London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

London - A Biography: A Review by David McIntosh

29/05/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 22987 votes

At first thought one might wonder, why a biography of London instead of a history? On reflection, though, it only makes sense. All cities have personalities, some good, others bad, but no city has such a broad, diverse and continually surprising a personality as the city on the Thames. No other city can match it. Period. Were there to be a contest for "World s Most Exciting City," the winner hands down, far and away, would be London.

And that's why Peter Ackroydís book bills itself a biography, because to appreciate London, one has to approach it as a living thing; for in the end thatís what the city that once billed itself as the "New Troy" is, a living, growing, ever changing creature that has gone through many stages in the journey from youth to maturity as it took its rightful place as one of the world s great cities.

Peter Ackroyd is the prolific and versatile author of works ranging from fiction to biography to poetry. Among his other biographies are ones dealing with lives of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake and Sir Thomas More. London has been a previous subject in his novel The Great Fire of London. Additionally he is the chief book critic for The Times and he is also a familiar voice to radio listeners in the British Isles. Who better to write a biography of London?

Going beyond an exclusively linear or historical approach, Ackroyd s way is to examine all of the aspects of this living London s personality; the sights, sounds and smells one would find during the various periods in London s history. Thatís not to say he rejects the historical approach but instead layers certain aspects of the development of London atop each other as he proceeds through the great city s history; simply that his approach is more than a mere history, itís an effort to get inside the cityís head, if you will.

An example of this approach is in the way Ackroyd deals with the commercial side of London. There was a time when certain trades were represented by certain ethnic and regional groups and those groups were part of the rich tapestry that comprised London. From example bakers mostly came from Scotland while dairymen came from Wales and cheesemongers hailed from Hampshire. Men who made shoes, by and large, were from Northampton. Some of the trades were the province of the London born; trades butcher, barbers and fishmongers just a few examples. The same segregation applied geographically with certain trades being most prevalent in specific sections of London and surviving to this day.

Counter to the impression held by many in modern times of the civil centre of a great empire, Ackroyd points out that much of London s history has been one of a violent, surging city often at war with itself and the rest of the realm. At times it could be a dangerous city almost under the rule of what the author calls a "mobocracy." And a London mob could be like no other mob around; irritable and prone to quick mood changes. But the size that can contribute to the creation of mobs also, Ackroyd argues, would also contribute to an overall sense of peace for metropolitan London; the city simple was too big for any neighborhood crisis to send the whole into chaos.

Of course there has always been a madness about London that only seems in some way to add to its excitement and feeling of vitality. It was London that gave the English language the word bedlam, the name given by Londoners to The Hospital of St. Mary Bethlehem, the institution for the criminally insane. Maybe it was the weather, for the London Ackroyd writes about was a city held in the grip of the weather, much of it cold and rainy which in turn drove many to drink. And, drink in turn would drive some crazy.

Londonís size has meant something else; that it is always growing, bumping up against areas once considered beyond its boundaries. The way Ackroyd describes it is that London at times in its history had grown in a fever of "profit and profiteering." The result is that the London we know today is the result of the original city growing and gobbling up communities and villages that once had been separate from the city. Southwark, Kennington and Kensington as well as Hampstead - these are just some of the communities that over the years became engulfed as London in size, stature and importance.

Of course at the centre of London has always been the Thames and being a river city London has always been a city of commerce. For much of history the Thames has provided the majority of Londoners with employment; jobs were either related to the river or derived from it. Jobs on the river included boatmen, chalkmen, eelmen, gallymen, garthmen and lightermen as well as petermen and palingmen along with shipwrights; the variety of trades connected with the great waterway that stretched through the city seemed endless.

Throughout it all though, London has been a dynamic place, a place always undergoing a process of change and evolution. After World War I another change came to London - something new, something Ackroyd calls the "the single most important change in London life" within the 150 years preceding: suburbs. Like much of what had gone before the suburbs and the transformation that followed was unplanned and unpredictable. In fact according to Ackroyd that has been the secret of London s success throughout the years: its unpredictability and the fact that, for the most part, there has been no centralized planning or single individual who has controlled its destiny. The metamorphosis that London has experienced has almost always been in response to the demands of those who lived and worked there.

While his book may include warts and all, in the end Ackroydís London: The Biography is a book for those who love London in all of its many guises; for as he admits there, with its many sections and neighborhoods, each with its own unique character, there is nothing quite like London. If you love London, the chances are good you'll love its biography. Even veterans of many visits as well as, possibly, long time residents will find much between the covers that will surprise, enlighten and entertain them.

London - The Biography
Peter Ackroyd
copyright 2000
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (New York & London)
ISBN 0-385-49770-9 (hardcover)
Anchor Books
ISBN 0-385-49771-7 (softcover)

David McIntosh

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