It's pretty much impossible to get a thorough handle on the vast social history of London. Unless you're Roy Porter. And you're not, because he's sadly no longer with us. It's much easier, however, to grasp the ups and downs of an individual street. Such is the hunch of this new book, to accompany a forthcoming BBC2 series.
Authors Joseph Bullman, Neil Hegarty and Brian Hill investigate six London roads: Reverdy Road in Bermondsey, Deptford High Street, Arnold Circus in Shoreditch, Caledonian Road in Islington, Portland Road near Notting Hill and Camberwell Grove.
Each thoroughfare has a different story to tell. Portland Road, for much of its history, was an impoverished no-go area, gradually gentrifying but still showing a marked increase in affluence from north to south. Arnold Circus was built from the rookeries of the Old Nichol, transformed from the worst slum in London to a model housing estate. Camberwell Grove has yo-yod in and out of respectability. Even the Cally Road flirted with the well-to-do for a time, before prisons, asylums, railways and noisome industries brought the area down. In fact, the changing face of all six areas serves as an antidote to Peter Ackroyd's regular musings about London neighbourhoods maintaining the same essence over centuries.
The primary source, in each case, is the maps of Charles Booth, who colour-coded the levels of poverty in individual buildings in the late Victorian era. Consequently, the beef of each chapter slow cooks in this period, describing the living conditions, health, spiritual makeup, hopes, dreams and fears of the denizens of each street.
The histories get more interesting as they approach our own times. We find ourselves in a city where housing issues are once again at the top of the agenda, with the affluent few increasingly squeezing financially less fortunate communities out of central areas. Who, now, can afford to buy their own home in London? The book does a splendid job of explaining how we reached this point, in the context of previous housing trends. What will these six streets look like in another 20 years? We look forward to the TV series.
The Secret History Of Our Streets - London is out now from BBC Books. Buy here.
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