Whitehall: The Street that Shaped a Nation


As the author is keen to point out, this book is about Whitehall the place rather than Whitehall the synecdoche for ‘British Government’.  Chronologically it extends from the death of Eleanor of Castile in 1290 to the present day, more-or-less.  I’m rather less sure of the geographical extent:  the vague idea of ‘from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament’ will hardly do, since Trafalgar Square didn’t exist for the great majority of this period.

Indeed I generally suffered from a king of geographical unrootedness.  There is one map showing the Tudor Palace of Westminster overlaid on Whitehall as it was in 1900, but it rather lacks useful labelling and anyway 1900 Whitehall is not something I have a ready grasp of.  Otherwise, the author refers to places and you’re supposed to know where they are.  I can remember how in A Landing on the Sun Michael Frayn evoked Whitehall localities with deft touches of description, but then he was (is!) a professional writer…


Talking of Tudor palaces....


But I did learn some things from the book.  Richmond House (DH HQ) must be some kind of a pastiche of a Tudor palace–I just thought it was odd–though the book doesn’t actually say so.  There are set-pieces (often connected with sex) of Henry VIII, Horatio Nelson, Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron, and I was interested by the description of the preparations for a last-ditch defence of Whitehall against German invaders during World War II.

These memories of outworn glorious time get a bathetic accompaniment as the author is keen to tell us where in his TV output David Starkey supported a particular point,  or that [John] Prescott used [rooms in Admiralty House] for an office Christmas party on 19 December 2002, at which he was photographed laughing dancing and carrying his diary secretary Tracey Temple in his arms.

As Colin Brown says, Whitehall today comprises a rather featureless collection of grey Palladian buildings, where you see tourists drifting frustratedly as they wonder where is it all?  And this book left me feeling the same way.

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