Drunkenness was general, and there are continual references to citizens falling from their solars to the ground, falling down steps into the Thames, falling off ladders.
London is not a civilised nor a graceful city, despite the testimony of the maps. It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive. It could never be laid out again with mathematical precision, in any case, because the long history of streets and estates meant that there was a bewildering network of owners and landlords with their own especial claims or privileges. This is a social and topographical fact, but it in turn suggests a no less tangible aspect of London. It is a city built upon profit and speculation, not upon need, and no mayor or sovereign could withstand its essential organic will.
It is in fact general characteristics of Londoners that they tend to conduct their lives in a relatively restricted area; it is possible to find people in Hackney or Leytonstone, for example, who have never ‘gone West’ and, similarly, inhabitants of Bayswater or Acton who have never travelled to the eastern portions of the city.
As one commentator said of the modern and brilliantly illuminated Piccadilly Circus, ‘it is a wonderful sight – unless you can read.’
One Frenchman described the plight of London families ‘that had not laughed for three generations’, and observed that citizens committed suicide in the autumn in order ‘to escape the weather’. Another visitor remarked that self-slaughter was ‘no doubt owing to the fogs’.
Yet the city itself is curiously unmoved by its crowds. One of the reasons for civic peace in London, as opposed to other capitals, lies directly in its size. Its very scale determines its quietness. It is at once too large and too complex to react to any local outbreaks of passionate feeling, and in the twentieth century the most marked characteristic of riots and demonstrations was their failure to make any real impression upon the stony-hearted and unyielding city.
The only successful and permanent attempt to bring uniformity and order to London’s chaos was the grand scheme to link St James’s Park in the south with the Regent’s Park in the north. With the creation of Regent Street and Waterloo Place, it remains the single most important exercise in city planning within the metropolis.
It has often been remarked that, in other cities, many years must pass before a foreigner is accepted; in London, it takes as many months. It is true, too, that you can only be happy in London if you begin to consider yourself as a Londoner. It is the secret to successful assimilation.
My review of London: The Biography