Portrait of a City as a Protagonist

May 5, 2013 § 3 Comments


londoncoverLondon – The Novel (Rutherfurd, Edward)

“So how do you define a Londoner, then?” Lady Penny asked, curiously.

“Someone who lives here. It’s like the old definition of a cockney: someone who’s born within hearing distance of Bow Bells. And a foreigner, “he added, with a grin, “is anyone, Anglo-Saxon or not, who lives outside.”

It was a tiny Celtic hamlet in 54 BC, and its inhabitants watched in awe as Caesar’s legions forded the Thames on their way to battle. Three centuries later, it was a small Roman outpost – two streets, a temple and a wall. Three more centuries and the walls were crumbling, and Christianity came to the now predominantly Saxon town, and with it came a cathedral called St. Paul’s. 1066, and another conqueror arrived, with a continental language and a continental idea of church architecture; Saxons, Danes and Normans alike gawked at the gigantic Tower he erected. Gradually, over the next ten centuries, one after the other, came the Palace and the Abbey of Westminster, St. Mary-le-Bow, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, then London Bridge, Charing Cross, the Mercer’s Guild, the Grocers’ Guild, the Fleet, Ludgate and Newgate prisons, the Custom House, the Temple and Holburn Bars, the London Charterhouse, the Temple enclosure, Whitehall, Greenwich Palace, The Globe Theatre, Scotland Yard, The Royal Exchange, the Queen’s House, St. James Park, The Royal Observatory, St. Mary-le-Bow (again), St. Paul’s (again), Pall Mall, Jermyn Street, St. James Square, Soho, Lloyds, Hanover Square, Grosvenor Square, Cavendish Square, Berkeley Square, Bond Street, the Old Cheshire Cheese Tavern on Fleet Street, Piccadilly, the Twining’s Tea Shop, Fortnum and Mason, Burlington House, the Spring Gardens at Vauxhall, Hyde Park, Regent Street and Regent’s Park, the Bethlehem Hospital in Southwark, the Mansion House, London Dock and Surrey Dock, the West India and East India docks, the Bank of England, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Vauxhall Bridge, the University of London, the Crystal Palace, the London and Greenwich Railway, Parliament House, Hatchards of Piccadilly, the Thames Embankment, the Tower Bridge, The Royal Albert Hall, the Savoy Hotel on the Strand, Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, the Botanical Gardens at Kew, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of Natural History, Harrods of Knightsbridge, the London Underground, the Palladium, Victoria Station, Selfridges, the Tate Gallery

The Celtic village metamorphosed into a bustling city of traders, brewers, merchants, fishermen, whores, carpenters, tailors, watermen, playwrights, clergymen, shopkeepers, mariners, costermongers, politicians, lawyers and financiers. First came the Danes, the Angles, and the Jutes, then the Normans, Italians, Germans and Spaniards, then the Flemish, then the Welsh, then the Huguenots, then the Irish, then the Jews, and now the rest of the world. They came to make a decent living and to live a decent life, to be allowed to go about their own business.

And business, indeed, was (and is) the business of the city: it traded wool from Flanders, furs from the Baltic, peppercorns and silk from Asia, tobacco and wheat from America, tea from China and India, and sugar from the Caribbean; it insured the ships that brought the goods; it lent and borrowed, invested and speculated.

Great social conflicts shook the City from time to time: the rights of the city against the claims of the King, peasant rebellions against taxation, Puritanism against Catholic excess, Church of England against the authority of the Pope, Parliament against an absolutist monarch, Whigs against Tories, Socialists and Suffragettes against the establishment.

London (what else?), courtesy the Daily Mail

London (what else?), courtesy the Daily Mail

Each of the landmarks, professions, and social movements mentioned above has been intricately woven into the fabric of Rutherfurd’s rather wonderful novel, like images on the Bayeux tapestry, as he traces the fortunes of a handful of London families through the last 2,000 years. These families become rich, famous, poor, and rich again, with the ebb and flow of time and events, while historical Londoners make a cameo appearance and contribute to the plot through their actions: Thomas a Becket, William Longchamp, Edward I, Geoffrey Chaucer, Dick Wittington, Wat Tyler, Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Pocahontas, William Laud, Charles I, William Prynne, Samuel Pepys and Charles II all have roles to play. Combining the flamboyance of a tour guide with the vast knowledge of a research scientist, Rutherfurd points out hundreds of interesting facts about the city, not just as it looks today but as it must have looked at various points in the past.

I don’t think I’ve read or seen anything as extraordinary as Rutherfurd’s London. It is like a history book, except not textbookish or impersonal. It is as long as War and Peace, except that it takes place over 20 centuries. It is a bit like the BBC serial Blackadder, except it isn’t a rollicking farce. To give a modern example, it is like Downton Abbey, in that it is based in England and uses historical events to advance the story, except that it isn’t merely about a family of aristocrats and their servants, and it goes on for dozens of generations, not just a single lifetime. If novelty is an essential requirement for a successful novel, ‘London’ is a triumph.

Of course, when you paint (or weave) on such a big canvas, there are limits to the detail you can depict on each individual object. The situations are sometimes slightly contrived, as Rutherfurd clearly works backwards from the social, historical and architectural context, in arriving at the plot itself. A few of the characters are no more than caricatures. And frankly, a dozen generations of Duckets, Bulls, Barnikels, Flemings, Carpenters, Silversleeves and Merediths wooing or intriguing against one another does result in some giddiness and fatigue, even though the wooing and intriguing concerned is differently done each time.

But then it is not fair to expect Rutherfurd’s characters to develop or his plot to unfold, when it is the city that he shows to develop and unfold in front of our eyes. The city is the plot and the protagonist. The Bulls, the Duckets, the Flemings and the rest may have all the lines to speak, but they are the real backdrop, insignificant representative samples of the nameless millions who lived and loved, dreamed and died, and who are collectively the city of London, for in addition to the monuments and houses that are constructed on the debris of its past, the city is also the cumulative sum of all the lives of everyone who has ever resided there, and every single one of them has left a trace, on which their successors have built and rebuilt.

If you have more than a passing interest in history, or find in your heart some affection for London (I am proudly guilty of both), you must read Rutherfurd’s London. I believe he has attempted a similar treatment of New York and of Russia, and look forward to reading them at some point. Coincidentally, I saw an advertisement only today, for his latest novel, Paris- The Novel. Grab it now.

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