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.
Short character sketches range from the fairly well known – like Jack Sheppard, multiple Newgate escapee and sometime folk hero – to more obscure figures like ‘Posture’ Clark, a Restoration contortionist who could ‘put out of joynt any Bone or Vertebra of his body’, or Dr Gaynam, a Brick Lane watchmaker with a ‘handsome though significantly rubicund face’, who dressed as a clergyman to perform bogus weddings and was known as the ‘Bishop of Hell’. From Ford Madox Ford’s The Soul of London, Ackroyd quotes a description of an inveterate urbanite sighing on his deathbed for one last sight and smell of the Underground; he also gives his own appreciations of the Tube lines – the Northern ‘intense and somehow desperate’, the Circle ‘adventurous and breezy’, and so on. (The torpid, dysfunctional Hammersmith and City is not discussed, although it’s claimed, for some reason, that Baker Street station ‘lifts the spirit’.) There is an early 17th-century description of Londoners ‘roasting slices of buttered bread . . . ‘This is call’d “toast”’ followed a few pages later by Dickens’s praise of sandwiches as ‘one of our greatest institutions’. It’s interesting to learn that there is a Victorian time capsule buried under Cleopatra’s Needle; that the ghost of a bear was once seen issuing from beneath the door of the Jewel House at the Tower of London; and that the short-lived, inscrutable, vaguely insulting expressions heard in the 19th-century streets included ‘Quoz!’, ‘Walker!’, ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ and ‘Has your mother sold her mangle?’ But the book is by no means relentlessly cheerful, and most of the best anecdotes have a hysterical edge – as with the story of an 18th-century gambler who collapsed outside White’s: ‘the club immediately made bets on whether he was dead or only in a fit; and when they were going to bleed him the wagerers for his death interposed, saying it would affect the fairness of the bet’ (the man died). Celebrations of the city’s energy and variety rarely go unqualified, and the more triumphal chapters tend to close with a sudden shift of focus onto London’s outcasts – prisoners, prostitutes, the homeless, the mentally ill, working or vagrant children, the congenitally poor.
Occasionally this can seem mechanical, as when an enthusiastic chapter on commerce on the Thames is immediately followed by two more on secrecy, flooding and bodies dumped in the water. Usually, though, the balance between praise and blame is maintained more inconspicuously. Ackroyd is particularly keen on the famous sites of penitential history – Newgate, Tyburn, Bedlam – and dwells on the popularity of public hangings as a spectacle. There’s also a proper emphasis on the indignities suffered by those at the bottom end of the labour market – seven or eight-year-old ‘mudlarks’ scavenging the riverbanks, ‘toshers hunting the sewers and the variously named collectors of street excrement. But Ackroyd doesn’t obviously wring his material for pathos, framing even the most shocking declarations of alienation and despair chronicled by Mayhew and others with paragraphs of flat explanatory prose.
In other words, the book works very well as a collection of essays and impressions, or a kind of encyclopedia of obscure urban knowledge. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. As the end-of-chapter climaxes get more and more overblown, certain mannerisms – like the biographical conceit of the title – come to seem more than just a means of organising the material. ‘In this city everything connects,’ Ackroyd remarks (twice) and, read straight through, London: The Biography more or less explicitly sums up the vision of the city articulated in his novels and poems as well as the more conventional sequence of biographies (Dickens, Blake, Thomas More) which preceded it. This vision is both conventionally literary and bracingly eccentric; as the constant repetitions and reiterations gather force, Ackroyd seems increasingly determined to disconcert the coffee-table end of his readership by dropping his popular historian’s mask and waxing unashamedly vatic: ‘The whole universe may be found within a grain of London’s life,’ but, equally, ‘the bowels of God have opened, and rained down shit upon London.’
Following Blake’s famous observation that ‘without Contraries is no progression’ – an insight reached ‘by steady observation of the city’ – Ackroyd builds his London on a series of paradoxes. It is piously Christian but essentially pagan; theatrical but stolid; instinctively egalitarian but also violently oppressive; pragmatic but esoteric. Most of all, though, it is a ‘mysterious, chaotic and irrational place’ where ‘fact and imagination can be strangely mingled’; ‘a labyrinth of signs, with the occasional but unnerving suspicion that there may exist no other reality than these painted symbols which demand your attention while leading you astray’. The city’s history is ‘a palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths’, its origins ‘as mysterious as the beginning of the universe itself’. Even the etymology of its name ‘remains mysterious’ and it is ‘curious, perhaps, that the name of the mineral most associated with the city – coal – also has no certain derivation’. But then there ‘is that within London’, as Ackroyd writes elsewhere, ‘which compels recognition as not of this earth’.
One of the most unearthly things about it is the nature of time within the city, which is also described as ‘mysterious’. The citizens of Ackroyd’s London are not completely defenceless against time, and can even assert a degree of control over its movements through such expedients as the ‘railway time’ of the Victorian period. In the early 17th century, Ned Ward witnessed an assistant in a music shop ‘beating Time upon his Counter’; and when Clerkenwell was invaded by watchmakers in the 18th century the area became ‘a vast mechanism emblematic of time and the divisions of time’. It was ‘almost as if London were manufacturing time itself, and then distributing it to the rest of the world’. On the whole, though, it is London rather than its inhabitants which does best from the deal; the city may even be ‘the image of time itself’. From T.S. Eliot – ‘a poet whose vision of time and eternity sprang directly from his experience of London’ – Ackroyd quotes the line ‘all time is unredeemable,’ adding that ‘London is unredeemable, too.’
In his 1993 LWT London Lecture, Ackroyd expressed his views on time:
We must not think of time as some continually flowing stream moving in one direction. Think of it more as a lava flow from some unknown source of fire. Some parts of it move forward, some parts of it branch off and form separate channels, some parts of it slow down and eventually harden. There are parts of London, I believe, where time has actually hardened and come to an end.
In London: The Biography he says that time is particularly solid in Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Limehouse. In Clerkenwell and the passages off Maiden Lane, ‘the presence of old time is familiar’; time is ‘fitful’ in Holborn and Kensington, ‘rapid and continuous’ in Cheapside and Stoke Newington, and even faster along Long Acre and Tottenham Court Road.
When time starts congealing in Ackroyd’s London, it’s usually because of the extraordinary continuities found within its history. Indeed, continuity ‘itself may represent the greatest power of all’. Clerkenwell is a good example of this because, along with watchmakers, it has also had a long association with radicalism, which Ackroyd traces from the torching of a priory by followers of Wat Tyler in 1381 to Lenin’s working there in 1902. But this is hardly unique: the ‘concrete and granite towers of the Barbican’, for example, ‘have once more brought a sublime bareness and brutality to that area where the Roman legions were sequestered’. Covent Garden was once a garden, ‘filled with herbs and fruit which seem uncannily to anticipate their later profusion on the same spot’. On Endell Street, once the site of some ancient baths, there is now a sauna and a ‘public swimming bath known as “The Oasis”’. The Notting Hill Carnival is held in August – as was Bartholomew Fair. The fact that Heathrow Airport is built on the site of an Iron Age camp is ‘suggestive’. And where ‘the tall and glittering Lloyds Building’ now rises there was once a famous maypole.
Other continuities are more general. Crime and prostitution have always flourished – the ‘connection between London and murder is, then, a permanent one’ – and the rich have been perpetually outnumbered by the poor. From Sir Thomas More to Gilbert and George, Londoners have been ‘fascinated by excrement’. There is also, apparently, ‘a folk superstition of Londoners’ in which dreaming about beef ‘denotes the death of a friend or relation’ – so the ‘modern connection between beef and BSE may be noted here’. From ‘the attacks of Boudicca to those of the IRA’, the city has seemed ‘to invite fire and destruction’; the ‘Trafalgar Square riots of 1887 occupied the same space as the poll tax riots of March 1990’ and the Gordon Riots ‘provided an echo or parallel’ for the riots at Broadwater Farm.
It might seem unlikely that George Eliot was prompted ‘by some atavistic remembrance’ of a former local – the heterodox leather-seller Isaac Praisegod Barebone – when she remarked that Fetter Lane ‘had something about it that goes with the smell of leather’. But of course the continuities don’t have to be conscious: ‘if there is a continuity of life, or experience, is it connected with the actual terrain and topography of the area? Is it too much to suggest that there are certain kinds of activity, or patterns of inheritance, arising from the streets and alleys themselves?’
Ackroyd doesn’t answer the question at this point, but he doesn’t have to: in the London he portrays, the inhabitants seem constantly to be acting under the influence of ‘permanent and atavistic’ or ‘local historic’ forces. So when both the Chartist uprising of 1848 and Mosley’s attempt to march down Cable Street in 1936 were unsuccessful – a strange conjunction, incidentally – it was ‘as if the city itself rebuked them and held them back’. The subsiding of gin fever in 1757 inevitably leads ‘to the surmise that it was some climacteric of the city’s history as if London itself had been seized by sudden frenzy and burning thirst’. When a bloody razor was discovered by a young man who had just killed his girlfriend with a similar weapon, it was ‘as if the city itself brought forth evidence from its own history’. Streets built in the 18th and 19th centuries adapt themselves to contemporary traffic through the city’s ‘ability to re-create itself silently and invisibly, as if it were truly a living thing’. The city also ‘seems almost to be speaking to itself’ by means of graffiti, and as for the words of London slang, it is ‘almost as if they were invented by the city itself’. This slang has ‘a certain cheerfulness and perkiness’ which is ‘as much a characteristic of the city as of the language’. But it’s not always completely cheerful: ‘Contemporary standards of hygiene and more liberal sexual mores have not . . . materially diminished the “fucking” and “cunts” heard in the street. Perhaps modern Londoners are simply mouthing the words which the city itself has bequeathed to them.’
Ackroyd’s London is constantly heading towards some kind of self-actualisation, from the establishment of the first London mint in the third century AD (‘testifying once again to the city’s true nature’) to the current success of the City’s foreign exchange markets (which shows London ‘fulfilling its historical destiny’). But although he suggests that perhaps ‘its destiny is to represent the contradictions of the human condition, both as an example and a warning,’ Ackroyd is tentative when it comes to divining the city’s ultimate goal. Instead, he falls back on relishing the ‘echoic’ nature of certain areas, the ‘historical resonance’ which prevails in them, and – most of all – on identifying the ‘stray object or perception’ which, as it’s rather grandly put at one point, can ‘suddenly manifest the deep history of London being’. These tend to be described as ‘emblematic’, and there are many of them. The theatrical manner of a character in a 17th-century print is ‘emblematic of the contrasts and variety of the streets’. The great markets are ‘central to London life, and somehow emblematic of it’. Irreligious behaviour is a ‘characteristic emblem of London life’. Street children have ‘a vivid emblematic quality’. The sufferings of pre-20th-century black immigrants ‘represent in emblematic form the inflictions of London itself’. Tower Bridge is ‘a representative emblem’ – ‘in its immensity and complexity, it reflected the workings of the city itself.’ And, of course, there were ‘plenty of medieval theorists who believed that the city itself was the pattern of human existence as well as an emblem of human harmony’.
‘Perhaps this is more visionary than realistic,’ Ackroyd said in his 1993 lecture; ‘but, then, what is the use of a writer who has no vision?’ It’s a reasonable point, and there are times here when he does indeed work up some convincing effects from his more striking examples of continuity and continuing vitality – in the chapter on London after the Blitz, for example, where the accretion of small details (Roman tiles still showing ‘the paw-marks of a dog in pursuit of a cat’ found among the rubble; mimosa seeds brought from China in 1793 sprouting in the bomb-damaged herbarium of the Natural History Museum) builds up a kind of cheery Waste Land pastiche.
For a book of such length, though, the persuasive moments are alarmingly rare. At their best, Ackroyd’s more esoteric ideas bring freshness and vitality to the middlebrow blockbuster genre. But the ironic transactions between history writing, imaginative literature and psychogeographical enquiry which have marked out Ackroyd’s career as a novelist work much less well when transposed into the mode of popular history; the background of facts and citations sits uncomfortably with the meditative aspects of the work, while the more whimsical excursions into psychogeography detract from the authority of the historical material.
The idea that the past persists independently of human memory, surging through the paving-stones in mysterious waves of atavism, also leads Ackroyd to some very eccentric judgments – as, for example, when he claims that Paddington is intrinsically a more depressing spectacle than King’s Cross with its prostitutes and crackheads, on the grounds that one of Paddington’s ‘main sites was once the gallows of Tyburn’. And this preference for the resonances of heritage over the actual conditions of the city points to a wider problem: Ackroyd’s constant characterisation of the city as an actor in its own right tends to suppress the agency – and, by extension, the importance to the narrative – of London’s inhabitants throughout its long history.
Of course, this relentless personification of the city might be nothing more than a literary conceit. But it’s hard not to imagine that it’s something more than that. ‘I believe I am describing London in almost a religious sense,’ Ackroyd once said (adding the proviso: ‘I cannot be sure what particular religion it is’). While the book does not quite transfer all of God’s traditional predicates to the city, it does make it into the embodiment of some Manichean struggle – part nurturing mother, part ravening Nobodaddy – which, in turn, is represented as an allegory of life itself. As an attempt to remythologise the city for modern consumption, this is fair enough. As a schema for a long work on a city, though, it’s a long way from the vision immured in ‘the actual texture or process of life’ which Ackroyd speaks of but fails to deliver.