Much of Peter Ackroyd's work has been concerned with the life and past of London but here is his account of the city. For him it is an organism with its own laws of growth and change, so this is a biography rather than a history. This part covers London's foundations.
London: The Biography was a long, sometimes tough read. I was interested in the social history, but not so much in the topography and geography. I tended to fade a bit when Ackroyd would go into long discourses on the history of development of a particular street, for instance. I often found the last paragraph of a chapter to be forced and a bit windy as he would try to segue from the topic of that chapter to the topic of the next. For the most part, however, his writing was lovely, painting strong pictures of London in all its facets.
My sense was that Ackroyd wrote this book for Londoners themselves, and he assumes a body of local knowledge and vocabulary that as an American reader I didn't have. I would have appreciated a glossary in the American printing. I wish I'd read this book years ago, though--I learned so much that I can directly apply to the fiction I read.
Ackroyd's book shares many characteristics with its namesake - it is crowded, organic, chaotic, and full of life. It also shares many of the City's faults - it's hard sometimes to find what you are looking for, and you can look in vain for any reason behind the juxtapositions of different cultural artifacts. Nevertheless, anyone who has spent more than the obligatory few days in the obligatory tourist sites will recognize the city from Ackroyd's prose.
One may complain that Ackroyd lingers too much on London's history of crime, social unrest, and dirt. Well, what do you expect of a city that boasts having had the "Great Stink" of 1858? Casual travelers, people who are looking for a simplistic history to read while in line for Madame Tussaud's, and anyone who desires a Disney-fied, Mary Poppins fantasy will be unhappy with this book.
But if you want to know what London _feels_ like, this book comes closer than anything else I have read to making me feel like I do when I am there. There is no city better for aimless wandering, stumbling through alleys, exploring the Underground, and observing the small details. It is a world-city grown pell-mell by greed, lust and need, with beauty in unexpected places and quiet rarer than gold, and more precious. In short, it is life. And, as Samuel Johnson famously said, "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Fast forward several hundred pages and several weeks later. I'm still enjoying learning the history, but reading has become slow. Ackroyd includes several quotes and then interprets them, English-major fashion, making a comment about "London itself" and sometimes, IMHO, stretching things a bit. This is getting old, and repetitive. His quotes come from both fiction and nonfiction, but there is not one note included at the back for me to look at his sources. Instead, he has an eleven-page-long "Essay on Sources" that, should you have the energy after 760 pages of text, you can read if you like. Frankly, the book was due back at the library a few days ago, and I thought it was safe to skip (though I did briefly glance through it last night and added London at War to the TBR list). Comprehensive, but a bit repetitive. I daresay I would've liked it better if I hadn't read the last 300 pages in the last 5 days.
Ackroyd eschews a straightforward chronological history. There are sections on London from its beginnings to 1066, medieval London, the Great Fire, Victorian London, and the city's destruction in the Blitz and its later rebuilding. But most of the book is essay like chapters built around themes covering every aspect of London life from its Underground and buried past to its notorious fogs and smogs, its wildlife and street life, markets illicit and licit, disasters and buildings, festivals and executions. And it's not exactly a celebration of the city. Again and again he returns to the metaphor of London as prison. The exemplar here is Jack Sheppard who escaped from London prisons six times. Yet, he never left the city for more than a few days even though it cost him his life.
London as theater is Ackroyd's other metaphor. It extends far beyond the literal stage to the garb of its inhabitants or the speeches of the soon to be hanged at Newgate. London, emphasizes Ackroyd, is a great commercial maw. All has been subsumed in trade at one time or another from the goods of empire coming in at the Thames docks to the sewer hunters and mudlarks scouring muck for treasures. Men, women, and children all played their roles. Even would-be rebels became a trade in Carnaby Street.
One of the most fascinating things in the book is Ackroyd's frequent quotes from foreign visitors. Yoshio Markino, a Japanese painter, noted that the garish colors of London's buildings became beautiful when seen in a fog. Dostoevsky remarked on Londoners haste to drink themselves insensible. (After reading the book's accounts of London riots and drinking, one is tempted to see some modern London problems as a return to some sort of default state for the city.)
How certain London neighborhoods have long been associated with certain acivities is also well told by Ackroyd. He not only talks about the famous Soho but Clerkenwell as well. The latter has, for centuries, been associated with religious heretics and revolutionaries. (Lenin lived there for a time.) And the same neighborhood has a long tradition of clockmaking. (Perhaps explaining why Hiram Maxim worked on his machine guns there.)
Given Ackroyd's many books on literary figures, quotes from British literary figures are to be expected. (Ackroyd notes that it is exceptional for them not to have a London connection.) Dickens, Defoe, Smollett, Milton, Boswell, Orwell, and Wolfe all had things to say about London in essays, letters, and fiction. The literary minded reader may be tempted to make a game of remembering relevant quotes and writers not in the book.
As well as being associated with literature and the capitol of empire, London's bustle helped develop the theories of Darwin and Engels - though Ackroyd asserts this in passing without much proof. The instrument makers of London were crucial to developing the science of the Enlightenment.
There are three minor quibbles with the book. Some of the anecdotes do get repeated though not many in a book so long. Second and more seriously, Ackroyd exhibits some unquestioned pieties. Seeing the poor as diseased and dirty is not a totally groundless stereotype. Mental illness can underlie all three conditions as well as less pathological mental traits. And Ackroyd, in a section on immigrants to London, makes the lazy analogy that complaints about today's immigrants are the same - and equally groundless - as those of the past. That ignores the numbers and cultures of Britian's current immigrants and the corrosive effects of modern transportation and communication on assimilation. One wonders, now that Islamic terrorism has made its way to Britain and sharia law can be enforced by the state, if he feels the same eight years after the book was published. The third quibble is that sometimes Ackroyd thinks he is describing a unique trait of Londoners when it's really more universal. For instance, in what city aren't children attracted to dangerous and forbidden places?
Still, this is a remarkable book in its variety, and it almost never bores despite its length. Anybody interested in one of the great cities of the Western Mind will want to read it.
This was the first book I've read by Peter Ackroyd and I eagerly dived in to read more of his, only to be left slightly disappointed. No doubt I'll eventually find another of his books to love.
Ackroyd personifies London. Its not just this city with some nice buildings and history, its a living breathing thing. I feel it so much more every day that I commute into the city because of this book.
Ackroyd splits up the massive history of London into easy to read and facinating tidbits. Its a book that you could read in small pieces - if the sheer weight of it is too much. I find that I mean to read just a bit and end up half way through the book before I know it.
If your a lover of London read this book - there are no excuses.
If his thesis were that London, as a city, has a particular culture unlike other cities in Britain, then this book might be an interesting amble through different elements of that culture. However, his thesis is that the city itself, in its pavement, sewer systems, buildings, etc., literally speak to the residents and dictate their ways of life.
Yes, that is exactly as crazycakes as it sounds. Up to including his claim that the actual tarmac of the street told the poor, nonwhite protestors to riot against their white oppressors. Also, there's the constant impossible superlativing, making ridiculous claims that London was the first city ever to do ______ in all of history. As if Rome and other ancient metropolises had never been. Calling it shoddy scholarship is generous.
This book IS kind of interesting as an adjunct to Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, if you pretend London is actually fiction. I only made myself finish the book because the anecdotes he paraphrases are fascinating. Sadly, there are no footnotes or endnotes, and he doesn't list his sources for particular stories, so this book is pretty useless as a diving off point into something better.
So...yay badly quoted anecdotes?