The publication of a new book by Simon Jenkins is always an event, and one about London doubly so. No one knows more about modern London and few have written about the city so winningly. His Landlords to London (1975) is a classic, indispensable to anyone who wants to understand the mechanics of London’s development over the past 350 years. Now he has turned his attention to the whole of the capital’s two thousand years. A Short History of London ranges from the city’s Roman origins right up to the present day. Quite a few historians have travelled this immense terrain since Roy Porter’s London: A Social History appeared in 1994 and some (Porter, Stephen Inwood, Michael Hebbert) have made a very good job of it. But a ‘short history’ well done will have a special appeal, and for any reader seeking to understand how London became what it is today, especially how it looks on the ground, Jenkins’s book will be an essential stepping-off point.
Jenkins starts at a gallop but over the course of the book slows to an amble. There are six pages on the Roman city and eight on the period between the withdrawal of the Romans and the Norman Conquest, key years that saw the emergence of a rival city to London at Westminster and the beginning of a conflict between the two that would drive metropolitan growth for the next seven hundred years. Another eight pages take us to the late 12th century and the building of Peter de Colechurch’s great London Bridge, which in effect opened up a third city south of the Thames. In a nearly 400-page book (it’s not that short), the first millennium and more of London’s existence is disposed of in just thirty pages or so. On any balance sheet, that must count as slim pickings. It would have been helpful for the general reader if the peremptory ‘further reading’ list at the end of the book had been supplemented by more in-depth, chapter-by-chapter recommendations.