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Monday, January 18, 2016

“A History of London”, by Stephen Inwood

1136 pages, Carroll & Graf, ISBN-13: 978-0786706136

If one is going to walk through 1000-plus pages about a city, the guide had better be reliable and entertaining (don’t worry; it is). Stephen Inwood, a lecturer at Thames Valley College, completely covers one of the world’s major cities in his A History of London with reliability and flair, albeit with a considered subtlety of thought and evenness of prose rare in a work of such length. As Roy Porter notes in his introduction, Inwood’s London is a social London, for while many historians focus on a particular London (and yes, there are many Londons; literary London, political London, et al., and Inwood is no exception in taking particular focus at different times) this book touches on all the facets by concentrating largely on London’s inhabitants, and, as they belong to different Londons, exploring their native Londons and the interactions between the differing Londons.

Inwood incorporates numerous short quotes, from Swift and Smollet to the builders, clerks and minor politicians who worked behind the city’s scenes, and sensitivity to issues grand and small is in evidence throughout – by attending to sweeping urban planning issues, to taking up a discussion of the role of Gentlemen’s Clubs, “Those who could not gain access to the best dining rooms could enjoy many of the pleasures of London society (the exclusively masculine pleasures, at any event) by becoming a member of one of the West End clubs…” But in the main the book reads like the large-scale compendium of secondary sources and cullings from the public record that it is, rather than a thick description of the historically evolving qualities of London life. Although few will accompany Inwood straight through the entire trip (which he says was nine years in the preparation), the discrete chapters will be immensely useful to those to those seeking an evenhanded account of, say, the leisure activities of all classes in the 19th Century or the developing London marketplace of the 14th-and-15th-Centuries.

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