Monday, June 18, 2012

Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World

Why I read it: Self-professed Anglophile.

Summary: The story of the city seen through the accmplishments of 18 of her most well-known historical residents, from Boudica to Keith Richards.

My Thoughts: The Olympics are coming. I wonder how much that had to do with the timing of this book's release.

But, and I say this as the biggest of all possible buts, that wouldn't matter to me one way or the other. I studied British history in college. I didn't have a concentration for my bachelor's degree in history, but if I had, it might have been just that subject. I've been a self-professed Anglophile for more than 20 years, more, if we count my teenage Monty Python memorization years.

The concept is a fun one. Take a city over time, figure out what it's contributed to the world, and who made the contributions. But then, step back. Look at the city. Has London really been London for 2000 years? Or is today's city in any way at all related to the one of Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror? In some ways, obviously yes; physically, geographically, yes. The strange thing is that just like a human being, like an osprey, like a northern right whale, it changes over time; some would like to say "matures," but that is not always the case. Is the London that built a huge ferris wheel on the Thames amidst some of the most historical buildings on the planet the same one that Samuel Johnson or John Wilkes envisioned it would be?

I think it hits me most strongly when I consider fashion. Bill Bryson said it best in At Home. He pointed to the Elizabethen age, when people were walking around with tight-fitting clothes dyed as dark as possible (to show wealth), with pale skin and large ruffs around their necks. "We must have looked a fright" are the words he used. How did London get to that point? How did London escape that point? Somehow the city rolled on and on and thankfully Beau Brummel came along to straighten them all out.

Johnson, the Mayor of London, picks some obvious choices - Chaucer, Shakespeare, Churchill, etc. You can't write a book about London without them, and they do fit perfectly into this scheme. But then there are others, like W.T. Stead, who will make any American sound like an owl. "Who? Who?" But they are just as important to London's exportation as the others.

What gets me most about reading this book, though, is the comfort the British have in their own skins. If any American mayor of a major city used the words "pubic hair" in public, it would be the end of his or her career. But Johnson does - in perfectly proper historical context, I will say - and throws out other opinions and phrases that would make the ridiculously puritan average American politician cringe. The notion of the freedom of the British spirit is part of the dichotomy of the Brit, the split personality. Which is it? The zaniness of cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard, or the stiffness of the Queen mother? Is the average Londonder closer to Michael Palin doing the fish-slapping dance, or the hapless politicians and BBC executives Monty Python mocked?

Either way, I love it. England will alwys have one thing over the United States. The U.S. can claim "greatest country in the world" as much as it wants, but it will never, ever have the richness of culture that the great European and Asian centers do. This book is a perfect example. Be sure to pick it up after leaving the 100 meter dash for people with no sense of direction and on your way to the 400 meters for non-swimmers, as it would be sacrilege for London to hold an Olympics without adding the Silly Olympiad events to the schedule.