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London: The Biography - Peter Ackroyd
Member Name: hogsflesh
London: The Biography - Peter Ackroyd
Date: 28/10/02, updated on 28/10/02 (456 review reads)
Advantages: I had a hair cut
Disadvantages: Richard Harris died!
That's always been my problem with him. Or rather, not so much that he knows a lot, but that he always lets his readers know that he knows a lot. His novel 'Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem' was an ingenious novella combining a clever variation on the Jack the Ripper diary with the Victorian Music Hall. Unfortunately Ackroyd decided to pad it out with lots of unnecessary stuff about Karl Marx, George Gissing and William Babbage. I can only assume that he'd been doing some research on them and decided that he'd better use it for something. So what you were left with was the feeling that there was a good story in there somewhere, but that you had to work quite hard to find it. Bloody postmodernists.
'London: The Biography', on the other hand, is excellent, and for precisely the reason that I didn't like 'Dan Leno'. In writing a history of London without any real emphasis on one particular subject, Ackroyd is able to throw in as many odd little facts as he wants without anything being irrelevant. And it's huge: almost 800 pages of Peter Ackroyd telling us things about London without pretending to be doing anything else. It's very enjoyable.
It's not a biography in any normal sense (quite aside from being about a city rather than a person). You don't get a straightforward chronological history of the city from pre-Roman
times to the present day. Although it starts with pre-historic London and ends with post-war London, the middle of the book is made up of chapters (lots and lots of them) about different aspects of life in London, such as crime or food or noise, in which Ackroyd tells us notable anecdotes about the chosen subject ranging throughout history. Sometimes there are lengthy descriptions of important events like the great fire or the Gordon riots. But more usually we get one or two paragraphs about, say, a notable beggar of the past, or conditions in a specific prison, or the history of a street.
Ackroyd seems to be more interested in violence and misery than affluence and peace, or so it seems from reading this. You won't find a detailed examination of the medieval guild system, but you will find descriptions of public hangings. Obviously he doesn't ignore the growth and prosperity side of things, but it's the criminals and death that stick in the mind. As much as anything else, he's interested in the things that obsessed people, the things that took on mythic significance, and those have tended to be nasty. The Ratcliffe Highway Murders and Spring Heeled Jack are more important to Ackroyd than any royal jubilees or great exhibitions. (Although I suppose that could just be me remembering the bits that I found more interesting.)
None of the chapters are too long, so I never became bored with any particular subject. Ackroyd has found some fascinating stuff, too. Old slang, medieval children's games, passing fads from the eighteenth century and weird fears from throughout the city's long life are brought together. It isn't completely definitive; London's far too big and sprawling, both as a place and a subject, for any one book to cover everything. But he does cover an enormous range of subjects and I couldn't think of many things that I'd have wanted to read about that he didn't include. There could perhaps have
been a few more illustrations, as the ones there are don't cover more than a tiny fraction of the subject matter, but I guess that might have started to push the price of the book up rather more.
I have a few minor criticisms. I find his writing style a little dry, with no real sense of humour on display. He begins his chapter on sex in London by stating that sexual activity has taken place in London long before Roman times (surely not!), which I briefly suspected might be a joke. But it turned out not to be, as he then presented the historical evidence to back up that rather obvious claim.
He tries to create an image of London as a gigantic, self-perpetuating organism, and is always striving to find continuities in order to prove that, while London changes enormously over the centuries, some elements of it remain constant. This is fine when he's pointing to areas which have had the same kinds of commerce centred around them for centuries (Soho, for instance, has always had a plethora or cafés and prostitutes). But occasionally he goes a little too far, as when he suggests that the weirdly joyless dancing of poor Victorian children is in some way emblematic of wider truths about London. And he's always blaming the city for bad things that happen, rather than the people in it. I don't see why he really feels the need for this psychogeographical posturing, I think the book would be better off without it. Leave that kind of stuff to Iain Sinclair or Alan Moore. They can get away with it without sounding pretentious.
But the faults aren't terribly important. There's an awful lot of history in this book, and most of it speaks for itself without Peter Ackroyd's (only occasionally) silly intrusions. This is the best, most wide-ranging book about London I've read. Everything I want to read about London - the Black Death, bear baiting, chimney sweeps and much, much more - is here. Well worth the time it took to read
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