Waterloo Sunrise — how London was reborn

“Waterloo Sunset”, the 1967 Kinks song echoed in the title of John Davis’s illuminating social history of postwar London, expresses unabashed affection for the polluted city. “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling/Flowing into the night? . . . As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset/I am in paradise.”

That was not unusual. Four northerners who had moved to London spoke to the Evening Standard in 1966 about the city’s magnetism as it awoke from years of austerity and rationing. “London holds you. You feel that you are closer to things happening,” said one Middlesbrough native, while the novelist AS Byatt related how “the orderliness of society” had weighed on her in Durham.

No one would describe London’s journey from the 1960s through to the election of Margaret Thatcher as UK prime minister in 1979 — the year in which Davis concludes his narrative — as orderly. From the cultural uprising of the Swinging Sixties to 1970s battles over slum clearance and gentrification, the capital was in a constant state of social and economic flux.

But the result was extraordinary — a capital that rebounded from recession in the 1970s, when people and businesses fled for the suburbs and beyond, to a Promethean dominance of the rest of the UK. No planner pulled a lever and made it happen: London was the epitome of the dynamic global city, which forges its destiny from millions of individual decisions, leaving the government struggling to “level up” other regions.

Indeed, Davis’s conclusion is counter-intuitive. We have a tendency now to ascribe the city’s modern form to Thatcherite liberalisation, but its roots predated her: “The London of 1979 appeared to anticipate ‘Thatcher’s Britain’. But [she] had had almost nothing to do with it. She had not produced the affluence, and she was not answerable for the deprivation.”

Davis, an emeritus fellow in history at Queen’s College, Oxford, delves deeply into news reports, public records and all kinds of miscellanea to present his nuanced portrait of London’s evolution. It is often entertaining and affecting, particularly in its evocation of the music and cuisine of the 1960s and 1970s, though the degree of detail sometimes overwhelms.

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London’s growth was supported by two forces: an influx of newcomers, both British and foreign, into “an ageing industrial city scarred by war”, and an urgent desire for fun. The melting pot was a crucial contributor to the Swinging London of the 1960s, despite the complaint of a Greek Cypriot coffee grinder in Camden that “only rubbish people come to this town “.

From duffel coats in Chelsea to Italian trattorias in Soho, London was the place for youth to let its hair down. Waterloo Sunrise includes a meticulous chart of how ethnic restaurants — Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Hungarian — spread through the city, opening culinary boundaries as well as letting its new service class of typists and secretaries eat out affordably.

The consumer revolution was a powerful force. Davis records a description of London cabbies as “philosophical anarchists with a contempt for all law and order imposed from above” — and they were not the only ones. “In fact much of this book might be read as a demonstration of the increasing powerlessness of public agencies in London,” he concludes.

The fiercest contest was between planners at the Greater London Council and homeowners in the gentrification wave that followed the abolition of rent controls in 1957. The former believed in slum clearance and public housing towers; the latter “his own front door, his own small garden, with somewhere to pamper his car”, as the journalist Simon Jenkins described the capital’s suburbs in 1973.

A milkman carrying a crate of bottles is doing his round in the East End in the 1960s. Behind him we can see a high rise housing block
London old and new: a milkman on his rounds in the East End in the 1960s, with a multistorey tower rising behind him © Getty Images

The utopians made some headway: more than 700 blocks were erected by 1968, many in the east. But when they tried to build a ringway through Highgate and Islington in 1969 to match Robert Moses’ New York freeways, they were defeated by “the architects, solicitors, doctors, actors and an artist or two” who had taken up residence in Victorian terraces when they were still cheap.

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Not all citizens gained from the upheaval: gentrification created losers as well as winners, and Davis records the prejudice and mistreatment faced by black immigrants in Notting Hill and Brixton. But before Thatcher was even elected, abolished the GLC and accelerated the sale of council housing, the pattern was set: a dirty old city had been reborn.

Can it still thrive? The pioneers of gentrification are incumbents with multimillion-pound houses now, and living in the inner city is more expensive. European opportunity seekers may pick other cities after Brexit, and the pandemic has prompted some residents to move. But it is hard to break the spell entirely: London may not be paradise, but it has its charms.

Waterloo Sunrise: London from the Sixties to Thatcher by John Davis, Princeton University Press $39.95/£30, 600 pages

John Gapper is FT Weekend business columnist

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