London Books Review: The Phoenix

Like many, I often wondered at what time in London’s history I’d like to live, of course given the caveat of having 21st-century access to health care, the Internet and modern comforts.

The time, for me, would be just after the Great Fire of London, the seminal moment Leo Hollis argues Britain’s capital laid the foundations of today’s modern city.

[T]HE BOOK REVOLVES AROUND the rebuilding of St Paul’s, still London’s finest building, and that alone keeps you turning the pages – but it is much more than the story of the vast difficulties Christopher Wren overcame in pushing his vision for the cathedral. We are introduced to other men who reshaped London, structurally, commercially and philosophically.

Scientist Robert Hooke, who tirelessly worked at the nascent Royal Society; John Locke, philosopher and physician, known as the ‘Father of Liberalism’, John Evelyn writer, gardener and diarist contemporary with Pepys, and the villain of the piece, Nicholas Barbon who built hundreds of shoddy houses, some at Mincing Lane collapsed because their foundations were inadequate.

These men had survived a civil war, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the worst plague Europe had suffered, and the almost complete destruction of London. The opportunities afforded by the Capital’s infrastructure being decimated were embraced by these men.

On a personal note: In July 2014 when I was at a function atop the BT Tower I happened to bump into Leo Hollis, with modern London laid out before us it would have been the perfect place to discuss his excellent book. Alas, it was not until he later began his lecture that I realised who he was.

The Phoenix: The men who made modern London by Leo Hollis. First published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2008

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