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11 May 2014

'London; The Concise Biography' by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd's  'London' opens up whole new wonders for the historically curious.

I enjoyed Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas Moore, so I was quite willing to try out a biography of London.  I was only disappointed when I realised I had purchased the abridged 2012 version.  Nevertheless, I read on and enjoyed it immensely.  Ackroyd did not follow a chronological line in order to introduce me to London.  He divided the history into topics.  Some of the chapter titles include"London's Outcasts", "Voracious London", or "Women and Children" and "Victorian Megapolis".  If a specific topic interests me, I can easily find it.  And did I mention how well Peter Ackroyd writes?  He is a pleasure to read.

I have to admit that I read this book because I had been reading several books that take place in London.  Most of them are fiction and several of them are fantasy.  Furthermore, Beloved Proof Reader spends a lot of time in London so I have been lucky enough to visit quite often the past six years or so.  Little by little I have become acquainted with this amazing city.  I thought it was time to take the relationship to the next level.  In London I feel like I belong, even if it is only for a weekend.  In such a city I am no longer a foreigner.  Even locals are foreigners with strange accents if they wander out of their neighbourhoods.  There is something exciting about a city that is equal parts deep and mysterious, shallow and frivolous...  Moreover, I like the idea that I will never get to know such an immense, old city.  I like to explore and discover.

There are so many magical, mysterious things in London that I confuse the different stories I have read with historical facts... for a given value of fact... or history for that matter.  The sewers have been of special interest in the past year.  They were mentioned in several books.  It was an awkward delight to find out that these authors did not have to stretch their imaginations.  In several cases they were only stating the facts but with an artistic flair.  Then I read on the news that some poor men digging for a new train in London have found Black Death pits, where the numerous dead were quickly buried.  Death is discussed in depth and often in 'London'.  The city is but one large graveyard.  The gruesome testimony to progress, war, pestilence and poverty can be uncovered on a daily basis.

I somehow feel that Londoners are so accustomed to this history that if the dead truly rose from their numerous graves, most would complain about property and let prices rising even faster.  Certainly, Ackroyd gave me the impression that commerce has become the whole point of the crowded city.  British people, who pride themselves on common sense, would openly admit that there is very little point in such a city if not to make money.  Everyone wants to live in the country, after all, with lots of slobbering dogs and a place to put your wellies.

If you have never been to London, read this book.  If you have only lived in London, read this book.  You do not have to read it in one go.  Pick a topic and read about it.  It is comprehensive without being exhaustive.  Peter Ackroyd's  references open up whole new wonders for the historically curious.  I open this book at random on rainy afternoons and get lost looking for Gracechurch street.

Peter Ackroyd 
ISBN: 9780099570387