Oct/Nov 2000 Book Reviews

London: The Biography

Peter Ackroyd
Random House (November 2000) 822 pages
ISBN: 1 85619 716 6

reviewed by Ann Skea

Only a besotted Londoner could have written this book: but perhaps only Peter Ackroyd could have done it so well. "I am not a Vergil prepared to guide aspiring Dantes around a defined and circular kingdom", he writes in his preface. "I am a Londoner who wishes to lead others in the directions which I have pursued over a lifetime".

So, this is a personal view of London. Personal enough to explore little known byways where the eccentric and the mad wander, as well as the more familiar haunts and habits of the City, its surroundings and its suburbs.

And it is not a history: not by any means a dry chronology of facts. Nor is it a comprehensive account. It is a biography of a living, changing body, "half of stone and half of flesh", which has existed from pre-history, survived plague, fire, famine and wars, and has been called, variously, "this fair city", a "Little World", "Babylon" and "the Great Wen".

Ackroyd's book is as various as London itself, and the reader, as he says, "must wander and wonder. They may become lost upon the way, they may experience moments of uncertainly...and bewilderment", and "moments of revelation", but "the city will be seen to harbour the secrets of the human world". It is a grand claim, but Ackroyd does his best to support it.

He delights in relating curious and incidental facts: that the sort of mechanical crane known as a "derrick", for example, was named after the London hangman who invented "an ingenious structure" for hanging twenty-three condemned at one time. And that in the 1930s Phyllis Pearsall walked eighteen miles each day to put together London's first _A to Z_ map book which, at first, no publisher would accept. Or that the ashes from one "hill" of refuse were purchased by the Russians to help rebuild Moscow after its burning by the French. And that scavengers not only hunted the sewers, but some also collected dog excrement (known as 'pure') from the pavements for use in the tanning industry.

The book's section headings give some idea of the scope of Ackroyd's guided tour: "From prehistory to 1066", "London a theatre", "Crime and Punishment", "London's rivers", "Women and Children", "Blitz", "Cockney visionaries". These are just a few, and within each section he covers topics as far-ranging as language, street planning, commerce, sex, the weather and hanging.

One of the things Ackroyd does well is to demonstrate the continuity of London life. Street patterns, language, words and rhymes remain unchanged through the centuries. Particular areas of London retain their mood and characteristics. Suspicion of immigrants is as old as immigration itself and the first recorded race-riot occurred in 1189, yet London has consistently absorbed other races into its 'body'. And since Medieval times, the young have outraged their elders. In the 1500s, the civic authorities banned "striking apparel" and "close-cropped hair"; in the 1960's, the quiffed hair, drainpipe trousers and velvet jackets of the Teddy boys mocked the refined Edwardian styles being promoted to their wealthier elders; and in 2000, the behaviour of young urban professionals ("yuppies") in the City is the latest cause for censorious comment.

Most characteristic of London, as Ackroyd sees it, is its appetite for spectacle and theatricality, its orientation towards commerce, and the sheer energy and resilience of its people. He presents it all in detail, covering the centuries with admirable ease. But there are, as he acknowledges, times when the matter is mundane, even repetitive. And there are times when he indulges in speculation which is at best visionary, at worst hopelessly over imaginative and optimistic. But he is, after all, the biographer of William Blake.

As might be expected, literary allusions abound. They range from Alexander Pope's line: 'There, London's voice, "Get Money, Money still"', to lengthy references to Dickens's novels. Almost any well-known writer who has ever lived in London makes an appearance somewhere in the book and there is an assumption that the reader will recognize them. The style, however, is not academic but knowledgeable and easy-going. There were times when I would have found a footnote helpful: I would have liked, for example, to know which king was told by London's mayor that he could remove himself, his court and his Parliament from London but, to the satisfaction of the merchants, could not take the Thames with him. And a footnote for "How far is it to Babylon? Three score miles and ten..." would have saved me having to search my own books to confirm its great age, because I had thought it was created by Robert Louis Stevenson. But these are petty gripes.

Being a Londoner myself, perhaps I am not unbiased but I found this book fascinating, enjoyably idiosyncratic, and delightfully illustrated. It is ideal for browsing in and it is a mine of curiosities but I have to warn you that it takes stamina and strong arms to read it from cover to cover (which I did and enjoyed doing) because of its solid, heavy weight. I would guess that it is meant to last. And I suspect that it may well become as valuable a resource in the future as John Stowe's A Survey of London has been since 1598.


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