Chesterton’s whimsical satire is set in 2004, a world where ‘the people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions’ and therefore history has in effect stopped. Nothing has changed in the century apart from the pragmatic adoption of inertia: ‘that vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition’. The consequence is tediousness and stability: ‘There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before’. In many ways this novel is a response to Chesterton’s friend HG Wells’ Time Machine – it suggests that humankind does not evolve but rather tends towards dullness. People don’t really like change. London is defined by ‘modernity and monotony and civilisation’, a dystopian vision of a future city in thrall to efficiency in which the individual and the historical have no place.
This fantasy of a stultifying future is upset by the appointment of a new King (the system is no longer hereditary but by random election), Auberon Quin. Quin attempts to inspire local patriotism and upset the dourness of life by forcing the London boroughs to wear medieval-style livery and compete with their neighbours. He makes up romantic histories for them, despite their protests. at one stage giving a talk to the Society for the Recovery of London Antiquities in which he mourns the fact that so ‘few of them knew the legends of their own boroughs’ before spinning stories relating to the naming of Kensington Gore, Knightsbridge and Hammersmith (he refuses to enter the controversy as to whether Notting Hill ‘means Nutting Hill (in allusion to the rich woods which no longer cover it), or whether it is a corruption of Nothing-ill, referring to its reputation among the ancients as an Earthly Paradise’). Quin issues a Proclamation demanding that the London Boroughs should be in a state of war with each other, mounting a city guard and skirmishing. Most of them ignore this, apart from one Adam Wayne, provost of Notting Hill. Wayne is a Don Quixote figure, maddened by romances and the desire for his life to be something other than the material drudgery of Pump Street in Notting Hill. He gathers an army and through ingenuity and lunatic commitment subdues the rest of the city. Part of the joy of the novel resides in the harum-scarum fighting through the streets of West London (culminating in ‘the Battle of the Lamps’ ambush on the Portobello Road). Wayne’s standard is the sign from the Red Lion pub, and this sense of the significant in the local, minor and particular is both sweet and mad. The novel is slight but scathing in its attack on pomposity and the madness of nationalism; the jokes about London are cute. Chesterton understands the strange tribalness of London and its unique atmosphere: ‘London, if it be not one of the masterpieces of man, is at least one of his sins’.