Review by Tracey Sinclair.
Leo Hollis’ thorough and well-researched book takes us from London in the 1640s to the early 1700s, encompassing a massive period of change – the tumult of the Civil War and the Restoration followed by the devastation of the Plague and the Great Fire. By focusing on St Paul’s – its destruction and rebuilding – as a symbol for the city and its rebirth as a modern metropolis, Hollis ties together diverse strands of history, science, religion and philosophy into a compelling and thought-provoking narrative.
Hollis’ book centres around five extraordinary men who between them made an indelible stamp on London and helped shape its transformation: philosopher John Locke, scientist Robert Hooke, gardener John Evelyn, builder Nicholas Barbon and, of course, architect Christopher Wren. Their lives are inextricably interwoven with one another and the social and political fabric of the city, and this tale of personal rivalries, political wrangling and (in the case of Barbon) fairly shady dealings is as compelling as any novel.
Phoenix is densely written and crammed full of information, so can occasionally feel a little overwhelming. But while it may not be a fast or easy read, it’s a rewarding one, and so jam-packed with fascinating facts and colourful snippets about London that will it make you look at the city with fresh eyes and appreciate its marvels all the more.