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Description - London by Peter Ackroyd

Much of Peter Ackroyd's work has been concerned with the life and past of London but here, as a culmination, is his definitive account of the city. For him it is a living organism, with its own laws of growth and change, so London is a biography rather than a history. It differs from other histories, too, in the range and diversity of its contents. Ackroyd portrays London from the time of the Druids to the beginning of the twenty-first century, noting magnificence in both epochs, but this is not a simple chronological record. There are chapters on the history of silence and the history of light, the history of childhood and the history of suicide, the history of Cockney speech and the history of drink. London is perhaps the most important study of the city ever written, and confirms Ackroyd's status as what one critic has called 'our age's greatest London imagination.'

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780099422587
ISBN-10: 0099422581
Format: Paperback
(234mm x 153mm x 49mm)
Pages: 848
Imprint: Vintage
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 4-Aug-2001
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Book Reviews - London by Peter Ackroyd

UK Kirkus Review » It comes as no surprise that the biographer of famous Londoners such as Dickens, Blake and Thomas More should now turn his talents to London itself. The subject almost seems to be one that Ackroyd has been limbering up to tackle for many years, given the prominence that the city assumes in novels such as Hawksmoor, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Claiming that London, a living organism, requires a biography instead of a history, he seeks to capture its vitality and uniqueness through a myriad of sources and many years of experience as one of the greatest connoisseurs of the city's past. Illustrated in both colour and black and white, the book charts the growth of London from the days when mammoths roamed its forests (the bones of one of them were excavated in 1690 at what would later become King's Cross) to the opening of the Tate Modern. But this is not a typical chronological history. London for Ackroyd is a palimpsest still bearing the visible imprints of Roman roads and forts, Saxon churches, Viking raids and medieval wells - all as real and as vibrant, and as much a part of today's London, as the city's more recent landmarks. It is this relationship between the past and the present - what he calls a 'continuity of experience' - that intrigues Ackroyd and makes for some of the book's most fascinating reading. Did you know, for example, that Clerkenwell has been home, at one time or another, to a continuum of social radicals such as Wat Tyler, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Marx's daughter, Lenin and, most recently, The Big Issue? There are accounts, as you would expect, of well-known events like the plague, the Great Fire and the Blitz, but also sections on smells, children, magic, suicide and murder. The account of murder London-style recounts the history of Jack the Ripper, of course, but also points out the evidence for a serial strangler in the 18th century whose trademark was biting off his victim's noses. Ackroyd states in his Preface that London can never be glimpsed in its entirety, only experienced 'as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares'. He does a superb job of guiding us through this maze, leading us through the centuries and, like a Victorian police constable, shining his torch into the most obscure byways to reveal the sinister, the arcane and the marvellous. Reviewed by Ross King, author of Brunelleschi's Dome (Kirkus UK)

US Kirkus Review » An impressionistic history of England's capital city, by British novelist/biographer Ackroyd ("The Plato Papers", 2000, etc.), who knows his subject well and writes about it with considerable passion. This is not a history in any usual sense of the term, still less a travelogue or walking guide, although it has elements of all of these genres. What the author attempts to provide instead is a roughly chronological portrait of the character or soul of a great metropolis, drawn in large part from contemporary accounts of widely divergent veracity and literary skill. Folk tales, ballads, royal chronicles, Restoration comedies, journalism, court records, ecclesiastical histories, novels, biographies, and gossip columns (going back to Addison and Steele) all come into play, and the resulting mosaic is graced by a richness and depth of color that go a long way towards making up for the unwieldy size and loose organization. The "London as Theatre" section, for example, takes us into the bear-baiting pit as well as the Globe Playhouse, while "London's Outcasts" examines the plight of the city's downtrodden from the medieval beggars clustered about the gates of churches and monasteries to the madmen who haunted the asylum wards of Bedlam. Eventually Ackroyd finds his focal concern in wondering "what is it, now, to be a Londoner?" He concludes that the city is of such immensity, so variegated in its component functions and populations, and so rich in historical associations, that it is "all singular and all blessed." Although the author does not quote Samuel Johnson's aphorism that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," he does illustrate Johnson's assertion that "London has therein all that life affords." Somewhat rarefied, but a splendid tribute to the great metropolis. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd has written acclaimed biographies of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake, Shakespeare and Thomas More, as well as short books about Chaucer, J.M.W. Turner, Isaac Newton and most recently, Edgar Allan Poe. A bestselling biographer, historian, novelist and broadcaster, he holds a CBE for services to literature. He is the author of the London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River, and lives in London

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