Sunday, 25 March 2018

When Research is Fun: Peter Ackroyd’s London, the Biography

Maybe it takes a geek, nerd or dweeb to revel in a textbook, but we do exist and sometimes textbooks are a joy. I’m not talking calculus, nor French syntax, though I’d warrant there are mathematicians and linguists who would get a real charge from them. I’m talking more from the standpoint of a history buff who scans for writing inspiration, and recently had the pleasure of working through 800+ pages of delight.

Peter Ackroyd’s London, the Biography is not strictly a textbook, of course, but a popular volume: one of my most enjoyable reads in a long time. It was picked up in a book exchange for me last year by my family, and when I finally got around to tackling the intimidating brick of a book, I discovered a lively, light-scholarly text so packed with fascinating information it amazed at the turn of every page. This is Ackroyd’s academic field, his works are numerous and I will be on the lookout for others. As a Brit ex-pat I have an enduring interest in my mother-country, and have visited London on a few occasions. The city as a focus of historic development, of empire and a crossroads of the world is a story of almost unimaginable scope; Ackroyd traces human habitation on the site from the Bronze Age to the present day, though the volume, while trending from the ancient to the modern, is not in fact arranged chronologically, but by topic areas.

Fascinating information, facts and figures, spill from its pages. Past ages are brought to life through the words of those present from Roman times onward, and the city is seen as a separate entity from the country around it. The city remained, snug inside its Roman walls, throughout Late Antiquity, when Britain returned to a largely tribal state and the few civitates struggled to preserve the order of Imperial times within their own boundaries. Yet Londinium remained, prospered, spread and sprawled, and was rebuilt many times. The city burned over and over, the great fire of 1666 is the one best recorded by history, but it was merely one of many in the ages when flammable structures crowded close in rookeries and warrens.

Every topic is covered – religion, civic planning, architecture, ethnicities and immigration, the royal seat, trade and empire, ancient and modern warfare, pollution, transport, sewerage, technical innovation, art, literature, disease, crime and punishment, the horrors of the old prisons – I never knew the gallows at Tyburn were designed to hang 24 at once…

A fair few stories suggested themselves to me as I worked through the book, and I wrote up notes for some. The volume provides an extensive bibliography so the sources for further reading on specifics are there. As a window on the London of medieval, Tudor, Elizabethan, Cromwellian, Georgian and Victorian times, this book is remarkable, bringing the ages to life both with direct citation and a pithy and perceptive interpretation of the ocean of records which still exist.

Under the streets of London are the cities of the past, and it is amazing to discover that there are streets which have followed the same course for over a thousand years. Layer upon layer of foundations can be located, Roman relics are common, and throughout the city one may chart waves of development and redevelopment, the poor in the industrial warrens of the east, the wealthy in the swank suburbs of the west, while south of the river burgeoned in crime and squalor from the 1600s onward. And what about the old London Bridge? A marvel of medieval engineering, a castle-like span bearing over 100 buildings, many four stories tall, which lasted until only a few hundred years ago – what a feat for the age!

Similarly, the people of the past are brought to vivid life, with verbal portraiture of the maladies of congested urban life – the effects upon people of vast population and great want. London was known as the deepest pit of poverty, filth and disease in Western Europe, and possibly the world, European travellers were appalled by the conditions they encountered. Yet every voice is heard, from guildsmen of Chaucer’s day to the journals of Samuel Pepys (his eye witness account of the great fire is especially evocative), the writings of Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, a host of civil commentators throughout the ages – too many to enumerate, but all serving to bring history to life.

If, like me, you enjoy history for its own sake, with or without the archaeological perspective, and have any affinity for Britain, I thoroughly recommend London, the Biography. It was my bedside companion for some two months and I have not reshelved it yet – it is so natural to pick it up and immerse myself in history for just a little longer!

Cheers, Mike Adamson

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