Posts Tagged ‘london’

Cooper’s London

October 23, 2013

Big Cities/Big Books

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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 lucy inglisby 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 bedlamHolborn!), 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 globeit’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.

great fireEssentially, 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.

London's-poor-street200As 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, avankateshnd 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 networksand 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 unexpecteda real sense of connection and community. floating cityThis 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-provokingand 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 appreciateor even carry on all the way throughhis Lord of the Rings sequence. But Lewis’s Narnia books are a whole other matter, truly something narniayou 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 timelyit marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s deathand 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 detaillike 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 cs lewismarvelously evocative portraits of his friends and family. The writing throughout is lucid, easy to read and it makes the subject throughly accessibleboth 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)!

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Cogito: John Branch

August 4, 2012

 

 

At the Olympics: Then and Now

The modern Olympic Games are many things: a form of public entertainment reminiscent of the Roman circuses, an exercise in marketing, a display of TV craft and technology, a form of contest between nations, supposedly an invitation to tourism, and often an attempt at urban regeneration. (They’re sometimes financial boondoggles as well.). What they’re not is a good likeness of the ancient games on which they’re supposedly modeled.

Take the torch relay, for instance, and the carrying of a so-called sacred flame into the arena. That wasn’t even part of the modern games when Baron Pierre de Coubertin launched them in 1896. It was actually invented by Germany for the 1936 Berlin meet, often called the Nazi Olympics, and the ceremony was documented by Leni Riefenstahl for her film Olympia. (Understanding of the original Greek games owes much to German classicists; it’s ironic that the modern ones owe something to a different breed of Germans, to put it nicely.) The ancients had no need to carry anything sacred, flame or otherwise, to Olympia; the site itself was sacred. Pelops, an ancient mythical hero who won his bride in a chariot race, was venerated there. Far more important than that, though, the site and the games themselves were dedicated to the cult of Zeus—the athletic festival was in fact also a religious one—and his temple dominated the site.

The Greeks had more than one major sporting contest of this kind. In the first rank were the Sacred and Crown Gamesheld every four years at Olympia (the oldest and most honored of these gatherings) and at Delphialong with biennial games at Nemea and Isthmia. Other, more local games arose as well, for instance at Athens, as time passed and Hellenic culture spread around the eastern Mediterranean. But Olympia maintained its primacy, even after the Romans took over Greece; Nero, following a long line of aristocrats, tyrants, and kings, deigned to compete there in a chariot race. (He was awarded the prize, despite falling off and failing to complete the course.)

Women, perhaps not surprisingly, had no role in these contests and little if any place among the spectators. (They weren’t participants in the first modern games either.) Married women were expressly forbidden to enter; one who actually did attend Olympia in disguise would have been put to death, but she was the daughter and sister of Olympic champions.

The modern games have become such a big business that name designers often sign up to fashion the uniforms for major national teams. For the 2012 London Olympics, Ralph Lauren outfitted the American team, Stella McCartney the British, and Giorgio Armani the Italian. (Surely I’m not the only one who finds this hard to detect.) In the ancient Olympics, what did they wear? Except for the charioteers, who donned a robe, the athletes wore nothing.

The London 2012 leviathan features 36 categories of sporting events, though some could be condensed (see list at events); such is the lineup over time that it’s hard to remember what’s in and what’s out. The ancient Olympic games began with a single foot race and, once they reached their full form, remained stable for centuries at five categories: chariot racing and other equestrian contests, the pentathlon, simple foot races, wrestling and related events, and a concluding race in battle armor.

There’s no end of other differences between what the Greeks did and what we do. (Readers wanting to learn more can consult Nigel Spivey’s The Ancient Olympics.) In Greece, athletics were an integral part of training for warfare, achieving physical beauty, even attaining the moral good. Philosophers knew and discussed all these conceptsand were often found at gymnasiums themselves. (When’s the last time you met one at your gym?)

Our winners may appear on a Wheaties box, but theirs became the subject of poems and statues. And the comfort we take for granted today is a far cry from the conditions for spectators at Olympia; they were so unpleasant that a disobedient slave might be threatened with the punishment of being sent there to watch. But the most telling difference was that, during the Olympic Games, a truce among all the city-states of the region was usually observed. The peace was grossly violated at least once, though, when a territorial war broke out at the site during the festival.

There are similarities,however. Our modern habit of paying lip service to pure and peaceful competition among athletes is undermined by the obvious fact that everyone tallies medal counts for their countries. In this the Greeks felt much the same; rival city-states not only competed through their athletes, but also in the monuments they built at the site to their winners.

There’s one thing about our modern games that I admire, and it echoes one aspect of Olympia. Then, as now, athletes competed for a prize with no material value: the prestige of being named victor. That honor often brought the Greek athletes substantial benefits elsewhere, as it does for competitors today, so the point may be moot, but somehow it warms my heart. In this at least, Baron de Coubertin got something nicely right when he re-invented the games of old for the present day.

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