London's history: 2,000-year filigree


"London: A History," by Francis Sheppard. Oxford University Press. 420 pages. $30.

While dashing to catch a train in London's Waterloo Station, I spotted a placard promoting men's socks, specifically City socks, with the emphasis on the capital C. In the course of reading Sheppard's history, the origin of this locally commonplace expression dawned on me. These socks were the variety used for formal business wear in the ancient City of London, the mile-square (it includes St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London) financial center of this staggering Capital.

The City of London, once walled by the Romans, is but a component of today's metropolis. Sheppard has the daunting assignment of compressing 2,000 years in its lifespan from its founding by the conquering Romans, who bridged the River Thames, then used that estuary as a transportation route across the channel to the Rhine.

The result is a reverential city biography best consulted by students of urban, demographic and industrial-history.

The author makes the case that the present day Corporation of the City of London can trace its origins back farther than any other secular British institution, save that of the monarchy.

London has survived and prospered because of its ability to endure and adapt in the face of adversity. Sheppard shows how the Black Plague devastated Medieval London. Religious reformers' zeal pillaged its churches and monasteries. Hitler's air bombers killed 30,000 residents as they flattened warehouses and factories. As late as December 1952, some 4,000 perished in a sulphurous, pea-soup smog that settled over the city.

The author points out how effectively London resisted Continental ways. While Paris and Vienna had long embraced the multi-story apartment flat as an acceptable city address, Londoners of all economic stripes clung to their terraced rowhouses until about 1900.

I learned that London often resisted the dictates of city planners. No grid system here - but byways with unexpected twists and turns.

Londoners exhibit a pride in their city's history and its urban minutiae. And today, with the decline of its status as a working waterfront and manufacturing center, it has emerged as a thriving tourist destination.

While learning about how many of the Irish migrated to London in the 1850s and how the workers on the Metropolitan Railway dug through the city, I failed to get a sense of this most celebrated city's social and artistic pantheon. I looked for some color about Chelsea or Fulham Road or Camden Town and came up short. I wanted to know more about London's tucked-away squares and crescents of Regency houses.

Here is one of the most exciting cities on the planet, but its story is rendered in a professor's monotone lecture. Perhaps this is the fate of a large, general history such as the one Sheppard has produced. It delivers the big, imposing picture of a city that is the accumulation of 2,000 years of filigree and personality.

Jacques Kelly is a Sun columnist who wrote for the News American for 16 years. He has authored "Bygone Baltimore" (1982), "The Pratt Library Album" (1986) and "Trackside Maryland" (1992) among other books.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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