What a shocking bad hat!

Christopher Tayler

  • London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
    Chatto, 822 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 1 85619 716 6

Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is as much a history of characterisations of the city as a history of London itself. And although Ackroyd is most concerned with character in the sense of ‘a personality invested with distinctive attributes and qualities, by a novelist or dramatist’, readers of his previous writings will not be surprised to hear that many other meanings of the word also come into play – ‘distinctive features’, ‘essential peculiarity’, ‘nature, style’, certainly; but also ‘distinctive mark, evidence, or token’; ‘a cipher for secret correspondence’; and even ‘a cabbalistic or magical sign or emblem’.

Ackroyd sees heterogeneity as one of London’s defining characteristics, and his work is constructed accordingly. Beginning with ‘the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea’, which is apparently visible in the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, and ending, nearly eight hundred pages later, with a contemporary vision of Exchange Square at Broadgate, the book has a rough chronological structure. Most of the march-of-history material is confined to the opening and closing sections, however, and from the late medieval period up to the end of the 19th century Ackroyd more or less dispenses with chronology and arranges his material thematically. Set-piece chapters on staging-post events keep up a sense of time passing, but the core of the book is made up of essays on such topics as drinking, natural history, suicide, crowds, ghosts, rivers, prostitution, theatres, murder, sounds and children.

These meditations draw on an imaginatively interpreted body of facts, rumours, statistics, observations, speculations and imprecations, taken from an enormous range of primary and secondary sources. Maps, pictures, street signs and public sculptures are all taken into consideration. There are a few discreet excursions into reportage and autobiography – including a rather touching tribute to Fountain Court in the Temple, which Ackroyd first discovered as a child – but the overall tone is public rather than personal. At one point the book is referred to as a ‘vast oration of London’, and this certainly catches the tenor of Ackroyd’s performance. But if his tone is public, his vision is intensely personal; and if he sometimes plays the fusty antiquarian lecturer, pompously glossing ‘gay pubs’ with ‘for homosexuals’, he is unafraid of taking on other, more expansive roles.

The book’s central chapters pan steadily across the decorative surface of the city’s history, zooming in now and again to admire some striking detail before moving off at a slightly different angle. Except for a few sections on events like the Plague and the Great Fire, which make dramatic use of first-person accounts, those looking for novelistic reconstructions of famous events will be disappointed; given the range of material he has to synthesise, Ackroyd unsurprisingly prefers to evoke the past’s day-to-day texture through exposition rather than narrative. But the expository tone can be deceptive, sometimes merely wrapping in oratory some not particularly compelling observations – ‘the city may be defined, then, as that place where people come to buy and sell’ – and the book is perhaps best read out of sequence as a compendium of obscure facts and anecdotes, many of which are very entertaining.

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