It would be all too easy to write a book about London in the 1960s and 1970s that deals with the superficialities of the place as they are known around the world: “Swinging London,” Carnaby Street, pornographers in Soho, girls in the latest Mary Quant outfit, Jimi Hendrix and The Who playing in the most fashionable nightclubs. Well, that was the 1960s at any rate; the 1970s in Britain were generally more about serious economic decline and a more derivative approach to culture, and these difficulties were as apparent in London as they were anywhere else. My own memories of London in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, were of a place that was down at heel, running short of money, and low on ideas and creativity.

Waterloo Sunrise, an original, superbly written, and immaculately researched book by John Davis, has the merit not only of being a serious work of social history but also of being one that lifts up the stone to reveal aspects of London life between the early 1960s and the advent of Mrs. Thatcher. It reaches the parts that other history books do not. All the elements that, in the 1960s, made England’s capital something approaching the center of the known universe for the younger generation are traced back to their roots and analyzed by Davis. He advises in his atmospheric introduction that the book may be read from cover to cover or as a set of individual essays—essays that help explain the evolution of London, and of the nature of Londoners, in those almost two decades.

The inner London of the early 1960s was still one of bomb sites and rather too much run-down nineteenth-century housing; in the poorer districts, notably in the east of the city towards the Docklands, the old housing was in many cases little better than slums. Britain’s economic recovery moved more slowly after the war than that of many of its defeated or previously conquered European neighbors. But, as Davis recounts, modern office blocks were by the early 1960s proliferating on the central bomb sites as the City of London reestablished itself as one of the world’s leading financial centers. This in turn led to a growing demand for property in some of the less shabby inner suburbs, which led to the process known as “gentrification.” Young, successful, professional people, many of them working in creative industries such as the theater, broadcasting, journalism, or advertising, colonized areas of late-Georgian or Victorian housing and brought them into the twentieth century.

An early example of this urban reclamation and improvement was Chelsea. Camden, Islington, and Notting Hill (the scene of race riots in 1958) followed in quick succession. Ever since the early 1960s, the march of gentrification has continued, eventually reaching the East End with the redevelopment of London’s Docklands in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the key transformative events in London’s history was the decline of its once famous docks and the warehousing and light industries that operated alongside them. The results were twofold. First, several miles of docks, mainly along the north bank of the Thames from Tower Bridge to Barking, became derelict; this was the only area of London in that period where the population declined, as the thousands of low-paid jobs for stevedores and warehousemen disappeared.

An early example of this urban reclamation and improvement was Chelsea.

Much of the decaying housing in which they lived was pulled down and replaced by modern high-rise buildings that initially seemed luxurious but which themselves soon showed signs of instability. A gas explosion at the new tower block Ronan Point in Canning Town, just north of the Docklands, in 1968 tore an entire corner off the twenty-two-story building, killing four people and injuring seventeen. The death toll was only so low because the block had been open for just two months and was still largely unoccupied. However bad some of the nineteenth-century housing that had been demolished was, it was far better built than the structures that replaced it. Ronan Point was demolished after eighteen years; its reputation for being dangerous was so strong that no one wanted to live in it. The way London’s public housing was built, and the standards demanded of it, were radically changed after Ronan Point. Much of the high-rise housing of the mid- to late 1960s has gone the same way as Ronan Point. The once derelict Docklands is now a stretch of high-specification office blocks, of which Canary Wharf is the most notable, served by its own state-of-the-art underground railway and surrounded by immensely expensive modern apartment blocks for the young, moneyed elite who work there. Meanwhile, the old working class of east London has mostly been shipped out to “overspill” estates in the suburbs, the few who remain being greatly outnumbered either by the middle classes or by Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants.

Davis is normally superb at analysis, but rather skates over the reasons for the decline of the Docklands: it is such an important factor in the recalibration of London, and in the execution of the Thatcher economic miracle for which this book is a preface, that it deserves more attention. The main reason why the London docks died was that ships became bigger, and the Thames that far upriver was too shallow to take them. Much of the traffic moved downriver to Tilbury in Essex, and the new container ships went into Southampton, Dover, or Felixstowe instead. The London docks, with their record of low pay and casual labor, had been blighted by industrial unrest and militant trade unions, which also assisted London’s decline and allowed for the flourishing of other southern English ports that were less afflicted by syndicalism.

Davis is particularly good on London’s old white working class, a group much neglected by historians in the last twenty or thirty years, writing about them not just in their role as dockers, but also as taxi drivers. He explains why so many taxi drivers are Jewish and how, whatever your ethnicity, you will find it far easier to become a cabbie in London if someone in your family is one already. He associates cabbies with the mythical Essex Man, the social stereotype identified at the end of the rule of Margaret Thatcher: working-class Conservatives with economic ambitions who were almost abnormally self-reliant and, as a consequence, justifiably skeptical about the role of the state and authority generally. The typical cabbie was a pioneer of the lower middle class who, newly prosperous, moved to the outer suburbs that had sprung up during the war, many of them on the London fringes of Essex—Chingford, Loughton, Woodford, and Ilford. Now the old East End diaspora has spread miles out into Essex, motivated often by the ambition that if they can make a serious pile they can find a place in the country and away from the suburbs. Davis is clever to identify the roots of this phenomenon.

This white flight, which started seriously in the 1960s as London’s working-class people were moved out to overspill estates, or to new towns such as Harlow, Basildon (both in Essex), Stevenage (Hertfordshire), Bracknell (Berkshire), or Crawley (Sussex), created space for immigrants and ethnic minorities. Black people, usually from Britain’s former West Indian colonies, settled predominantly in northwest inner London (in North Kensington and notably Notting Hill), in the inner East End around Hackney, or in northern suburbs such as Brent and Haringey. People from the Indian subcontinent tended to settle in the western outer suburbs—not far from Heathrow Airport—but later in Tower Hamlets and Newham in the former Docklands. The racial tension in the 1950s was almost without question down to the bigotry and ignorance of the indigenous population, who began to feel they were being outnumbered by the new arrivals. But Davis also looks at the new wave of racial conflict in London in the 1970s, typified by a riot at the Notting Hill Carnival—London’s annual celebration of West Indian culture—in 1976. Gentrification had by then begun to transform this formerly rather seedy area north of Hyde Park and not far from Paddington railway station. Although many of the new well-heeled residents thought of themselves as liberal progressives, they did not like the often gratuitous damage done to their properties and neighborhoods during the carnival by young black men who used it as an opportunity to pick pockets, mug, rob, and burgle. In turn, many minorities in the area felt alienated and victimized by a police force that was at that time almost entirely white. The Metropolitan Police was, twenty years later, described as being “institutionally racist”; given that racism is entirely an individual decision, it is logically incoherent to say that an institution, as opposed to the people who work for it, can be racist. In the 1970s, many Met police officers habitually regarded young black men as obvious criminals, and often (metaphorically, which was fortunate) shot first and asked questions later. The tensions are still far from resolved, though not, luckily, as grave as those perceived in some American cities.

All these new middle-class residents in the 1960s changed the nature of London’s infrastructure.

But all these new middle-class residents in the 1960s changed the nature of London’s infrastructure. Davis meticulously describes and analyzes the growth of the foreign-restaurant trade in London from the late 1950s onwards, starting with the then-exotic development of the Italian trattoria and next drawing on Britain’s historic links with India and the Far East, which stocked the West End and then the outer suburbs with restaurants whose cuisines reflect the subcontinent, China, Malaysia, and the Middle East. Very few of these restaurants survive today; they were casualties of rapid changes in taste and, in the 1970s, of an economic slump that saw the International Monetary Fund brought in to run the British economy in 1976. The fashion industry—exemplified by the work of Mary Quant, and boutiques that thronged Carnaby Street, the King’s Road, and even parts of the East End (providing sharp suits for the sons of dockers who now found themselves in well-paid white-collar jobs in the back offices of ever more prosperous City firms)—started to be culled as the economy dived. Davis is as perceptive in describing the decline of the 1970s as he is in detailing the excitement of London in the 1960s, with the extension of welfare dependency and the creation of conditions inimical to investment doing much to depress the earlier energy of the city. He also investigates, with unbending rigor, other aspects of the London story, including the Soho pornography industry (he calls the area “London’s Erogenous Zone”) and how it developed (with the aid of a deeply corrupt vice squad at Scotland Yard) and broke existing taboos to become more and more explicit. It remained a major tourist attraction, notably for young men visiting London, throughout the period covered by this book.

The author provides a subtle illustration of why Mrs. Thatcher, with her promises to restructure the economy and extend opportunity, managed to become prime minister in 1979. Those of us who remember England in what has become known as the “Winter of Discontent”—the months immediately before her election in May 1979—recognize the picture he paints all too well. Britain had ceased to innovate, ceased to invest, ceased to provide incentives for people to prosper and improve themselves. These were the chances she seemed to offer, and the regenerated Docklands became her symbol. Davis also illustrates a London in which, from the mid-1960s until the money ran out in the 1970s, there were constant battles between those who wished to flatten Georgian and Victorian gentrified inner London to build a network of motorways and those who wished to conserve something of the character of the capital, so much of which had been wrecked by the Luftwaffe. The conservationists won; the Conservatives won. In both instances, when one recalls the excitement of 1980s London and the pride now taken in the city’s past and its mix of architecture, Britain’s capital has ended up much the better for it.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 85
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