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The Spirit of London by Boris Johnson

ISBN 978-0-00-751117-4

With Boris Johnson’s recent visit to Australia, and having only recently discovered that he has written a number of books, I decided to buy a couple and find out how he writes.

“The Spirit of London” (an updated version of “Johnson’s Life of London”, is very good. Most chapters cover famous London characters from Boudica and Mellitus to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. I’m not sure how much of his politics I agree with, but he is one of those politicians (Malcolm Turnbull, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Carr) who seems to see beyond immediate issues. He has studied the past and applied it to the present. He has a level of empathy, and gentleness.

He emphasises the nature of the London population, 40% having been born outside the UK. He scorns those that call naturalised British citizens “plastic Brits”. For thousands of years generations of people from all over the world have migrated to London, making it one of the greatest cities in the world. Whether these were Romans, Danes, Huguenots, West Indians, or more recently Poles. He notes that London is now one of the largest French cities, with such a large French population, that French presidential candidates feel they have to visit London on their campaign trails.

He does claim that the first flush toilet was invented by Sir John Harington in 1596 for the Virgin Queen, although I remember seeing one in Knossos, Crete, which admittedly was very crude, but was also another 3500 years older.

I’d never heard of Mary Seacole, born in Jamaica in 1805, and a major contributor to nursing. She tried to join Florence Nightingale in Crimea, but after rejection set up a “British Hotel” there as “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”, but also helped soldiers on the battlefield, including Russians and Turks.

Richard (Dick) Whittington (born on or just after 1397), Lord Mayor a number of times, set up a charity with his wealth, that still supplies cash to the needy today.

JMW Turner and Constable’s difficult relationship is fascinating, as are the chapters on Robert Hooke and John Wilkes. He discusses what these people did, but also their personalities and quirks.

I’m looking forward to reading “The Dream of Rome”, the other book of his I bought.