‘The Victorian City’ by Judith Flanders, ‘Georgian London’ by Lucy Inglis and ‘Culture Class’ by Martha Rosler

In my ongoing quest to understand the origins of planning law, I’ve been reading a lot of histories of London. That, after all, is where most of our town planning systems come from. Particularly I’ve just finished Lucy Inglis’ Georgian London: Into the Streets and Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City: Every Day Life In Dickens’ London.

Both of them focus a lot on poo.

For example, Inglis starts with an analysis of the building code designed by Christopher Wren in 1667, shortly after he was appointed King’s Surveyor of Works.But then she grounds things in the more immediate and brutally personal:

On a Saturday in 1762, in a run-down alley near Tothill Fields, Mary Flarty left her toddler Jerry with five-year-old Anne Ellison. They alley had no traffic, and seemed safe for young children. Jerry tried to use the special low seat for youngsters in the communal privy, and fell into the cesspit. Although the community rallied immediately to retrieve the boy, Jerry was already dead.

London grew massively during the 18th century and, as it did so, the volume of effluent being produced began to seep into the water table. In 1831, it infected the water table with a cholera, killing 52,000 people. In London, the City declared ‘a Day of Fasting and Humiliation’ in the belief it was a curse from God.

Incidentally, Inglis has her own adorable Youtube channel here where she films things with her phone and talks about them:

Similarly, Judith Flanders devotes an entire chapter to waste water, giving a more graphic depiction of the source of the cholera outbreak:

By the late 1840s, there were so many cesspools under even the most expensive housing in the West End, that the walls between them frequently collapsed, and so fashionable London was perched on top of what one sanitary reformer called not cesspools but ‘cess-lakes’.

By 1858, there was so much shit in the Thames that the summer became known as The Great Stench. The smell was so bad it disrupted Parliament. The Times reported, “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench.” Disraeli passed a bill to establish a Metropolitan Board of Works and install sewerage systems across the city.

We live in far less dangerous, far more resilient cities today. Much of that resilience emerged because the consequences of poor policy have been so dire. One of the other books I’ve been dipping in and out of is Martha Rosler’s Culture Class, in which she cites Richard Florida et al as proof that “empirical inadequacy and faulty predictive power are no barriers to success.” Looking at contemporary urban studies, it’s interesting to contemplate whether the increased resilience of our cities has made them less responsive; allowing poor policies to succeed by virtue of not having produced disasters big enough to disprove them.

Note: If you don’t think that’s an interesting point of contemplation, you can watch Rosler’s ironic Semiotics of the Kitchen here:

Would My Mother Enjoy These Books:

The Victorian City by Judith Flanders: She would read and enjoy parts of it, but it is quite long and the font is quite small.

Georgian London by Lucy Inglis: She would read ten pages and then give it to me for Christmas

Culture Class by Martha Rosler: She would read a few pages and then ring me up to tell me about art and Feminism in the Seventies. The conversation would quickly turn to focus on teaching in the Eighties.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

There’s a review by Laura Millar, published in The Guardian on February 11th 2015, that describes this book as “strenuously quirky”. Millar didn’t like it, writing:

Eccentricities, as uncountable as the sands of the Sahara, drift and blow through this book, piling up in dunes that must be scaled by characters and readers alike.

She concludes with:

It’s true that if you dig deeply enough, you can find something bizarre about almost anyone. When, however, the focus for nearly 300 pages is on a relatively small cast, the multiplying weirdness becomes unamusing absurdity.

Four days earlier, the same paper published another review on the same book by Eva Wiseman, arguing that the word ‘quirky’ is deliberately used to dismiss women’s work as silly. Wiseman writes:

To be quirky is to be whimsical. To be frivolous, naive, awkward, self-conscious. To have disproportionately large eyes and a faraway gaze. It is to be twee. It defines a character by her eccentricities rather than inviting you to see them as a whole.

I’m guessing some of this is less about The First Bad Man, and more about July’s earlier work, like this:


And this:

Based on that, I’d had a few people tell me I’d hate this book; that it would be too emotional or too wacky for my taste.

This turned out to be incorrect. Rightly or wrongly, it reminded me of some of my favourite authors: John Kennedy Toole, early Evelyn Waugh, Mitford and, dare I say it, Wodehouse. If we look at something like Waugh’s Scoop or Mitford’s Wigs on the Green, they rely on caricatures whose ‘quirkiness’ acts as a device to parody serious topics; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and British Fascism respectively. If you read those books seeking to avoid absurdity and encounter ‘whole’ characters you’ll be disappointed.

July’s novel seems so much in the same tradition I was honestly surprised to find people treating it as a Realist novel, wanting to ‘dig deeply’ into her characters or trying to see them ‘as a whole’. Not being particularly familiar with her other work, I read The First Bad Man as satire. Her characters aren’t that much different from Waugh’s inept William Boot, Mitford’s precocious Eugenia Malmain, Toole’s Ignatius or any number of ‘quirky’ Wodehouse characters.

Indeed, the book’s narrator, Cheryl, seems decidedly Wodehouse; mawkishly likeable and bumbling her way through various antics until she reaches her happy ending. I thought it notable that both Wodehouse and July have written for film, because their books both read like ensemble pieces, built on dialogue, very few locations and slapstick. Like Wodehouse, July takes familiar tropes, rhetorical devices and narrative arcs and pushes them just far enough they become hilarious.

The critique of ‘quirkiness’ seems to come from a thwarted attempt to read The First Bad Man as some sort of realistic portrayal of the author’s emotion. Is this because of her gender, because women aren’t meant to be funny or satirical, or simply because there’s too many reviewers hell bent on assuming smart writing has to be painstakingly earnest? Who knows. I thought this was a great book.

Would My Mother Like This Book?

Possibly. It portrays a middle aged woman, isn’t about heterosexuals or men, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.