Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, burned Londinium to the ground in AD 61 – we can still find a layer of oxidized iron in the geological record attesting to her success. While Londinium was not a big city by modern standards – its population was probably about the same as today’s Poughkeepsie, with the same crime problem but not such good restaurants – Boadicea’s valiant action should nevertheless be a model for us today. The reality is that big cities are destructive of both economic value and civilizational values, and one of the few advantages of modern technology is that we can now avoid creating them or living in them.
Modern historians are sniffy about the Boadicea legend, so beloved of our Victorian ancestors – the magnificent monument pictured above, commissioned by Prince Albert in 1856 and finally erected beside Westminster Bridge in 1905, is testament to her eminence. They have re-christened her “Boudicca” or “Boudica” with no evidence – the Britons of her era had no written language, so we don’t know how she spelled or pronounced her name. We know of her only through the Roman writer Tacitus, whose father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola participated as a young man in the campaign against her. Tacitus’ “Boadicea” is far more euphonious than fake-“indigenous” gutturals.
Modern writers also object that the magnificent scythes on her chariot wheels in traditional depictions are “anachronistic” but again, I don’t believe them. The Iceni Queen’s chariot could easily have had the scythes added as an additional Porsche-like feature, to distinguish her from other leaders. The other detail missing from even Victorian depictions is that in action she would surely have worn woad. So for this column, she is “Boadicea,” she bears a strong similarity to the heroine of the movie “Avatar,” and her chariot wheels are ornamented with magnificent scythes, which are very useful in traffic jams!
Boadicea’s purpose in razing London was to destroy the new Roman city that had appeared in the preceding 18 years since Rome’s Emperor Claudius had landed, thereby terrorizing the British who supported Rome’s occupation. She doubtless also believed that the city itself with its haughty Roman management was a destructive influence on British culture; thinkers as late as the 18th Century railed against urban “luxury” so that may well have been an ancestral belief of the original Britons.
We can learn much from Boadicea’s destruction of the largest and most developed city in Britain at the time — she also destroyed Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St. Albans) so her distrust of cities is well attested. In today’s world, the very largest cities, say over 3 million population but with a diminishing effect down to populations of 100,000 or so, have a pernicious effect on both our culture and our economy, so a Boadicean solution should be seriously considered.
The main ill-effect of big cities is their concentration of people. As a species we are not evolutionally adapted to living in large agglomerations, with very little privacy and constant interaction with innumerable fellow citizens – our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in bands of at most a few hundred. Consequently, the stress of doing so causes pathologies, whether an increased tendency to commit crimes against our fellow citizens, or a belief in ever more absurd social and political nostrums – some of the ideas in our political discourse today could only be adopted by rats in an overcrowded maze. This was recognized very early; the great 3rd Marquess of Salisbury as early as 1889 described London as:
“the place where collectivist and socialistic experiments are tried. It is the place where a new revolutionary spirit finds its instruments and collects its arms.”
There is also the question of real estate prices. When I lived in London in the 1980s, real estate was already thoroughly overpriced and inferior to what could be obtained in more reasonably sized towns, but my ability to earn an extravagant salary was such that the inevitable compromises and discomforts appeared to be worth it. Once prices started escalating uncontrollably in the mid-1990s that equation no longer worked (I was in any case no longer earning an extravagant salary, alas). The London house price to earnings ratio, an elevated but reasonable 4.0x in 1983 when I bought my last London house, escalated to 6.5x in the boom of the late ‘80s, then dropped to a mere 3.2x in 1994, as London houses spent half a decade almost unsaleable and mortgage interest rates spiked to an alarming 17% (I am in favor of high interest rates, but there are limits – inflation was in the mid single digits and declining)! Then from 1995 on as rates declined the London housing bubble gathered momentum and the house price to earnings ratio rose. By 2007 it was up to 8.5x, at which point most of the U.K. home mortgage lenders failed. That failure brought only modest relief, a ratio decline to 6.5x in 2010, the same level as at the top of the 1980s boom, after which the decade of “funny money” sent the ratio to the astronomical peak of 11.7x in 2017. A subsequent mild decline has been reversed since 2020, and the current level is 11.0x, a level utterly unaffordable for all but the most astronomically overpaid, especially as even in the U.K interest rates have finally begun to rise to saner levels, albeit still below the U.K. rate of inflation of around 7%.
For all but a very few, it makes very little sense indeed to live in London, or indeed in New York or San Francisco, the other cities where house prices have exploded in recent decades. The unaffordability of decent housing has had unpleasant social and political effects. For the middle classes, having to rent extremely unattractive accommodation at high prices has caused many to postpone family formation, which will have a serious long-term effect on the quality of future generations, since so many of the “best and brightest” are not having children (yes, intelligence is largely hereditary)! For the working class, what were previously solid neighborhoods have become completely unaffordable, making working-class labor very scarce in big cities (since ordinary people have no problem with moving out of the city to civilization) while pushing many of those who remain into a life of drug dealing and petty crime.
Politically, the effect has also been highly unpleasant. In London, there had been a blissful 14-year period (1986-2000) in which there was no central authority, and thus no leftist bureaucracy beyond the individual boroughs imposing its false values and excessive costs on the populace. The creation of a London Mayor in 2000 was yet another of Tony Blair’s terrible mistakes; each mayor (yes, even Boris Johnson) has been worse than the last, expanding his empire, inventing new taxes and new projects to waste money on, imposing ever more onerous regulations on the inhabitants and bloating the bureaucracy. The decay into ‘woke” Marxism of an electorate that in the 1980s was only mildly left of center has exacerbated the problem and led to a sharp decline in policing and social services quality – leading, of course to the utter squalor of today.
In New York, the crime nadir was at the end of the 1980s, even though Mayor Edward Koch was sensible, indicating that population quality decay rather than politics was its principal cause. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, bless him, brought a massive reversal to this trend, but Mayor Bloomberg merely doubled the cost of city government without making it more effective, and since Bloomberg left in 2013 the decline has been rapid and very likely irreversible, since the “woke” New York electorate is staggeringly unlikely to elect another heroic Giuliani. San Francisco was blessed in the 1980s by its modest size, which together with its beauty made it quite livable despite its housing costs; the rise of Silicon Valley since 1990, filling San Francisco with ‘woke’ leftist techies, has made it a terrible example to all mankind of squalid destruction, even by the standards of major cities.
As Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson announced last week as he switched parties: “America’s cities need Republicans.” That is undoubtedly the case, but with the current economic structure those cities are never going to get Republicans – the forces of “woke” professionals struggling to survive in a ludicrously expensive environment are simply too great. The result will be a continued decay in urban living standards, both economic and social, although it can at least be hoped that a collapse in real estate values will eventually bring relief and a necessary de-gentrification.
With modern communications technology, especially Skype, Zoom and their equivalent, there is absolutely no need for the intelligent professional to live in a city, however rarified his or her job. The city’s inner suburbs have much of the unpleasantness of the city center, and little or none of the quasi-rural charm they had at their formation in the blessed 1950s (or 1930s in the U.K.) While it may be impossible to live in the deep countryside without abandoning ambition and “going off the grid” the city’s exurbs and small towns from which the city is accessible in 2-3 hours are highly viable alternatives: low-cost, low-crime and with many of the virtues of fully rural areas. Today almost all office life in any decently run company can be conducted remotely, with only the occasional communal gathering; bosses should welcome the cost savings for both the company and its employees of doing this and the enormous benefits to employees’ mental health.
“Regions Caesar Never Knew, Thy Posterity Shall Sway” wrote William Cowper in his 1782 poem “Boadicea – An Ode.” It ends with Boadicea’s dying curse to the Romans:
“Ruffians, pitiless as proud, Heaven awards the vengeance due; Empire is on us bestowed, Shame and ruin wait for you!”
Since Cowper wrote, that dream has died, alas, but we can at least adopt Boadicea’s helpful approach to urban planning.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)