The historian, Ben Wilson, is the author of five critically acclaimed books, including The Sunday Times bestseller, Empire of the Deep, for which he won the Somerset Maugham Award for What Price Liberty?
Interview by Rowan Pelling
What influences formed you as a historian?
I was interested in history from a very young age and read everything I could get my hands on from Ladybird books to, later, the Flashman series and AJP Taylor– who wrote in such a punchy, accessible style.
My grandfather also spurred my interest. He inherited the family business and had to run a factory, but would much rather have been a historian. So he surrounded himself with interesting people, like Russian émigrés, who’d lived through great events of history and talked to me like an adult.
Is it fair to say the Georgian Age was your original passion?
Yes, I started out as a specialist in the late Georgian and early Victorian eras. I was drawn to the visual culture, the cartoons, the literature of the time and the strong characters like Charles James Fox, William Pitt and the Prince Regent.
I was also interested by the way a quite traditional society collided with a more modern world of emerging technology. The nation was traumatised following the Napoleonic Wars because of the economic consequences. It felt like a moment where the tide turned in history.
How did the fight for free speech and liberty emerge as a key theme in your work?
The radicals in the early 19th century were arguing for a free vote and freedom of the press and using history to further their campaign. I saw clear analogies with our own age.
This was particularly true when I was writing about the satirist William Hone and his court battle against blasphemy laws that were being used to try and silence him. This was at a time when British blasphemy laws were raising their heads again [Wilson’s biography of Hone was published in 2005].
What did you set out to achieve with Metropolis?
It’s a history of cities and urbanisation from the Stone Age and very first mass settled dwellings until now. It looks at how human beings have created and inhabited an alien environment and adapted to it – how each age has found its own way of surviving this extraordinary invention that’s a driving force in history.
I also look at cities’ dark sides: the fact that the urban environment has been viewed as inherently dangerous and sinful. Cities have been responsible for a lot of our progress, but aren’t intrinsically benign.
What do you mean when you say cities are ‘alien’?
They’re about us as a species adapting to this strange kind of environment, which is very different from our human roots, but has become our predominant way of living in the 21st century. Around 2009-10 we became a majority urbanised species and by 2050 about 75 per cent of people will live in cities. China has been the big urbanising nation over the last generation. Now Africa is going through its own break-neck process of urbanisation.
Did you travel for the book?
I went to Lagos as part of a global city-trotting research trip. It was mind-boggling, I was quite terrified at the prospect, but it was one of the most fun, vital places I’ve ever been. It’s like LA, a massive sprawl, so you have to drive everywhere. By the end of the century, if it continues to grow at the current rate, Lagos will have 80 million inhabitants.
It will be one of several African cities which will see an unprecedented scale of urbanisation. I also visited Mumbai and stayed with a family in a slum, where I watched India play England at Lord’s on a TV in the world’s best whisky bar.
How have you organised your material?
Each chapter looks at a different aspect of city living. I use the Bible’s sin city Babylon to examine urban sexual cultures and how that kind of anonymous environment can facilitate exploration – but that makes cities look sinful to moralists.
Then there’s a chapter on Paris, structured around walking and byways: the connective tissues of cities, rather than the vital organs. And one on London that examines how ideas and political movements sprang from coffee-house culture.
I’ve also focussed on Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries, when it was the most powerful city on earth, famed for its street foods and markets. I wanted to examine how sociability and eating out are an intrinsic part of urban pleasure. Although that’s changed as a result of lockdown, of course.
How has Covid-19 affected your take on cities?
I hope this book will be a reminder of what makes cities so much fun to be in at a time when, once again, they seem like quite a hostile environment: the sociable, nature that can make them so pleasurable.
Metropolis by Ben Wilson is published by Penguin Random House and is available from penguin.co.uk and other major booksellers