London The Biography
Publishers:† Vintage Books, Chatto & Windus
Publication Date: 2000
Most readers on first looking at the title, might well imagine that this is a work progressing steadily from pre-history through the years and ending with the Millennium.† Itís true that, at the beginning, the author treats us to an excellent chronology.† But what follows is a collection of separate chapters on a wide variety of subjects.
The reason there is no total chronology throughout the book becomes clear on reading it.† London, dealt with in the detail that Mr Ackroyd presents it, is just too massive a subject to be dealt with in strict chronological order.† A pity - but unavoidable.
The first three chapters do indeed take us through pre-history.† The final chapter, entitled Resurgam, deals with the London we have today risen from the ashes of The Blitz, followed by the normal course of modern urban renewal, to the London we have today.† So there is a sense of beginning and ending to the book.
What the author does in the bulk of the 800 pages is to treat us to seventy-nine relatively brief chapters, each dealing with a single topic.† Each topic itself is dealt with in chronological order.† Thus for example, Londonís weather is examined over the years from the flood in 1090, which washed London Bridge away, through the occasional freezing over of the Thames to Londonís Hurricane in October 1987.
Occasionally a group of chapters are linked.† Three such chapters deal with Londonís rivers, the lionís share going to the Thames and a chapter on the Ďlostí rivers such as the Tyburn, Walbrook and the Fleet, all running silently beneath the surface.
Then there are chapters dealing with a single topic, be it London as theatre, the Great Fire and after, Crime and Punishment, the Centre of Empire and so on.† There are also chapters giving us the street sounds and smells of old London and a sense of the squalid nature of some of the back streets and alleys, their inhabitants, the London fogs, prostitution, extreme poverty and so on.
For the lover of the Square Mile itself, the book is a treasure, since much of Londonís early history is bound up in the City itself and later Westminster.
It is probably churlish to comment on matters which are not covered in any depth or at all.† Public services for example.† The ancient Ďpolicingí of London is well summarised while the modern Metropolitan and City forces have only brief treatment.† Similarly with the fire service.† We learn a great deal about the nature of the more notable fires, but precious little about the men who fought them.† But this is being churlish.
Time travel has yet to allow us a retrospective, first hand glimpse at the past.† The Museum of London and the Tower Bridge exhibitions in particular, allow us to see and hear something of the London of yesteryear.† But Peter Ackroyd has provided us with a feast of sights, sounds and smells; of personalities and events and a real feel of London throughout the ages.
The only problem facing the reader is whether to read the work right through, or to treat it as a reference to be dipped into from time to time.† A real lover of ancient London is likely to be sufficiently enthralled to try the cover to cover approach!