The American-born Johnson is mayor of London, a former member of Parliament, a former journalist and editor, and an author. And in “Johnson’s Life of London” he has utilized all of those experiences and more to create to tell the history of London through the stories of the key figures who helped make the city.
Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World is a delightfully insightful and entertaining work. And, yes, the title is a play on James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.
Johnson presents a series of 17 vignettes that accomplish two things: tell London’s story and make his case for London having likely influenced the modern world more than any other city. For the English language alone, it’s hard to argue against him.
Some of Johnson’s historical Londoners are familiar – William the Conqueror, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Samuel Johnson and Florence Nightingale. Others were once better known but are somewhat forgotten (at least by Americans) – Richard Whittington, John Wilkes. Lionel Rothschild, W.T. Stead. But all of them have been important to the history of London, and by extension, to the history of the world.
Fifteen hundred years before the London blitz of World War II, Queen Boudica conducted her own blitz of the city, leaving behind tens of thousands of dead and ash that’s almost 18 inches thick. The Roman emperor Hadrian made London the capital of Roman Britain. William the Conqueror built the Tower of London, the symbol to the Anglo-Saxons that they were going to stay defeated. We know about Chaucer and Shakespeare, but we learn the scientist Robert Hooke designed the plan for London after the great fire of 1666. And John Wilkes not only gave birth to the ideas of one man – one vote, he challenge of the tyrannical doings of King George III was an inspiration to the colonists in America; Johnson calls him “the father of liberty.” J.M.W. Turner created Impressionism decades before Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh.
Each mini-biography sets the individual in the context of his or her time, because it is in the context that the reader sees Johnson make his case for London. And each story presents its character with all the warts – for example, the chapter on Churchill is one of the most realistic I’ve read on the man, and it does not diminish his well-earned reputation in the least.
Johnson sprinkles side stories and vignettes throughout the volume, proving looks into the King James Bible, the flush toilet, the Bow Street Runners, the origin of the men’s suit, the bicycle (perfected if not invented in London), sports, the sewer system, and the Tube, among others.
“Johnson’s Life of London” is a gem of a work – well-written, impressive for its understated command of history, and comprehensive in its coverage of London’s history. The mayor has served his city well here.