Review of 'London: The Biography'

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

london_the_biography.jpg London is a massive city, both in terms of physical size but also in terms of history and the people that have over the years populated it. It is a city of contrasts with the rich and poor often living side by side. It is also a city that has been subjected to many floods and fires since it's disputed origins back as far as prehistoric times. In Roman times it was a major outpost of the Roman empire and surrounded by walls but within (and without) have always been the people of London: Resilient, busy, and culturally diverse. The streets have always been alive with the sounds of it's inhabitants from the early days of hawkers selling their wares on every street corner to the larger, more modern, market sites such as Smithfields, New Covent Garden, and Spitalfields. Despite many attempts at it's destruction, London has always survived and revived itself with destroyed roads and buildings rebuilt much as they previously existed. On every street and corner in the city is evidence of the vast history of this sprawling city with modern store fronts in buildings hundreds of years old built on streets that meet and wind in unusual ways as though a living, breathing thing. London has been a constant throughout it's history and remains attractive to the millions who visit every year.

Mr Ackroyd has to be the foremost expert in the history of London and this, “London: The Biography” is truly his magnum opus. Weighing in at 822 pages (including the 28 page index) this has be one of the most definitive histories of the great city. The book is divided into sections talking about a particular aspect of London then sub-divided into specific chapters. Unlike you might expect, though it does generally start with the origins of London and finishes with the late 20th century (at which point this was written) it is not particularly in chronological order with chapters jumping back in forth in time (and space) to reinforce the specific point or aspect that Ackroyd is trying to illustrate. There are a series of photographic sections throughout the book that illustrate the various themes that are explored herey. The detail here is absolutely incredible and, as you might expect, his “Essay on Sources” at the back of the book lists a large number of resources he called on to write this book. Often the conclusions Ackroyd has come up with after his research are contrary to what many people have believed for centuries making this book an important piece of historical research itself.

Personally, I found this a rather tough read with chapter after chapter of intricate detail jumping here, there and everywhere to tell the story. But, I suppose, this is much like London itself - Bits and pieces that together make the whole. One cannot make a linear, precise story of the city because one simply does not exist. It is not simply, A, B then C but rather, A, C, then a bit of A again, B and finally some more C. But, this does not an easy read make. The detail is often surprising and always interesting. Living in the city of which he speaks, I have found myself noticing more and more as I go about my daily business based on what Ackroyd has been teaching me, seeking out the more unusual or interesting aspects of my city for myself and trying to learn a bit more. For a long time I was walking daily up and down “Fetter Lane” which I learned here in a chapter devoted to that same road as having has continually re-invited itself including being once home to many “public houses” and a brewery that burned down in a huge fire with people injured trying to drink the flaming alcoholic liquid from the street. In another chapter I learn of a nondescript tree just off of Cheapside on Wood Street that is many hundreds of years old yet I have not noticed passing as I do daily to and from the tube station. I have noticed it now.

With the amount of material to cover it is to be expected that certain aspects of the city are covered only briefly. Particularly the personalities that have inhabited the city of the years are not dwelt on in any detail. Do not expect to learn a lot about Dr Johnson and his dictionary nor of any of the politicians that have called London home over the years - Indeed, this is another omission in that the politics of the empire for which London is often at the centre, is discussed only very briefly. The Houses of Parliament are mentioned only in passing. But, to be fair, I am nit-picking here as what is covered is absolutely incredible and to be admired.

For someone interested in the history of London or interested in tales from a long forgotten era, this book is for them…Mind you, they should be prepared for a long and overwhelmingly detailed trip.

“These relics of the past now exist as part of the present. It is in the nature of the city to encompass everything. So when it is asked how London can be a triumphant city when it has so many poor, and so many homeless, it can be suggested that they, too, have always been a part of its history. Perhaps they are a part of its triumph. If this is a hard saying, then it is only as hard as London itself. London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.”

Rating: “Really good but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2016-04-23


Genre: Non-Fiction

Publisher: Vintage

Publication Date: 2001

ISBN: 0099422581