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London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, London: Vintage, 2001, 822 pp.

London-the-biographyThis book topped my list of things to read to acquaint myself with my new city before I moved, but cancer treatment and all the overwhelm of moving delayed it until I’d already lived here for 18 months. In the end, I’m glad of that timing. I can’t imagine how I would have understood or absorbed much of the book’s content if I didn’t already have some sense of the geography and architecture of the city. This book is as much an interpretation of London as it is a history of it, and I would not have understood its meaning without first having known London itself.

Peter Ackroyd was unknown to me in the U.S., but he is everywhere here, a prolific writer of fiction, history, biography and TV documentaries. He is captivated by the way London’s history and personality live on, even though the city changes constantly. He has a particular interpretation of the city as a place driven first and foremost by commerce, wealth and glamor, with a constant underside of poverty, sordidness and anonymity that allow flourishing subcultures. This masterwork on London captures those themes throughout.

Bolstered by sources but unburdened by the need to prove a historical case, deeply researched but unmoored from the demands of scholarly thoroughness, Ackroyd’s biography unwinds a compelling narrative of London as though it was a living being, a creature carving out its identity across time, with some traits endemic and immutable, and others changed by its story. In spite of its length, the book’s short chapters, organized by topic or neighborhood or niche rather than simple chronology, made it seem like a very quick read. Ackroyd’s prose turns a tome into a page-turner.

As a lover of social history, I enjoyed his attention to London theatre, labor, protests, poverty, literature, crime and other topics, rather than just a litany of major events, leaders and decisions that shaped its history. I especially appreciated the way Ackroyd honed in on microcosms of people and neighborhoods. There are whole chapters dedicated to eccentric personalities that once inhabited a particular street. Each dwelled for 30 or 40 years in a tiny corner of the massive city of millions, but somehow, to Ackroyd, they capture something of London’s essence, so he tells us their stories. By the same turn, there are chapters that look at a particular small square or neighborhood across time, and the way certain traits seem to dwell there. For example, he talks about poverty and seediness in St. Giles, and revolutionary plotting or protest in Clerkenwell Green. Ackroyd sees a persistent, recurring pattern of social behavior that he links to various places in the city, as though the places themselves are inhabited by a particular spirit that shapes the people who dwell there. A more sober historian might scoff, but I found his case compelling and delightful.

In spite of its size, this is not a reference book. If you want to learn about the history of the Temple Bar or when a particular borough was founded, you won’t find that here. Instead, this is a book to read like a biography–cover to cover–in order to meet London and get to know its personality. Like any biography, you might not like the author’s angle, and you will have to rely on your own observations or the alternative perceptions of others to argue for another, truer personality. I found Ackroyd’s insights fascinating, and true to my own reading of the city in many ways. After reading the book, I look at the city differently as I venture out in it. I see layers I did not notice before, I find historical treasures not readily visible, and I am able to place myself within the city’s narrative in a new way.

I recommend Ackroyd’s book to all Londoners and London lovers, though I suggest it will be best appreciated by those who know the city, rather than as an introduction or prelude to a visit.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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