Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Searching for the best of all possible worlds – in London

Niall Kishtainy examines the eccentric ideas of Gerrard Winstanley, Thomas Spence, John Adolphus Etzler, Thomas More and other utopians who lived in and around the capital

Portrait of Sir Thomas More by Peter Paul Rubens. [Fine Art Images/ Heritage Images/Getty Images]

Utopia can never exist, literally, since the word, which Sir Thomas More coined in his 1516 book of that name, comes from the Greek for ‘not’ and ‘place’. For the avoidance of doubt, More doubled down on the wordplay, naming the governor of his fictional island Ademos, meaning ‘no people’, and the river that runs through it Anyder, meaning ‘no water’.

Interrupting your steak to recite from Leviticus isn’t everyone’s idea of fun

Yet there’s more to it than this, because it turns out that one man’s idea of an ideal society is often very different from another’s. More’s vision was proto-communist. Houses in his Utopia are allocated by lot, and re-allocated every ten years. Each morning the citizens rise early and devote themselves to study before the real work starts.

As Niall Kishtainy points out in his excellent history of London-based utopian thought, this fictional creation has much in common with the ‘contented solemnity’ of More’s own home life in the City of London and later Chelsea. At dinner, the family would take it in turns to read aloud from the scriptures and then discuss a question posed by More. And herein lies the faultline of all utopianism. Happiness, when you look into it, is as subjective as its opposite. Interrupting your steak to recite from Leviticus isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.

Nevertheless, Kishtainy clearly feels fond of his cast of saints and crackpots who lived in and around London as they dreamed of a better world. Why, though, does he stick to London? Why not extend his scope to Plato’s Republic, which the philosopher suggested would best be governed by (you guessed it) philosophers? Why exclude recent micro-states, such as the Independent Principality of Sealand, the abandoned anti-aircraft installation in the North Sea which an Essex family has held since the 1960s without ever sorting out the heating – as I learned to my cost when I stayed there for a few bone-chilling days a decade ago?

Kishtainy never really justifies his geography except to say that the ‘labyrinth’ of his Infinite City provides a ‘foil’ for its utopian dreamers.

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