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London

Cover of London

London

A Biography
Here are two thousand years of London's history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar's and Charing Cross, Paddington...More
Here are two thousand years of London's history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar's and Charing Cross, Paddington...More
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Description-
  • Here are two thousand years of London's history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar's and Charing Cross, Paddington and Bedlam. Westminster Abbey and St. Martin in the Fields. Cockneys and vagrants. Immigrants, peasants, and punks. The Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz. London at all times of day and night, and in all kinds of weather. In well-chosen anecdotes, keen observations, and the words of hundreds of its citizens and visitors, Ackroyd reveals the ingenuity and grit and vitality of London. Through a unique thematic tour of the physical city and its inimitable soul, the city comes alive.

    From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1 The Sea!

    If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled "Why Can't We Have the Sea in London?," but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, fifty million years before, was covered by great waters.

    The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London. The Portland stone of the Customs House and St. Pancras Old Church has a diagonal bedding which reflects the currents of the ocean; there are ancient oyster shells within the texture of Mansion House and the British Museum. Seaweed can still be seen in the greyish marble of Waterloo Station, and the force of hurricanes may be detected in the "chatter-marked" stone of pedestrian subways. In the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea can also be observed. The tides and storms are still all around us, therefore, and as Shelley wrote of London "that great sea . . . still howls on for more."

    London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St. Paul's has been seen trembling upon a "vague troubled sea" of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London. The social workers of the mid-nineteenth century spoke of rescuing "drowning" people in Whitechapel or Shoreditch and Arthur Morrison, a novelist of the same period, invokes a "howling sea of human wreckage" crying out to be saved. Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of The Art of Living in London, considered the city as "a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks," while in 1810 Louis Simond was content to "listen to the roar of its waves, breaking around us in measured time."

    If you look from a distance, you observe a sea of roofs, and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean. But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its own torrents and billows, its foam and spray. The sound of its streets is like the murmur from a sea shell and in the great fogs of the past the citizens believed themselves to be lying on the floor of the ocean. Even amid all the lights it may simply be what George Orwell described as "the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes." This is a constant vision of the London world, particularly in the novels of the twentieth century, where feelings of hopelessness and despondency turn the city into a place of silence and mysterious depths.

    Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture upon its currents look for prosperity or fame, even if they often founder in its depths. Jonathan Swift depicted the jobbers of the Exchange as traders waiting for shipwrecks in order to strip the dead, while the commercial houses of the City often used a ship or boat as a weather-vane and as a sign of good fortune. Three of the most common emblems in urban cemeteries are the shell, the ship and the anchor.

    The starlings of Trafalgar Square are also the starlings who nest in the cliff faces of northern Scotland. The pigeons of London are descended from the wild rock-doves who lived among the steep cliffs of the northern and western shores of...

About the Author-
  • Peter Ackroyd is a bestselling writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His most recent books include the biographies Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More and the novels The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Milton in America, and The Plato Papers. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature's William Heinemann Award (jointly), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and The Guardian fiction prize. He lives in London.

Reviews-
  • The New York Times Book Review

    "Magnificent. . . . Succeeds in animating on the page the life of one of the oldest and greatest cities in the world."

  • The Observer "Ackroyd is the most effortless guide. . . . This is much more than history: it is a tapestry of inspiration and love."
  • Independent on Sunday "An erudite labour of love, a fan-letter to a fabulous city. . . . As exuberant, energetic and alarming as the city itself."
  • The Times "A fat and filling feast: pretty much everything of interest about the capital is crammed into the eight-hundred pages."
  • Vanity Fair "If London had the ability to choose its biographer it undoubtedly would tap Peter Ackroyd."
  • Chicago Tribune "A wonderful book, a treasure of information and anecdote about one of the world's great cities, a book to be taken up again and again for the pleasures that lie within."
  • The Washington Post "A book to match its subject . . . one gratefully rediscovers that urban unreality, the city of romance and mystery as well as the one of shops, pubs, and thoroughfares."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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