Big Cities/Big Books
The Pleasures of Reading
and Walking Around
Lucy Inglis,Georgian London: Into the Streets. Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books)
If you want to learn a lot about London, are the mood for an endless stream of amusing and informative anecdotes, or want to find the perfect book to keep on a bedside table for your guests, then a good choice for all the foregoing would be Georgian London: Into the Streets by the redoubtable Lucy Inglis. Having started a blog a while back devoted to highlighting the lesser known aspects of London during the eighteenth century when it was, effectively, turning into the city we recognize today, she has now gathered materials into an endlessly beguiling, entertaining and educational survey. It’s arranged by area and set out a bit like a guide book tour.
Do you want to know about Soho and why it got that name (South of Holborn!), prostitution in Covent Garden, madhouses as places for entertaining anyone who could pay a penny to see the loonies on show; how Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced inoculation against the smallpox into England, the founding of the Foundling Home or of the Bow Street Runners (the first police) or the postal service? It’s all there in this book. The stream of information is swift, sure, thoroughly researched and bound to make you want to get a host of tomes about individual subjects that catch your fancy as you take this guided tour of the city of the past. And—given the pace of big-city demolition around the globe—it’s amazing how much of London’s past is recognizable and survives today, starting with the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral beginning in 1675.
Essentially, this is a well-written collection of swiftly told tales about how London started to become the city we know today from the time it was leveled by the Great Fire through to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. From Clive of India’s living in Berkeley Square (in a building where all those car showrooms are today) to tales from south of the River Thames to a heartbreaking story about the death of a chimney sweep, the book not only takes you back to the eighteenth century and its life but also informs your contemporary wanderings and wonderings about the city. Once you read this book, walking through every district of London will never be quite the same. Georgian London also makes a thoughtful present for friends who are about to visit it for the first time. I recommend it highly and suggest reading it slowly and savouring this collection of fascinating information.
As the Financial Times said in its review: “[Lucy Inglis’] focus is very much on everyday life, with thoughtful insights on immigrants, women and the poor. The result lies somewhere between a map and a serialised chronicle, full of neat character portraits and engaging plots.” I give it five full stars out of five and if you love London, its history, its characters, its growth, I could not recommend it more highly. I found it thoroughly engaging and un-put-down-able from first page to last. A most special and unusual book, to be treasured and kept, or given for a special occasion.
Sudhir Venkatesh, Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York. Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books)
The hidden message in Lucy Inglis’s book about eighteenth-century London might be: “Your neighborhood is your fate.” Further, your life story hinges on many factors that you are born into, and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh showed this with frightening clarity in his best-seller Gang Leader for a Day, about the crack gangs of Chicago. Now he has moved his x-ray eyes to New York to expose its broken and dysfunctional bones.Only this time, instead of neighborhoods, it’s the whole city that meshes into various networks—and your connections are absolutely key. The publisher’s blurb is accurate: the book covers everything in underground New York today “from a Harvard-educated socialite running a high-end escort service to a Harlem crack dealer adapting to changing demands by selling cocaine to hedge fund managers and downtown artists.”
In the process, Venkatesh questions his own reasons for going deeper into this world, and discovers something truly unexpected—a real sense of connection and community. This decade-long study of the call girls, drug dealers, illegal immigrants and ambitious strivers throughout the entire social spectrum gives you radical insights into what might be termed the underground economy. This is thought-provoking—and covertly highly political stuff. We are invited to enter a parallel universe, another New York from the familiar tourist-friendly buzzing metropolis; and Venkatesh is a knowing guide. This is a strong book, well-enough written, and one that might just be a source for a future Lucy Inglis who wants to let people know what it was like to wander those mean streets of an extraordinary city early in the twenty-first century.
What was it about Oxford?
Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Hodder and Stoughton
Both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were Oxford dons and scholars who are now mainly famous for writing fantasies. In the case of Tolkien, the scholarship into old myths of the North and the Norse shows through and one could argue you have to be a bit older and more sophisticated than a child to be able to appreciate—or even carry on all the way through—his Lord of the Rings sequence. But Lewis’s Narnia books are a whole other matter, truly something you can read to your children from a fairly early age and yet enjoy yourself! They are a sequence of seeming superficialities that become more complex and fascinating with every re-reading; they have a context in the life and thought of the author that McGrath sets out most meticulously. On top of that he has compiled a comprehensive bibliography of other C. S. Lewis books, including things like The Screwtape Letters, that address questions of religion and spirituality and the malaise of our times.
McGrath’s book is timely—it marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death—and his new look at Lewis is, at times, not only shocking but far more frank and questioning than anyone else has dared to be before. It’s full of endless pleasures that come from unexpected detail—like the poet Lewis’s dislike of T. S. Eliot and an attempt to perpetrate a failed hoax on the older man. There is a lot of new material; especially about his sexual predilections and his romances; but the whole life is presented with warmth and concern for the subject and with marvelously evocative portraits of his friends and family. The writing throughout is lucid, easy to read and it makes the subject throughly accessible—both when exploring the darker side of Lewis’s psyche and when explaining and charting how he became one of the most important apologists for Christianity.
This biography is both illuminating and penetrating and a real tribute to the eccentric genius who gave us both Narnia and some of the most provocative and theological writings of the last century. McGrath’s analyses and opinions are always thought-provoking and helpful and drive you back to the writings of Lewis every time, shedding new light on the man, estimating his work intelligently and making an important contribution to Lewis scholarship (including a re-dating of his conversion) while constructing a book that is provocative, readable and entertaining. It ranks Lewis high and is totally convincing in doing so. Very highly recommended and a good potential Christmas present (especially for adults with children)!