London: The Biography

Peter Ackroyd

Read April-October 2004

The genre of writing a person's life has been developed well; we call the result a biography (or sometimes a hagiography, depending on the author's viewpoint). The lives of cities are at least as rich, extend much longer, and go through more transformations than the average biographical subject, but there is no specific genre of their history narrower than the general medium of urban studies. Ackroyd, like the city he describes, does not bend; he co-opts. To him, London is a living, breathing, smelling entity, and it is that character's story he has written. And how!

I began reading this book about ten days before I visited London in May, 2004. This would be the perfect preparation, I thought. But fifty pages in, I was horribly bogged down, neither enjoying myself nor even making much sense of what I was reading. I abandoned the book.

A month later, when I returned from England, I tried the book again. At this point I had spent about a week in London, and its streets and neighborhoods and character were vastly more familiar. Suddenly, I found Ackroyd's book irresistable. His story of the London Stone (now largely ignored in an anonymous location) his tracing of the old city walls along modern streets, and a thousand other episodes and vignettes came alive.

Even with that experience, however, I found this book too difficult to finish. It is organized as independent chapters, each of which proceeds (roughly) temporally; but the lack of bridges and a linear progression between them makes this book rather challenging to read at a distance. On the other hand, this would be a perfect companion for walks through the city. With this book in hand, you can not only find the London Stone and trace the city walls, you can relive the experiences of Newgate and St. Giles and the city fairs and so much else. Indeed, Ackroyd's lapidary writing really will put you back in the midst of passed time.

It would be more accurate to call Ackroyd an antiquarian than a historian (and indeed, it is telling that of the many diarists, historians and others available, his greatest affections seem to be reserved for the one he regards as the city's greatest antiquarian, John Stow). He focuses on the minutest detail, rather than letting himself be caught up in broad sweeps of history. Even the most cursory reading is impressive. His choice of quotations and references is delectable as much for its obscurity as its appropriateness, and the book cannot help but impart fascinating trivia. For instance, being a wordsmith, he is appropriately curious about etymologies; on page 285 alone, we learn about such gems as ``yob'', ``neck verse'' and ``Derrick''. This quality pervades not only his prose but even his choice of images. This staggering attention to detail illuminates the book dramatically, but unfortunately also holds the seeds of its challenge.

The most annoying thing about Ackroyd's prose is his oft-repeated belief that London is unique, and moreover that it is unique in unique ways. Instead of letting his details speak for themselves, he engages in airy abstractions that are both distracting and leave the reader unconvinced about their credibility. One constant theme that he does successfully demonstrate is his belief that London evades planning, contrasting London's many rebuilding efforts with those of, say, Haussmann.

The book suffers from a paucity of maps, a shocking oversight in a book so detailed. Those that are there are more decorative than edificatory. There are clearly images visible in the author's minds eye that are lost to the reader who does not have the patience to reconstruct London period maps from the prose. As a warning, the book does also assume a certain basic familiarity with British history.

In sum, Ackroyd's book is at once a brilliant and a frustrating work. To me, anyway, it is not a book that can be read linearly. (Fortunately, the chapters are essentially independent of each other, and by rearranging the chapters at whim, you can construct your own London experience.) It is also not a book that will hugely appeal to someone who has not been to London. On the other hand, it may be the most brilliant, if quirkiest, travel guide ever written for that or for any city.