While I continue to work on stuff for Innsmouth Free Press, you get another retro review. This one is from Oct. 2, 2008.

And, yes, I stand by my remark about sharia law being enforced by the British government. The specific news story I was thinking of is here.

Since I wrote this review, we’ve had a jihadist behead a British soldier in the streets of London.

Review: London: A Biography, Peter Ackroyd, 2001.London

I’ve only had the opportunity to spend a few days in London, so I can’t claim to know the city well. But, says Ackroyd – himself seemingly a lifelong Londoner, it’s been centuries since anyone can claim to really know the city. His bibliographic essay notes there are at least 21, 778 works on the city, and he doesn’t claim to have read them all. Still, he has overturned a fair sized library for this book , added some personal observations, and produced an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic book.

Ackroyd eschews a straightforward chronological history. There are sections on London from its beginnings to 1066, medieval London, the Great Fire, Victorian London, and the city’s destruction in the Blitz and its later rebuilding. But most of the book is essay like chapters built around themes covering every aspect of London life from its Underground and buried past to its notorious fogs and smogs, its wildlife and street life, markets illicit and licit, disasters and buildings, festivals and executions. And it’s not exactly a celebration of the city. Again and again he returns to the metaphor of London as prison. The exemplar here is Jack Sheppard who escaped from London prisons six times. Yet, he never left the city for more than a few days even though it cost him his life.

London as theater is Ackroyd’s other metaphor. It extends far beyond the literal stage to the garb of its inhabitants or the speeches of the soon to be hanged at Newgate. London, emphasizes Ackroyd, is a great commercial maw. All has been subsumed in trade at one time or another from the goods of empire coming in at the Thames docks to the sewer hunters and mudlarks scouring muck for treasures. Men, women, and children all played their roles. Even would-be rebels became a trade in Carnaby Street.

One of the most fascinating things in the book is Ackroyd’s frequent quotes from foreign visitors. Yoshio Markino, a Japanese painter, noted that the garish colors of London’s buildings became beautiful when seen in a fog. Dostoevsky remarked on Londoners haste to drink themselves insensible. (After reading the book’s accounts of London riots and drinking, one is tempted to see some modern London problems as a return to some sort of default state for the city.)

How certain London neighborhoods have long been associated with certain acivities is also well told by Ackroyd. He not only talks about the famous Soho but Clerkenwell as well. The latter has, for centuries, been associated with religious heretics and revolutionaries. (Lenin lived there for a time.) And the same neighborhood has a long tradition of clockmaking. (Perhaps explaining why Hiram Maxim worked on his machine guns there.)

Given Ackroyd’s many books on literary figures, quotes from British literary figures are to be expected. (Ackroyd notes that it is exceptional for them not to have a London connection.) Dickens, Defoe, Smollett, Milton, Boswell, Orwell, and Wolfe all had things to say about London in essays, letters, and fiction. The literary minded reader may be tempted to make a game of remembering relevant quotes and writers not in the book.

As well as being associated with literature and the capitol of empire, London’s bustle helped develop the theories of Darwin and Engels – though Ackroyd asserts this in passing without much proof. The instrument makers of London were crucial to developing the science of the Enlightenment.

There are three minor quibbles with the book. Some of the anecdotes do get repeated though not many in a book so long. Second and more seriously, Ackroyd exhibits some unquestioned pieties. Seeing the poor as diseased and dirty is not a totally groundless stereotype. Mental illness can underlie all three conditions as well as less pathological mental traits. And Ackroyd, in a section on immigrants to London, makes the lazy analogy that complaints about today’s immigrants are the same – and equally groundless – as those of the past. That ignores the numbers and cultures of Britian’s current immigrants and the corrosive effects of modern transportation and communication on assimilation. One wonders, now that Islamic terrorism has made its way to Britain and sharia law can be enforced by the state, if he feels the same eight years after the book was published. The third quibble is that sometimes Ackroyd thinks he is describing a unique trait of Londoners when it’s really more universal. For instance, in what city aren’t children attracted to dangerous and forbidden places?

Still, this is a remarkable book in its variety, and it almost never bores despite its length. Anybody interested in one of the great cities of the Western Mind will want to read it.

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