Following the Great Fire five brilliant men laid the foundations for the cosmopolitan metropolis we know today, discovers Matt Thorne
The Phoenix: St Paul's Cathedral and the Men Who Made Modern London by Leo Hollis, Weidenfeld and Nicolson £20 According to Leo Hollis, author of this engrossing new study, the questions that were first posed in the 17th century are problems we still deliberate over today. These questions include: What is government? How do we know whether something is true? Are there fundamental laws to the universe? How does one judge the morality of profit or the existence of God?
Hollis sees London as a "plural" city, a city that has reinvented itself on the remains of the past. He chooses as the starting point for this reinvention the period following the Great Fire of 1666 and focuses on the resurrection of St Paul's Cathedral.
He sees 17th-century London as a "paranoid city", gripped by "anxiety and holy prediction", and focuses on the five men he believes to be principally responsible for changing this — Sir Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Robert Hooke, John Locke and Nicholas Barbon.
Several of these men were connected by their Christianity. Evelyn was the son of English gentry and believed in the established order of King. Church and duty. Wren grew up in the higher echelons of the Anglican Church. Robert Hooke's father was a cleric. Wren and Hooke imagined a lifetime in the service of the Established Church.
What prevented this life, Hollis suggests, was the insecurity and uncertainty that came with the Civil War, which be sees as a cultural and intellectual turning point for the nation. He argues that the attacks of the Civil War called into question not just the person of the king but the whole structure of the hierarchy, including the church and universities. Hollis writes: "Knowledge was the study of God's creation on earth, but few could agree on how and what was permissible. For some, Truth was to be rediscovered in the words of the Bible and the study of divine texts; for others, the physical world alone was the object of study without recourse to the sacred or the ancient. This could only be understood by a new method of measurement, a certitude found outside the authority of Man and regulated by impersonal mathematics."
Hollis is a historian with a novelist's eye for dramatic detail, and an infectious affection for both his subject and his five men. He shows just how wide their interests were, and how they drew from other countries and cultures.
He takes something like Evelyn's interest in arboriculture, for example, and uses it to explain how gardening would become important in the new regime. Unlike many historians, he doesn't seem to have any particular hobby-horses other than providing an entertaining read (this may be because Hollis has worked as a literary editor concentrating as much on fiction as non-fiction and is not an acad emic). In his previous books, Hollis has seemed to align himself with psycho-geographers like Iain Sinclair, which might have led one to assume that Peter Ackroyd would be an influence on this book, but the Stonyhursteducated Hollis is his own man.
Although he wants to collapse the distance between the 17th century and our own age, it doesn't seem to be for ideological reasons but rather to lure in lay readers.
He loves little details like the fact that Nicholas Barbon's son's original name was If-Jesus-HadNot-Died-For-Thee-Thou Wouldst-Be-Damned.
Barbon. Hollis believes, was inspired by the way Remonstrants, Lutherans, Mennonites, Collegiants, Jews and Catholics managed to co-exist and enjoy good business relationships in Utrecht.
The lives of his five men are played out against an architectural background and he marshals his facts so the reader is delighted to read how Hooke conducted experiments designed to reveal the true nature of gravity in the tower of St Paul's Cathedral. He also spices his narrative with great set-pieces, describing the Great Fire in an almost cinematic way.
What Hollis seems to admire most in his chosen subjects is their desire to make London modern, and he uses a vocabulary that reflects this, writing of John Evelyn that he was "versed in the grammar of contemporary urban theory".
It is Wren he most admires, for having the most daring ideas and playing the largest part in the reshaping of the city. His descriptions of the various rejections suffered by Wren as he tried to get his designs accepted are full of sympathy for an artist whose genius had to be approved by the Anglican hierarchy even when passed by Charles Hollis is also good on Locke's An Essay on Human Understanding, explaining how behind his philosophy was a reminder that the birth of modern science did not represent the death of God but an attempt to see His work more clearly.
Again, he draws connections between philosophy and architecture, suggesting that London was rebuilt through thought as much as physical construction. He doesn't draw any explicit parallels to our present troubled age. beyond that introductory suggestion that the links between 17th century London and early 21st century London are easy to find.
He concludes in the 18th century, with Barbon's death following his inability to establish the Government Land Bank as the leading credit house in England, Hooke suffering a slow and painful decline as he lives in the shadow of Isaac Newton, Locke posthumously admitting to the authorship of books he previously felt too fearful to declare his own, Evelyn completing volumes on medals and salads, but leaving his 1,000th page Elysium Britannicum unfinished and Wren living past 90 and still being mentally fit.
The Phoenix is an extremely entertaining work of popular history. I have only one criticism and that is that Hollis's publishers have skimped on production costs, publishing a £20 volume that literally fell apart in my hands after one reading. Unlike St Paul's Cathedral, it has not been built to last, and it seems a shame that an author so talented who cares so deeply about the survival of books, buildings and thought should be let down in this way. But don't let that stop you reading the book, or you will miss a treat.