With the cultural influences of
centuries of colonial heritage, colliding with the thriving modern makers of
fashion, pop, and its art scene, London is one of the most colourful and
vibrant cities in the world. London today has a resident population of
around 7.2 million people, over 200 languages are spoken on its streets, and
1 person in every 4 is from an ethnic background.
The Romans first developed the square mile now known as the City of London
and made it an important port and the hub of their road system. The Romans
left, but trade went on. Few traces of London dating from the Dark Ages can
now be found, but the city survived the incursions of both the Saxons and
Vikings. Fifty years before the Normans arrived, Edward the Confessor built
his abbey and palace at Westminster. William the Conqueror found a city that
was, without doubt, the richest and largest in the kingdom. He raised the
White Tower (part of the Tower of London) and confirmed the city's
independence and right to self-government.
During the reign of Elizabeth I the capital began to expand rapidly.
Unfortunately, medieval Tudor and Jacobean London was virtually destroyed by
the Great Fire of 1666. The fire gave Christopher Wren the opportunity to
build his famous churches. By 1720 there were 750,000 people, and London, as
the seat of Parliament and focal point for a growing empire, was becoming
ever richer and more important. Georgian architects replaced the last of
medieval London with their imposing symmetrical architecture and residential
The population exploded again in the 19th century, creating a vast expanse
of Victorian suburbs. As a result of the Industrial Revolution and rapidly
expanding commerce, it jumped from 2.7 million in 1851 to 6.6 million in
1901. Georgian and Victorian London was devastated in WWII - huge swathes of
the centre and the East End were totally flattened. After the war, ugly
housing and low-cost developments were thrown up on the bomb sites. The
docks never recovered - shipping moved to Tilbury, and the Docklands
declined to the point of dereliction. In the heady 1980s, the Docklands were
rediscovered by a new wave of property developers.
London briefly regained its 'cool' reputation in the 1990s, buoyed by Tony
Blair's New Labour. Blair's blane Ken Livingstone donned the mayoral robes
in May 2000, opposing plans to sell off the tube and pushing for improved
public transport and safety. The face of the city changed with the
construction of the £1bn Millennium Dome, the London Eye observation wheel,
the Tate Modern and the creation of the British Museum's Great Court. But
some things never change: London's cost of living outdoes itself year after
year, its chic quotient continues to soar and the gap between the haves and
have nots looms ever larger.
Though the literary scenes London once hosted no longer exist, the city does
have a bookish side. In addition to being more articulate than most
Americans, it would appear that the English read more, too. One of the newer
and cooler celebrations of the English scene is the Clerkenwell Literary
Festival, held each July. Sponsored by artsy heavy hitters like David Bowie,
the festival is a multimedia celebration of new and old works and their
connections to the rest of London's vibrant arts scene. The festival
includes films and performances by DJs and groups like the Beta Band.
Readings and the like take place every day in a variety of changing venues
all over the city.