London: The Biography

( 14 )

Overview

Here are two thousand years of London’s history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar’s and Charing Cross, Paddington and Bedlam. Westminster Abbey and St. Martin in the Fields. Cockneys and vagrants. Immigrants, peasants, and punks. The Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz. London at all times of day and night, and in all kinds of weather. In well-chosen anecdotes, keen observations, and the words of hundreds of its citizens and ...
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Overview

Here are two thousand years of London’s history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar’s and Charing Cross, Paddington and Bedlam. Westminster Abbey and St. Martin in the Fields. Cockneys and vagrants. Immigrants, peasants, and punks. The Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz. London at all times of day and night, and in all kinds of weather. In well-chosen anecdotes, keen observations, and the words of hundreds of its citizens and visitors, Ackroyd reveals the ingenuity and grit and vitality of London. Through a unique thematic tour of the physical city and its inimitable soul, the city comes alive.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Why is this book on London subtitled The Biography? Because acclaimed British writer Peter Ackroyd succeeds in making the great European city come alive, as a unique and amazing character, as no one has done before. Ackroyd takes the reader along as he journeys inside the city, charting its voyage through the centuries and drawing engaging portraits of those Londoners who have made the city the marvel it is.
From the Publisher
“Magnificent. . . . Succeeds in animating on the page the life of one of the oldest and greatest cities in the world.”--The New York Times Book Review

“Ackroyd is the most effortless guide. . . . This is much more than history: it is a tapestry of inspiration and love.” --The Observer

“An erudite labour of love, a fan-letter to a fabulous city. . . . As exuberant, energetic and alarming as the city itself.” --Independent on Sunday

“A fat and filling feast: pretty much everything of interest about the capital is crammed into the eight-hundred pages.”--The Times

“If London had the ability to choose its biographer it undoubtedly would tap Peter Ackroyd.”--Vanity Fair

“A wonderful book, a treasure of information and anecdote about one of the world’s great cities, a book to be taken up again and again for the pleasures that lie within.”--Chicago Tribune

“A book to match its subject . . . one gratefully rediscovers that urban unreality, the city of romance and mystery as well as the one of shops, pubs, and thoroughfares.” --The Washington Post

Patrick McGrath
In London: The Biography, Ackroyd succeeds in animating on the page the lived life of one of the oldest and greatest -- if dampest and grayest -- cities in the world.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling "biography" of the city of London. The reader segues through this litany of lists and anthology of anecdotes via the sketchiest of topical linkages, but no matter not a page is dull, until brief closing chapters in which Ackroyd succumbs to bathos, for which he's instantaneously redeemed by the preceding chapters. He admits to using no original research, openly crediting his printed sources. Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. "The opium quarter of Limehouse," he tells readers, for example, "is now represented by a Chinese take-away." Fast food, it seems, was always part of the London scene. When poet Thomas Southey asked a pastry cook why she kept her shop open in the worst weather, she told him that otherwise she would lose business, "so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter." Ackroyd covers unrest and peace, fires and ruins, river and rail transport, crime and punishment, wealth and poverty, markets and churches, uncontrolled growth and barely controlled filth. If there is a hero among the throngs, it may be engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who in 1855 began building 1,265 miles of sewers to contain the Stygian odor of progress and keep the huge, ugly metropolis livable. No one should mind the extraordinary price of this extraordinary achievement. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Biographer/novelist Ackroyd (e.g., The Life of Thomas Moore) offers a sweeping, highly readable account of London's colorful and complicated history. In encyclopedic detail, he discusses everything from the city's crime and its theater to the notorious fog, plagues, and Great Fire of 1666, from which the city had to be almost built. He also provides a useful travelog, discussing London's many notable buildings, neighborhoods, and other features rich with stories, among them Newgate Prison, "an emblem of death and suffering," the "dirty" East End, and, of course, the Thames, London's "river of commerce." Characters such as infamous "prison-breaker" Jack Sheppard are vividly re-created, as are scenes like the sights and smells of the market in 1276 and the bloody Notting Hill riots in 1958. The book is full of both horrors, including the overwhelming number of beggars and the "impaled heads of traitors" in the 1600s, and soaring achievements, as London rises to the "center of world commerce" in the 1800s. Ackroyd's passion for this remarkable city is clearly evident. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/01.] Isabel Coates, Boston Consulting Group, Brampton, Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An impressionistic history of England's capital city, by British novelist/biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers), who knows his subject well and writes about it with considerable passion. This is not a history in any usual sense of the term, still less a travelogue or walking guide, although it has elements of all of these genres. What the author attempts to provide instead is a roughly chronological portrait of the character or soul of a great metropolis, drawn in large part from contemporary accounts of widely divergent veracity and literary skill. Folk tales, ballads, royal chronicles, Restoration comedies, journalism, court records, ecclesiastical histories, novels, biographies, and gossip columns (going back to Addison and Steele) all come into play, and the resulting mosaic is graced by a richness and depth of color that go a long way towards making up for the unwieldy size and loose organization. The "London as Theatre" section, for example, takes us into the bear-baiting pit as well as the Globe Playhouse, while "London's Outcasts" examines the plight of the city's downtrodden from the medieval beggars clustered about the gates of churches and monasteries to the madmen who haunted the asylum wards of Bedlam. Eventually Ackroyd finds his focal concern in wondering "what is it, now, to be a Londoner?" He concludes that the city is of such immensity, so variegated in its component functions and populations, and so rich in historical associations, that it is "all singular and all blessed." Although the author does not quote Samuel Johnson's aphorism that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," he does illustrate Johnson's assertion that "London has there in all that life affords." Somewhat rarefied, but a splendid tribute to the great metropolis.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385497718
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/8/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 848
  • Sales rank: 149,984
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Ackroyd is a bestselling writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His most recent books include the biographies Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More and the novels The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Milton in America, and The Plato Papers. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s William Heinemann Award (jointly), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and The Guardian fiction prize. He lives in London.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Sea!

If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled "Why Can't We Have the Sea in London?," but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, fifty million years before, was covered by great waters.

The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London. The Portland stone of the Customs House and St. Pancras Old Church has a diagonal bedding which reflects the currents of the ocean; there are ancient oyster shells within the texture of Mansion House and the British Museum. Seaweed can still be seen in the greyish marble of Waterloo Station, and the force of hurricanes may be detected in the "chatter-marked" stone of pedestrian subways. In the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea can also be observed. The tides and storms are still all around us, therefore, and as Shelley wrote of London "that great sea . . . still howls on for more."

London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St. Paul's has been seen trembling upon a "vague troubled sea" of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London. The social workers of the mid-nineteenth century spoke of rescuing "drowning" people in Whitechapel or Shoreditch and Arthur Morrison, a novelist of the same period, invokes a "howling sea of human wreckage" crying out to be saved. Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of The Art of Living in London, considered the city as "a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks," while in 1810 Louis Simond was content to "listen to the roar of its waves, breaking around us in measured time."

If you look from a distance, you observe a sea of roofs, and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean. But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its own torrents and billows, its foam and spray. The sound of its streets is like the murmur from a sea shell and in the great fogs of the past the citizens believed themselves to be lying on the floor of the ocean. Even amid all the lights it may simply be what George Orwell described as "the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes." This is a constant vision of the London world, particularly in the novels of the twentieth century, where feelings of hopelessness and despondency turn the city into a place of silence and mysterious depths.

Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture upon its currents look for prosperity or fame, even if they often founder in its depths. Jonathan Swift depicted the jobbers of the Exchange as traders waiting for shipwrecks in order to strip the dead, while the commercial houses of the City often used a ship or boat as a weather-vane and as a sign of good fortune. Three of the most common emblems in urban cemeteries are the shell, the ship and the anchor.

The starlings of Trafalgar Square are also the starlings who nest in the cliff faces of northern Scotland. The pigeons of London are descended from the wild rock-doves who lived among the steep cliffs of the northern and western shores of this island. For them the buildings of the city are cliffs still, and the streets are the endless sea stretching beyond them. But the real confluence lies in this--that London, for so long the arbiter of trade and of the sea, should have upon its fabric the silent signature of the tides and waves.

And when the waters parted, the London earth was revealed. In 1877, in a characteristically grand example of Victorian engineering, a vast well was taken down 1,146 feet at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road. It travelled hundreds of millions of years, touching the primeval landscapes of this city site, and from its evidence we can list the layers beneath our feet from the Devonian to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Above these strata lie 650 feet of chalk, outcrops of which can be seen upon the Downs or the Chilterns as the rim of the London Basin, that shallow saucer-like declivity in which the city rests. On top of the chalk itself lies the thick London clay which is in turn covered by deposits of gravel and brick-earth. Here, then, is the making of the city in more than one sense; the clay and the chalk and the brick-earth have for almost two thousand years been employed to construct the houses and public buildings of London. It is almost as if the city raised itself from its primeval origin, creating a human settlement from the senseless material of past time.

This clay is burned and compressed into "London Stock," the particular yellow-brown or red brick that has furnished the material of London housing. It truly represents the genius loci, and Christopher Wren suggested that "the earth around London, rightly managed, will yield as good brick as were the Roman bricks . . . and will endure, in our air, beyond any stone our island affords." William Blake called the bricks of London "well-wrought affections" by which he meant that the turning of clay and chalk into the fabric of the streets was a civilising process which knit the city with its primeval past. The houses of the seventeenth century are made out of dust that drifted over the London region in a glacial era 25,000 years before.

The London clay can yield more tangible evidence, also: the skeletons of sharks (in the East End it was popularly believed that shark's teeth might cure cramp), the skull of a wolf in Cheapside, and crocodiles in the clay of Islington. In 1682 Dryden recognised this now forgotten and invisible landscape of London:

Yet monsters from thy large increase we find

Engender'd on the Slyme thou leav'st behind.

Eight years later, in 1690, the remains of a mammoth were found beside what has since become King's Cross.

London clay can by the alchemy of weather become mud, and in 1851 Charles Dickens noted that there was so "much mud in the streets . . . that it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." In the 1930s Louis-Ferdinand C*line took the motor buses of Piccadilly Circus to be a "herd of mastodons" returning to the territory they had left behind. In Mother London Michael Moorcock's late twentieth-century hero sees "monsters, by mud and giant ferns" while crossing the footbridge alongside the Hungerford railway bridge.

The mammoth of 1690 was only the first primeval relic to be discovered in the London region. Hippopotami and elephants lay beneath Trafalgar Square, lions at Charing Cross, and buffaloes beside St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A brown bear was discovered in north Woolwich, mackerel in the old brick-fields of Holloway and sharks in Brentford. The wild animals of London include reindeer, giant beavers, hyenas and rhinoceri which once grazed by the swamps and lagoons of the Thames. And that landscape has not entirely faded. Within recent memory the mist from the ancient marshes of Westminster destroyed the frescoes of St. Stephen's. It is still possible, beside the National Gallery, to detect the rise of ground between the middle and upper terraces of the Thames in the Pleistocene era.

This was not, even then, an unpeopled region. Within the bones of the King's Cross mammoth were also found pieces of a flint hand-axe which can be dated to the Palaeolithic period. We can say with some certainty that for half a million years there has been in London a pattern of habitation and hunting if not of settlement. The first great fire of London was started, a quarter of a million years ago, in the forests south of the Thames. That river had by then taken its appointed course but not its later appearance; it was very broad, fed by many streams, occluded by forests, bordered by swamps and marshes.

The prehistory of London invites endless speculation and there is a certain pleasure to be derived from the prospect of human settlement in areas where, many thousands of years later, streets would be laid out and houses erected. There is no doubt that the region has been continually occupied for at least fifteen thousand years. A great gathering of flint tools, excavated in Southwark, is assumed to mark the remains of a Mesolithic manufactory; a hunting camp of the same period has been discovered upon Hampstead Heath; a pottery bowl from the Neolithic period was unearthed in Clapham. On these ancient sites have been found pits and post-holes, together with human remains and evidence of feasting. These early people drank a potion similar to mead or beer. Like their London descendants, they left vast quantities of rubbish everywhere. Like them, too, they met for the purposes of worship. For many thousands of years these ancient peoples treated the great river as a divine being to be placated and surrendered to its depths the bodies of their illustrious dead.

In the late Neolithic period there appeared, from the generally marshy soil on the northern bank of the Thames, twin hills covered by gravel and brick-earth, surrounded by sedge and willow. They were forty to fifty feet in height, and were divided by a valley through which flowed a stream. We know them as Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, with the now buried Walbrook running between. Thus emerged London.

The name is assumed to be of Celtic origin, awkward for those who believe that there was no human settlement here before the Romans built their city. Its actual meaning, however, is disputed. It might be derived from Llyn-don, the town or stronghold (don) by the lake or stream (Llyn); but this owes more to medieval Welsh than ancient Celtic. Its provenance might be Laindon, "long hill," or the Gaelic lunnd, "marsh." One of the more intriguing speculations, given the reputation for violence which Londoners were later to acquire, is that the name is derived from the Celtic adjective londos meaning "fierce."

There is a more speculative etymology which gives the honour of naming to King Lud, who is supposed to have reigned in the century of the Roman invasion. He laid out the city's streets and rebuilt its walls. Upon his death he was buried beside the gate which bore his name, and the city became known as Kaerlud or Kaerlundein, "Lud's City." Those of sceptical cast of mind may be inclined to dismiss such narratives but the legends of a thousand years may contain profound and particular truths.

The origin of the name, however, remains mysterious. (It is curious, perhaps, that the name of the mineral most associated with the city--coal--also has no certain derivation.) With its syllabic power, so much suggesting force or thunder, it has continually echoed through history--Caer Ludd, Lundunes, Lindonion, Lundene, Lundone, Ludenberk, Longidinium, and a score of other variants. There have even been suggestions that the name is more ancient than the Celts themselves, and that it springs from some Neolithic past.

We must not necessarily assume that there were settlements or defended enclosures upon Ludgate Hill or Cornhill, or that there were wooden trackways where there are now great avenues, but the attractions of the site might have been as obvious in the third and fourth millennia bc as they were to the later Celts and Romans. The hills were well defended, forming a natural plateau, with the river to the south, fens to the north, marshes to the east, and another river, later known as the Fleet, to the west. It was fertile ground, well watered by springs bubbling up through the gravel. The Thames was easily navigable at this point, with the Fleet and the Walbrook providing natural harbours. The ancients trackways of England were also close at hand. So from earliest time London was the most appropriate site for trade, for markets, and for barter. The City has for much of its history been the centre of world commerce; it is perhaps instructive to note that it may have begun with the transactions of Stone Age people in their own markets.

All this is speculation, not altogether uninformed, but evidence of a more substantial kind has been discovered in later levels of London earth. In those long stretches of time designated as the "Late Bronze Age" and the "Early Iron Age"--a period spanning almost a thousand years--shards and fragments of bowls, and pots, and tools, were left all over London. There are signs of prehistoric activity in the areas now known as St. Mary Axe and Gresham Street, Austin Friars and Finsbury Circus, Bishopsgate and Seething Lane, with altogether some 250 "finds" clustered in the area of the twin hills together with Tower Hill and Southwark. From the Thames itself many hundreds of metal objects have been retrieved, while along its banks is to be found frequent evidence of metal-working. This is the period from which the great early legends of London spring. It is also, in its latter phase, the age of the Celts.

In the first century bc, Julius Caesar's description of the region around London suggests the presence of an elaborate, rich and well-organised tribal civilisation. Its population was "exceedingly large" and "the ground thickly studded with homesteads." The nature and role of the twin hills throughout this period cannot with certainty be given; perhaps these were sacred places, or perhaps their well-defined position allowed them to be used as hill-forts in order to protect the trade carried along the river. There is every reason to suppose that this area of the Thames was a centre of commerce and of industry, with a market in iron products as well as elaborate workings in bronze, with merchants from Gaul, Rome and Spain bringing Samian ware, wine and spices in exchange for corn, metals and slaves.

In the history of this period completed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, the principal city in the island of Britain is undoubtedly London. But according to modern scholars his work is established upon lost texts, apocryphal embellishments and uninformed conjecture. Where Geoffrey speaks of kings, for example, they prefer the nomenclature of tribes; he dates events by means of biblical parallel, while they provide indicators such as "Late Iron Age"; he elucidates patterns of conflict and social change in terms of individual human passion, where more recent accounts of prehistory rely upon more abstract principles of trade and technology. The approaches may be contradictory but they are not necessarily incompatible. It is believed by historians of early Britain, for example, that a people known as the Trinovantes settled on territory to the north of the London region. Curiously enough, Geoffrey states that the first name of the city was Trinovantum. He also mentions the presence of temples within London itself; even if they had existed, these palisades and wooden enclosures would since have been lost beneath the stone of the Roman city as well as the brick and cement of succeeding generations.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 13, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    On the streets of London

    The sights, smells, sounds of thousands of years of London engulf you as you wander the streets of London with Ackroyd. This book is responsible for absorbing hours and days and, yes, weeks of my life. The "problem" is that each detail, each perfectly balanced phrase is so well researched, and presented in such a compelling way, that not only could I NOT speed read through this - I found myself touching and examining every sentence and thought process. <BR/><BR/>Not for the faint of heart or the casual reader! This very long and heavy book demands your full attention - you will not be able to sort of watch the football game while meandering through the chapters. You will be riveted to this challenging romp through the centuries.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 4, 2011

    London - more than you might like to know.

    I bought this book quite by accident. I was looking for Edward Rutherford's highly readable book by the same name and ordered Ackroyd's book by mistake - a big mistake! Ackroyd's book was not written for me but I read every remarkable chapter he wrote about this dreadful city called London. He had a story to tell; so I listened patiently as he described a city so grotesque that even the great plague of 1665; the great fire of 1666 or the blitz of 1940-1 could alter either the landscape or the character of London. He did not have a single good word to say for the place - just 893 pages of impeccably-researched contempt for the people and the city.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2009

    Great History Lesson

    What an interesting idea, to write the biography of a city. Having been to London many times and loving that city, it was thrilling to read a comprehensive history of it. Very easy to read and understand, and helps to put all the different eras into perspective. Makes me anxious to read Ackroyd's bio of the Thames.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2007

    A marvelous journey through London and its history.

    History as taught in the classroom is often dull and lifeless. Ackroyd excels at making London of history come alive for the reader. His book is a joy for those who wish to know a little or a lot more of the history of London culture, the land it comprises and the people within it. Each chapter focuses on a new facet of London, a new theme that immediately engages the reader. For those, like myself, who enjoy primary sources, Ackroyd is careful to prepare a full bibliography that is easily searched and referenced.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2003

    Should stick to Novels

    I've been a fan of Ackroyd's fiction for years, but hadn't yet tackled any of his non-fiction. I was initially intrigued by the book: a rollicking series of snippets and tidbits from the whole of the history of London, but after about 1/3 of the way through, I began to get dispirited by the incoherence of the thing. The initial enjoyment of the 'historybites' loosely joined together under separate headings gradually began to blur together, like rice-paddies seen from a bullet train. After a while, you can see how the book was pulled together, and you're left with an unimpressive vision of the author poring over his rolodex of story jottings. A non-sequitur 1/2 page on 'keys' looks like something thrust rudely into the manuscript because the author had about enough stories together to eke out a section under the letter 'k'. There's also the usual post-modernist tripe, juxtaposing the sacred and profane just for effect: an 'f-word' containing sentence on graffitti is immediately followed by a quote from the bible. No real theme emerges, and sweeping, laughable generalizations are made about the likes and dislikes of Londoners, whose very disparity is the real secret of the vitality of the great city. Or any city, in fact. And this is a major point: many of these comments Ackroyd makes could just as well apply to Tokyo or Manhattan. However, I learned a lot about the city that I never knew before, and if you can get over the patch-work quilt effect, and Ackroyd's attempts at some kind of 'poetic evocation of the spirit of London', you'll be well entertained.

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