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London: more by fortune than design

by Michael Hebbert. John Wiley, 1998. 237pp. £16.99

Michael Hebbert's book London is subtitled 'more by fortune than design'. Professor Hebbert is obviously delighted that this is the case, writes Paul Finch. Not for him the glories of a comprehensive road programme; in fact he views its absence as accidentally contributing to the more civilised place which London is becoming. He is a Rasmussen man, and wishes to see those qualities identified as being unique to the capital continued: a dense patchwork of homes and gardens in 'villages', in which geographical knowledge of the sort learned by taxi drivers is much more useful than an attempt to work out where you are on the basis of, say, postal codes.

Hebbert is a cheery person, and so is his book. He does not ignore London's dark side (acute poverty sitting beside extraordinary wealth), but he declines to take apocalyptic views about race relations, crime and the allegedly emerging 'underclass'. Always looking at the wider picture, he sees opportunity in the face of decline (the docks), and the possibility of regeneration in a European context where existing industries have failed (Park Royal and Docklands again).

Well illustrated with black and white photos, maps and drawings, and with a first-rate bibliography and good index, this is the work of a scholar, but one with a light touch. Not only is the book readable, but it is peppered with no-punches-pulled comments. A photo of Roman brickwork in London Wall is captioned: 'Like many of London's major tourist destinations, the setting is tatty, inconvenient, overcrowded, and tainted with the odour of McDonald's.'

Hebbert captures the spirit of what has made London, what has changed in recent years, and what prospects the future holds.

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