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Doing the knowledge

review London from Punk to Blair Edited by Joe Kerr and Andrew Gibson. Reaktion, 2003. 416pp. £19.95

Finely printed and lavishly illustrated, this volume of essays is full of insight into the diverse experiences that jointly constitute the recent history of London.

Katie Wales observes the flows of London language away from standardised RP (received pronunciation). Taking the preferred reading matter of London Tube travellers (Harry Potter et al) as an index of 'metropolitan infantilism', Jenny Bavidge and Andrew Gibson contrast the development of London as a playground for adults with the disappearance of its children, now 'kept apart' from the 'wider world' of the city and increasingly confined to designated locations. Mark Turner correlates the 'centralisation of Gay London in Soho' with the de-radicalisation of lesbians and gays.

In 'The London Suit', Christopher Breward identifies the success of men's tailors Hackett with the rise of the City suit as a portable heritage experience. John Davis provides a clear analysis of London's political institutions from the Greater London Council to the Greater London Authority, although in a companion piece on the role of the City, Charlie Gere gets stuck on the war-like accoutrements of competition in the workings of the financial economy, and thereby overlooks the underlying international economic cooperation that allows London to operate as a global financial centre.

Co-editor Joe Kerr's piece on the rise of office blocks in Canary Wharf, the concomitant fall of tower blocks of municipal flats, and the use of the blowdown as photoopportunity - a 'blowdown' being the staged blowing up of local authority housing - is an especially interesting commentary on the evolving urban geography in which 'rich and poor have changed places in the sky'.

You get the pictures? Yes, you do: London From Punk to Blair is concerned with the pluralisation of the metropolis since the 1970s.

As someone who arrived in London in the mid-1970s to work in a suburban trade publishing house and, simultaneously, play in a band at venues like the Roxy and the Nashville, I am unconvinced that pre-punk Britain was as singularly monocultural as this narrative seeks to suggest. Nevertheless, the story of the proliferation of stories is told well and recounted differently - as befits a plotline hingeing on difference.

But is it the ambition of this book to represent difference or to understand it? Judging by the co-editor's introduction, it stands uneasily between the two. The priority, says Kerr, is to reflect 'the vividness of everyday experience', and the variety of this vividness cannot be grasped by a unitary, analytical approach. Thus, 'the fragmentary and discontinuous character of this ensemble of writing and image reflects our own limited ability to make sense both of the time in which we live and the environment that we inhabit'.

Yet epistemological downshifting is followed by a declaration of epochal change: 'it is nonetheless immediately obvious that over the last quarter of a century this city has undergone a dramatic and traumatic process of change'. How can we know this, however, if, as Kerr suggests, 'we cannot now claim to know London, and to imagine we could would be to miss the point'? Thankfully this collection contains more of the knowledge of London than its co-editor dares to claim.

Andrew Calcutt teaches at the University of East London

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