Why our capital is always revolting

Violent London
August 8, 2003

There is a literary tradition that offers descriptions of cities while capturing the collective efforts made in response to the inequalities characterising them. Think of Luis Aragon, who describes the "human aquarium" of Paris and the absurdity of urban injustice, while recounting how citizens mobilised to stop the redevelopment around the Boulevard Haussmann, deemed a gigantic political and entrepreneurial corrupt operation. Traders and residents form a coalition and publish a bimonthly paper in which developers and politicians are defined as thieves, bandits and crooks. Also, think of Walter Benjamin's characterisation of cities as "ruins of the present", declining places that commodities turn into cemeteries. These places, however, also resemble battlefields, where perpetual conflict takes place, shaping the urban configuration.

I would locate Clive Bloom's book in this tradition, though neither Aragon nor Benjamin features in the nearly 50 pages of notes and index. Violent London charts the story of London and of British democracy through centuries of insurrection and political protest, from the Roman period to the present. The author tells not only of the clashes between monarchs and parliaments, but of the frictions produced by collective action taking place on London's streets. He is convinced that "even in our own world of 'talking heads' and presidentially broadcast leaders most of the substance of political change has found its way onto the street and, as often as not, been generated from the genuine concerns of those who have no recourse but direct action".

The "direct action" by the Iceni and their queen, Boadicea, in Norfolk opens the book, providing an alternative interpretation to modern pro-Roman historians who see her as a savage warrior seeking to undermine democracy.

The queen and her army, instead, are described as "people who saw themselves as equal to the Romans - a free people who feared enslavement rather than an enslaved people demanding freedom".

The book then examines the rising between May and July 1381, commonly known as the peasants' revolt, which combined the refusal to pay excessive taxes to a ruling elite with the reaction against oppression, summary law and institutional violence.

Next comes the violence following the self-appointment of Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of England, with clashes between Anglicans and radical dissenters. The fight of the English church for its role as the church of the nation required negotiation and compromise among different social groups and institutions, and "when things went wrong the screams of the tortured, the heretics' bonfires and the sound of gunfire marked the failure".

A detailed description of the great fire of London unveils the subtle insinuations and overt accusations exchanged by contesting groups: was the mastermind of the fire a Dutchman or a Frenchman, or was it the pope in person? No sooner was London rebuilt than destruction returned, with the Gordon riots demolishing not only the city, but also parts of Surrey and Middlesex.

The impression that the author is inspired by a historical materialism of sorts, whereby collective violence produces social change, is dispelled by the argument that the riot was an expression of discontent for the powerless and a safety valve for the powerful. For the former, it constituted the final political resort; for the latter it was a means "whereby those in power got the common people to fight their political battles". Thus, a chapter is devoted to the violence spawned by John Wilkes' libertarian propaganda and to that performed by groups who were convinced that the church was in danger. But it was the volatility of the London "mob" that most concerned the authorities, as the riots involved a range of groups, including theatre-goers fighting against increases in ticket prices.

The revolutionary tradition personified by Tom Paine features in the book, a folk demon for the conservative establishment for its appreciation of the French revolution. Paine's republicanism, entwined with nationalism, was to be influential among the Irish of Dublin and London. The list continues with chartists, suffragettes and - more recently - English fascists, Black radicals, Red Ken, and the riots in Hackney, Brick Lane and Brixton. It ends with poll tax riots, guerrilla gardeners and the Countryside Alliance.

True, the book might be likened to a haphazard meal, with courses being incongruously served. Notwithstanding, Violent London unfolds a coherent thread of individuals, groups and acts that the author summarises as "what we choose to forget". This is the confrontational nature of the history of cities and the capacity of opposing groups to leave visible signs of their conflicts. This forging of the city continues:

"foxhunters, hippie travellers, anarchists, punks and old-age pensioners take to the streets, march, cycle and blockade until Westminster is forced to listen." Perhaps they too will leave a "sign", as Benjamin argued, of their collective action in the city, like Boadicea on Westminster Bridge and the Golden Boy memorial in Cock Street, accusing Catholics of starting the fire of London.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

Violent London: 2,000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts

Author - Clive Bloom
ISBN - 0283 07310 1
Publisher - Sidgwick and Jackson
Price - £18.99
Pages - 597

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