By Juliana Adelman
I was very excited to delve into Lief Jerram’s Streetlife: the untold history of Europe’s twentieth century. Unlike pretty much everyone I’ve talked to, though, I was rather disappointed. In fact, I still haven’t finished it. I could see what Jerram was trying to do. I liked the writing and the integration of material. But for me the book wasn’t really getting to the heart of the matter. Jerram repeatedly asserted the importance of the street in history without really discovering what the street IS. In fact, the book is really urban history rather than much to do with street life per se. What makes things happen in one street and not in another? We all know that some streets ‘feel’ different to others and that landing into a foreign city can throw off our personal radar that detects which streets are friendly and which are dangerous. But Jerram wasn’t really interested in this, as far as my reading of the first few chapters could gather. He was merely asserting the importance of the space or place in which history happens. No one with even a passing acquaintance with historical geography could find this argument novel. I’m sure Jerram fans will pepper the comments section with complaints that I am completely wrong based on the last two chapters of book. So fire away and I promise to go back and read them.
My knowledge of the historiography of the twentieth century is admittedly limited. Ninteenth-century historians seem to have been far more interested in street life, perhaps because of the evocative picture of vice and decay that can be found in many primary sources and in Charles Dickens’ extensive output. Victorian London, in particular, has been the subject of numerous volumes devoted to its underworld and to the varieties of urban life it housed. Read more