Tag Archives: London

Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins

Just before I flew to London, I read Under Another Sky: Journeys Through Roman Britain, in which Charlotte Higgins documents her Grand Tour of Roman monuments in the UK. When I arrived, I enthusiastically followed in her footsteps, searching a car park for remnants of the Roman wall, visiting the amphitheatre’s ruins underneath the Guildhall, and almost falling in the Thames, where the future capital was first laid out.

Higgins book says a lot about the ambiguity behind the concept of ‘Britain’. London was a Roman outpost, and the idea of a discernable ‘British’ identity is much like our concept of ‘Aboriginal Australia’; a blanket term used by a colonising power to describe disparate peoples with their own identities, languages and land.

On the British capital, Higgins writes:

The first notable event in the history of Londinium was its destruction. The name of the city first appears on the page in Tacitus’s account of the rebellion of Boudica. There is a line of black in the archaeological layers that is said to be the charred matter from her flaming of the fledgling city.

Boudica, the marauding Queen of Iceni, destroyed London in 60AD as part of a war so vicious the Romans seriously debated leaving the whole island. Oddly enough, there’s a statue of her on Westminster Bridge near Embankment, set up in 1902 as a sort of weird homage to Queen Victoria.

The primary source on her, Roman historian Tacitus, describes a rousing speech she gave to her troops before her final battle:

It is British custom to fight under female leadership, but on this occasion I fight not, though offspring of great ancestors, after kingdom and wealth. Instead, I am one woman from the crowd seeking retribution for liberty lost […] But the gods side with just vengeance. A legion that dared battle has perished and the remaining men are hiding back at base and looking for escape. The din and shouting of so many thousands will not be withstood, let alone onset and combat. If you weigh troop numbers and war’s reasons with me, we should either win on that field or perish. That is a woman’s intention. You men may survive – enslaved!

It’s doubtful she would have described herself as ‘British’. Tacitus was writing decades after her death, using terms the Romans had invented. She lost the battle, committed suicide, and the Iceni nation was absorbed into the Roman Empire. There’s a thrilling Time Team episode on the subject here:

Higgins sums up Boudica’s legacy after visiting a statue of her in Colchester, of which she writes:

Boudica is, at best, an ambiguous heroine for Colchester, since her sole connection is that in AD 60 or 61 she and her men took and burnt the town, and massacred its inhabitants.

The process by which an Iceni queen became a British martyr says a lot about the capacity to extract narrative from ambiguity. The idea of a unified British identity, with its own history and traditions, didn’t exist when Boudica was alive.

One thing I got from Higgins’ book was a sense that a unified ‘British history’ is a relatively recent idea. The traditions that bind it together obscure the almost continual conflict between Celtic tribes, and the Roman, Saxon, Angle and Norman invasions. Today being Australia Day, it makes a nice counterpoint to the celebration of an Anglo Australian identity.

Incidentally, Charlotte Higgins is the culture editor for the Guardian. You can read some of her articles here or order her book here.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book

She’d probably read the chapters on Boudica. Whether she’d finish it probably depends on what the weather was like, what she’d picked up from Bunnings that week, and whether the dog wanted a walk.

‘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.