London: The Biography

1800059This book is a massive undertaking, both for the author and the reader, and the amount of extraordinary, fascinating and brilliant detail in here is mind-boggling. It pulls from an awe-inspiring number of primary sources to provide the most delectable quotes on everything from pubs to fashion to murders to popular food. In fact, I can’t think of a subject that isn’t in here, and it’s all woven together in a form that is almost like fiction. It muses, ponders, revels in minutiae. This is the first book I started reading after my father died about a year and a half ago, I hadn’t been able to read anything at all for a month or two and this was perfect for getting back into it, reading a couple of chapters at a time, setting down, coming back to. I loved loved loved so much of it, both the tidbits of history, but also the ways in which Ackroyd combined them, sometimes by theme or period or area. It’s changed how I walked around London streets, how I see the Thames every time I cross it, the ways I contrast old and new and am always seeking out the echoes of past times. I was a bit that way before, I confess, but now I have a much better feeling for what might be there and understanding of what I find.

It’s hard to judge a work of this size and scope with so much that is amazing in it. But as I read I became increasingly critical of the celebration of commercialism. It all comes to a head in the final chapters which left me angry. A sort of mystical view of London steadily emerged, a sort of organic living creature of a city with its own requirements and demands of its inhabitants. I liked playing with ideas about the ways in which a city shapes its residents, but was disappointed to find Ackroyd’s jubilation at the financial centres surviving the blitz as proof that the living beating heart of London might well be commerce and finance. There is a celebration of Thatcher’s big bang of 1986 loosing regulations on bangs — that would ultimately lead to our current economic crisis. And he writes

If the city had a voice it might be saying: There will always be those who fail or who are unfortunate, just as there will always be those who cannot cope with the world as presently constituted, but I can encompass them all.
…Lincoln’s Inn Fields was occupied once more by the homeless, after an interval of 150 years, while areas like Waterloo Bridge and the Embankment became the setting for what were known as ‘cardboard cities’. … Despite civic and government initiatives, they are still there. They are now part of the recognisable population; they are Londoners, joining the endless parade. Or perhaps, by sitting upon the sidelines, they remind everyone else that it is a parade.

I threw the book across the room. As though the homeless and the masses of poor are a natural phenomenon like weather, and not caused by deindustrialisation, the roll back of the welfare state and Thatcher’s own policies channeling wealth away from them towards the already wealthy. As though they are separate from ‘us’,  there for ‘our’ amusement. That Lincoln’s Inn field should have been free of the homeless for 150 years was an accomplishment of society hard fought and bitterly won. Their return is an indictment of our current direction, not an ornament to London’s wealth, or a gaze that seeks to remind the well-to-do of how wonderful they are.

Had I only stopped reading with the Blitz I would have unqualifiedly loved this book, as it is I am torn between giving it a five and giving it a one. I look back and wonder how much of this view seeped into the history. I am sure it did in celebrating trade, muting struggle and resistance. But in terms of how theatre changed over time, the love of jellied eels and pies, the roles of gravediggers, the building of churches, the vast panoply of literary views and all such topics,this is quite wonderful.

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