20th Century London
A foreward on 2oth century London from Ian Mole
The more things change, the more they stay the same, seems like a strange thing to say but its true. Although London changed a great deal during the last century, the essential character of many areas has thankfully lingered on. The average life expectancy for a Londoner has almost doubled since 1900 and undoubtedly the standard of living for the average citizen has dramatically improved. That’s not to say there isn’t anyone living below the poverty-line these days, take a walk round London and you will see that unfortunately there are still plenty of homeless.
London has always been loved and despised in equal measures. It’s been known as the Great Wen (Boil) and the Smoke by its detractors but has been a land of opportunity and liberation for many more.
The physical appearance of the city has clearly altered dramatically and the skyline of the City in particular is completely different. The Second World War was a major factor in changing the city’s skyline, especially in the City itself and the East End. The scars of the Luftwaffe’s bombs lingered in many places into the Sixties and even later.
Step in a time machine, go on…
If we could use a time-machine to transport a Londoner from 1900 to 2000 they would have no trouble in instantly recognizing their city as the major features have remained much the same.
The focal point, the Thames, still follows exactly the same course as it has since the creation of the Embankments in the 1870′s though our time-traveller would be shocked by the absence of any commercial shipping. The port of London rapidly declined in the 1960′s due to the advent of containerization and activities moved eastwards to Tilbury and elsewhere. Docklands would definitely blow our traveller’s mind.
Artistically London has been the epicentre of many movements, perhaps most notably the Swinging Sixties and despite the digital age making it possible to make an album and distribute it from anywhere, it’s still the centre of the entertainment industry. Liverpool, Manchester and other cities have of course been the source of great musical movements but The Beatles had to come to London to really make it big and the physical networking that’s available here is a crucial factor.
Our time-traveller would certainly be surprised at the myriad of different ethnic groups in their city. Though London has been something of a cultural melting-pot since its creation in Roman times, immigration accelerated considerably after World War Two. In addition to that, international holidays and the growth of sectors such as teaching English have greatly expanded the number of visitors from overseas. Due to the influx of people from overseas, both permanent and temporary, a much greater diversity has developed in areas such as eating and drinking, fashion, music and language. Apart from the numerous foreign languages that are spoken every day in various communities, street-English in London has undoubtedly been influenced by immigration.
The environment has changed for the better in many ways since the Clean Air Act of 1956 banned the use of coal fires and we said goodbye to the terrible pea-souper smogs that had killed thousands of Londoners. In addition countless buildings were cleared up and transformed from smoke-blackened gloom to their original pristine white. Since the advent of the motor-engine, however, we’ve created another kind of pollution and one that’s usually not so easy to notice.
I won’t be around in 2100 but London will be and whatever changes will come to pass, the Thames will still be flowing under Waterloo Bridge and people on their way to work will still be cursing about public transport.