Book Review: London: The Biography

'London: The Biography' by Peter Ackroyd.
‘London: The Biography’ by Peter Ackroyd.

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. London: Vintage, 2001.

[London] contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.

Ackroyd, 2001; p779.

At a grand total of 822 pages, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is not a read to be taken on lightly. But when you accept that the book is a comprehensive social, cultural, political and economic history of one of the oldest and most powerful capital cities still functioning in the world today, 800 pages suddenly doesn’t seem like so much any more. The book is epic, but so is London.

London: The Biography is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which I think was a wise decision. You still get a sense of the drastic changes over the last 2000 years, but rather than one huge description, it feels like Ackroyd is trying to get at some of those essential characteristics that make London London, that give the city its unique London-ness. For Ackroyd, this comes down to commerce; he believes that the city’s insatiable progress from the Roman to the modern era has been fuelled by an unquenchable desire for profit.

It is in fact the very universality of London that establishes these contrasts and separations, it contains every aspect of human life within itself, and is thus perpetually renewed. Yet do the rich and poor inhabit the same city? It may be that each citizen has created a London in his or own head, so that the same moment there may exist seven million different cities.

Ackroyd, 2001; p772.

This rather uncomplimentary take on a city for which many, myself included, hold in high regard can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable, but Ackroyd is just being frank. His London is ruthless, uncontrollable and indifferent to suffering, its people aggressive, loud, violent and prone to being over-dramatic. Perhaps it makes me uncomfortable because I do not disagree.

The book is aimed at a popular rather than an academic audience. Ackroyd does not reference his sources in the text, although there is “An Essay on Sources” at the back of the book. This can be frustrating if you are using the book as a starting point for conducting your own research on the city’s history. As the quotes above demonstrate, Ackroyd’s writing style can be poetic, and although most of the time it works well he does tend to personify London, giving the city a will and an autonomy that it cannot possibly have. Although I will admit that it can feel like London has a personality and a consciousness of it’s own, it isn’t actually true.

Attempting to tell the entire story of London is no mean feat, and Peter Ackroyd has made a valiant effort. As he himself admits, London is an incredibly diverse and complicated city, with a history stretching back over 2000 years. It would be impossible to fit it all into several books, let alone one. Ackroyd does a good job of making you feel like you know the unknowable city  just that bit better.

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