Last week, the tourist board went into a tizzy over a description of London recently published in a guidebook. According to Lonely Planet, the city is not only rubbish-strewn but also the haunt of obnoxious drivers in battered white vans. By the standards of London's history, however, this should rank as good news. Three hundred years ago, the city was so filthy that travellers could smell it from miles away, and although there may have been no white vans, road-rage was endemic and was made worse by the stink. Maureen Waller, in her fascinating new book, quotes from a contemporary newspaper: "Last night, several bullies of the town, meeting with a night-cart, in the Strand, were so offended at the stench thereof, that they drew their swords, and stabbed all the horses . . ." A tourist board in 1700 would have had its work cut out.
Or perhaps not. For all its horrors, London then, as now, was Europe's largest, richest and most cosmopolitan city. It also dominated the nation of which it was capital to an unparalleled degree. The nearest rival to its population of over half a million was Norwich, then home to a mere 30,000. London may have been so ravaged by disease and pollution that it required an influx of migrants merely to sustain itself, yet still the migrants came, and still the city grew.
Contemporaries were well aware of this seeming paradox, and they puzzled over it a good deal in newspapers, diaries, travelogues and letters - a treasure trove for the assiduous historian. In her foreword, Waller invokes Daniel Defoe as her inspiration - quite justifiably, because she shares with him a journalist's eye for the story and its telling detail. Every statistic comes with a human face, often to moving effect. When Waller informs us that only half of all children in London lived beyond the age of 15, she quotes a father grieving over his eight-year-old daughter: "When she dyed, my soule had aboundant cause to bless God for her, who was our first fruites . . . it was a pretious child, a bundle of myrrhe, a bundle of sweetnes . . ."
By giving a voice to the citizens of Defoe's London, however, Waller is aiming at something more than a snapshot of a time and place in history. Why did she choose 1700 as the setting for her portrait of the city? She never gives an explicit reason - apart, perhaps, from the explanation on the dust jacket that the year was a "unique" moment in London's history. "Portentous" would have been a better description, given that one realises, when reading this book, that one is reading nothing less than an account of the birth pangs of the modern age. If, as Walter Benjamin thought, Paris was the capital of the 19th century, London was the capital of the 18th; and Waller's book vividly illustrates why.
In 1700, Londoners were experiencing as a prototype the extremes of urban civilisation that now define how most human beings live. The sufferings of the poor then are those suffered in any over-crowded, over-poisoned shanty town today. Likewise, the energy and individualism that foreign visitors to London found so striking are the same qualities that typify the triumphant modes of the modern global economy.
This book is alive with the excitement that people felt on discovering for the first time that there was almost nothing that couldn't be bought or sold.
It is not only road-rage that is darkly foreshadowed in the London of 1700; property speculation, advertising, the power of the media, faddish health cures, even a dome - all are here. The contours of the year 2000 loom misshapen through the mirror of almost every page.
Tom Holland is a novelist