wrought? That’s interesting, if I can trust you, but it needs explored. Skeet skeet skeet, goddamn, AN Wilson.
* I never know who this book is for. There’s a bit about the Great Stink where Wilson says ‘Disraeli, not exaggerating for once, said X about it.’ Look pal. By the time you know who Disraeli, who you have not introduced, is, and know enough about his mode of discourse to find that sentence amusing, you know what the Great Stink is. Who is this line for? Who is this book for? Did you… ask that? What is with this whole slew of books that thinks the reader is an embarrassing inconvenience (much like London’s population, I guess) and the question of audience somehow lowering or too difficult?
* Wilson goes on about how ‘OUR HIGH ART IS NOT GETTING ENOUGH FUNDING but it’s producing some of the richest stuff in its run tbh I HATE THE TATE MODERN THOUGH’, no reason given.
Ok. I will need Wilson to at least nod to his massive beef with the modern art world, and at least nod to how he may be old, oooooold, and not Getting It or whatever. Maybe he has more salient critiques, but if so, he must unpack them. Wilson seems to think the popularity of given artists is a dealers’ and investor’s cabal. Okay—how is this different from or more of a problem than the market forces that dominated art reception in other eras? Art reception has always been a market-driven mass hallucination/matter of consensus politics, ideology in Marx’s sense, educational training and class policing: you don’t like Turner just because you Like Turner. Same as it ever was—and if not, why not?
And sure high art could be great and under-funded, but Wilson would also need to unfold that to me, and talk about how funding structures have changed and why, and what they were like in the past, and how he wants public funding for art (why should the proles he despises pay in for this? They never did before.) but not taxes or funding for the welfare state. …
* Wilson is pissed about the ‘moronization and Americanization’ of London, but says almost nothing about what form that Americanization takes. The key to this claim is actually a few chapters back. There, Wilson whinges about London having suffered the Blitz, etc., and the Americans having rode in and stolen the victory.
I’m sorry. Did you, vast empire, not feel you profited enough out of the slaughter of a huge chunk of Europe? Did you want that to be a fucking money-making venture for you? Is this the goddamn Concert of Europe, and is the only band playing Winston and the Churchills, with their acclaimed Suez Cry-sis set?
What Wilson is mad about, what causes him to make these seemingly innocuous, incoherent little jabs, is empire. The UK has not dealt with how they’re maybe a touch guilty about having had one, but mostly still want one, and how mad they are that a chunk of their empire conducted the despicable business a bit better than them of late, and how WWII was not, for them, a profitable fucking outing. Allllll this mewling about how London is not powerful now and is Americanized in some vague-ass way is just–god I am not even going to call it Empire Guilt, that’s too decent a term.
I’m so. goddamn. sorry about that. Sorry the UK gambled and lost. And let’s not mince words, while we’re here: the Blitz is fucking nothing to what the UK did to a lot of the globe, and WWII is, oh, to be arbitrary, 30% the UK’s fault (You do remember the Great War and its context as a precipitating incident, right? I am never sure with you, UK.). The UK in many senses essentially dropped these bombs on themselves, and deserved what they got. Brave little Britain my ass.
Is this uncharitable? Yes. It’s not at all fair, and it ignores the ‘is Virginia Woolf’s maid responsible for imperialism?’ argument like anything. But I cannot stand the UK’s twee mythology of itself, the insistent way it holds out old scrapes for kisses and coddling when it still won’t admit that a lot of the world is on fire and a lot of that is its fault. All the barely-thought-through faux-concern over the Middle East from the people who brought you the Balfour declaration and partitioning as a concept and dicked around with Palestine in the first place. All the smug tittering over America’s reactionary politics from the people who exported their excess proletariat and thus some of their problems to colonies like America en masse and taught America how to racist-Empire. Fashionable, incoherent left and right anti-Americanism that’s blatantly a transference of unprocessed, unacknowledged guilt and trauma, from a people who can’t even manage to decently teach Indian history or the history of Empire in an Indian-dominated suburb like Hounslow. Christ on a Boris-bike.
And when you are reductionist about the Blitz, as Wilson is in his lavish treatment of the events–when your praise of keeping calm and carrying on is too treacle-thick, treacle-sweet; when you ignore that Imperial context; when you conveniently don’t mention that the mass public sheltering in the underground was done in the teeth of an administration that feared and hated the poor mob, and that the physical work of breaking into these shelters was in fact led, as Laurie Penny reminds us in her London Olympics essay, by the city’s communists–you do violence to the actual remarkable events. You are the Sainsbury’s Christmas Truce commercial, selling groceries off the back of a truly blessed flickering of human decency in the midst of blight. You maul corpses with no hunger or violent feeling to excuse the act, and you show no understanding of, no sensitivity to, that decency. Philistine and cruel and cheap. A goddamn embarrassment.
* This book is so so so sloppy. Is Wilson a god-damn child or a grown-ass historian who questions his paradigms and the self-definition claims of his subjects?
God, GOD I hate this book. I physically bit it on the tube in rage. There are now teeth marks embedded in page 192. I’d thought about giving it to my father to read in preparation for a visit, because he so enjoyed a biography of Paris I forgot at his house, but I wouldn’t give this to my dad. I would not give this to a dog.
I ranted about all this to a friend, who said “it sort of makes me think that maybe popular history on actual history right now is almost by definition going to be politically cowardly… I’m against being snobbish about popular history, but it seems like popular means commercial.”
I want to believe that’s not true, or at least, not necessarily true. That there’s room for a vision of popular history that is energetically critical and populist and progressive, that captures imaginations. But this is a book to dampen the soul, and you won’t find much to productively react against, much less be inspired by, here.