This week’s random book of the week is not actually that random, but please do not ‘do’ me under the trade descriptions act, as this is only a book blog, and we really do not have to take things so seriously. On its 350th anniversary, it seems timely to present to you Adrian Tinniswood’s engrossing history of the Great Fire of London.
For me, the peculiar thing about our perception of the those traumatic three days in 1666 is that we seem to be in denial about how horrific an experience it must have been. It started at a baker’s house in the quaintly named Pudding Lane! Samuel Pepys buried his cheese to protect it from the flames, as who would risk a lack of Parmesan to accompany one’s spag bol! Just like an episode of the A-Team, no one really died (apart from a couple of poor souls, but hey those are pretty good numbers right?)! And, to top it all off, there is a fun nursery rhyme about it!
So, the greatest strength of Tinniswood’s ‘marvellously readable’ book (one of the very few times I have agreed with the Daily Mail) is that it firmly reminds us that the extensive destruction of a vibrant city, with the loss of life (as, without being too grim, it is actually quite tricky to firmly establish the true death toll given that fire obliterates the evidence), homes, businesses and the familiar and historical fabric of the city, was a cataclysmic event for 17th century Londoners. Stoic as us Londoners are now and may have been then, the trauma of this event made them search endlessly for a reason for their bad luck (such as divine punishment for the people’s execution of Charles I and the debauched nature of the court of his son) and suitable scapegoats (Catholics and foreigners…does this sound depressingly familiar?). I don’t think they were merrily composing nursery rhymes or thinking ‘well at least my cheese is ok.’
Tinniswood’s account of the fire and the subsequent rebuilding of the city is full of fascinating individual stories of Londoners high and low, and provides a wonderful pen portrait of 17th century London. My favourite observation of his was how London was ‘noisy, filthy and smelly, and most Englishmen agreed that only Paris was worse’ as it made me feel some connection with that 17th century city that perished in the flames: those rickety, timber-framed, extensively flammable structures may have burned, but our collective and irrational dislike of the French seems to survive the centuries…
P.S. HAS EVERYONE CHECKED THAT THE OVEN IS OFF?