London 1945

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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I’d had Maureen Waller’s London 1945 on my “to be read” shelf for many months. A recent trip to London  prodded me to take it up at last. 

If I had remembered better, I probably would not have bothered. Preparing for a previous trip to London I had read one of Waller’s previous books 1700: Scenes From London Life alongside another book on the same period, Liza Picard’s Restoration London. Picard’s was far and away the better book: better written, more comprehensive, and showing greater mastery. Waller’s by contrast mostly reorganized literary recollections that had been gathered by others many times before.

London 1945 is a better book than 1700, but written very much in the same manner.  If the subject of London during the war is entirely new to you, then you’ll find London 1945 an appealing and accessible introduction. Many of us have a vague idea that the Blitz happened in 1940-41, and after that life in the British capital returned to a shabby, rationed quiet. In fact, the German V-1 and V-2 missile attacks made 1944-45 very nearly as deadly for civilian Londoners as the earlier period: more than 20,000 fatalities in the first period, nearly 9,000 in the second. 

Waller chronicles that experience through quotation, along with personal descriptions of the hardships of rationing and accounts of the way in which Britain’s bureaucracy coped with the crisis. So many of the quirks and oddities of British life have their origin in those difficult days, days from which even now London and Britain have still not wholly recovered. 

It was the imperfect nature of that recovery that caused me to turn to this book. Over-interpreting the “1945” in the title, I turned to Waller for a better understanding of why postwar London rebuilt in the heart-rendingly ugly way and self-destructive way that it did.

That I did not find, in part because Waller (fairly enough) did not choose it as her subject, but in part because when she does turn to reconstruction she is inclined to accept the urban renewal ideology of the postwar years very much at face value. She cheerfully endorses what the renewers said they were doing – and disregards rather too casually the usually miserable reality. They insisted that London’s Victorian buildings were decrepit eyesores in an annoying jumble of styles that could never be adapted to modern purposes. On that, they were radically wrong: it is where Victorian buildings have survived that British cities have flourished, where they were replaced with postwar modernism that cities have died. Waller must know that, but she manages to forget it for the length of time it took her to finish her chirruping redaction of their self-descriptions.

Just north of the old London city wall is an area known as the Barbican: a terrifying vista of racing roadways and brutalist architecture. Few parts of London more fully justify Prince Charles’ famous quip that the Luftwaffe left behind nothing worse than rubble.  Waller includes in her book a photo of the Barbican as it was as late as 1955: a broken flat field. It’s hard not to think it might have been better if it had been left open a little while longer.

Waller quotes a common observation of 1945: that it would take London 50 years to rebuild. That was a remarkably prescient remark. The conversion of the Docklands and the new towers of the City only now have restored to life areas of London scarred by war.

Through most of the “postwar,” London rebuilt in a mean, pinched, and aggressively ugly way. Ideology deserves much of the blame, as do the inherent defects of modernism and the absurdities of British planning controls, but it’s hard not to acknowledge that the biggest problem was the impoverishment of a city that once could afford the best but now no longer could. Only today, after the great reforms of the Thatcher years and the enrichment of the Blair boom, can one see a new building rise in London with any hope that it will equal and enhance the achievements of London’s monumental past. 

London 1945 belongs to a distinctly British style of history writing: a work of charming amateur antiquarianism, a retelling of a familiar story in a familiar way. I happy to have it as company during my trip. But I would not have missed it if I had left it home.

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