Peter Ackroyd: London the Biography

Front Cover 2

After the last note of a symphony is sounded, the entire work lingers and we look anew at the world. We turn away from La Gioconda and her lips move as she speaks to us. Close a book, the words rest in the mind and we frame the image.

Such is the human propensity to give and to receive.

But the story of London is incomplete.

Peter Ackroyd’s scholarly and vivid work is full to the brim with fascination, long history and variety.

From the pride in antiquity so understated that its founding symbol, the London Stone – linked maybe with Brutus or Troy – is found sunk obscurely into a wall in Cannon Street, to the degradation, crime and corruption of a city which means so much to me, I sought the personality of this living monster, this killer of grandmothers, this seducer of fathers, this national identifier and international enigma.

London 1630

London, 1630, Before the Great Fire

Ugliness and beauty, wealth and poverty in the extremes, justice and arbitrariness, fairness and corruption, cruelty and compassion all react in one volatile, explosive mass. Horror combines with assurance, risk with security, destitution with pioneering spirit, disease or desperation with promise, rebellion and acceptance, eternity with finality and dejected resignation, loss with discovery. The noise, the noise.

Take the bland office buildings and sandwich bars in Fetter Lane, for instance, and discover the hidden suffering and courage, the persecution of protestant and catholic alike, the gallows at both ends, the first Inn of Chancery and its origins, all now disappeared below. Or ponder upon the Abbey founded by Edward the Confessor at Westminster, where the Thames was forded, and where pagan religion and mystery still infuse the soul of the nation.

The Fleet River c1750. An Italian mask on Squalor and Noise

The Fleet River c1750.
An Italian mask on Squalor and Noise

Choose between the outward beauties or the ravages and filth of the millenia now concealed. Consider how fires and pestilence, war and neglect were not enough to quell its spirit, how the sum is a never-ending theatricality in reality – hear the stunned silence in the crowd after a public execution as the pickpockets operate, how business resumes and the corpse is fought over. Know that Pudding Lane, site of the baker’s shop where the Great Fire of 1666 began, is named after the excrement carried down in leaky carts to the dung barges moored in the Thames. Then you may see how the native is obsessed in a love-hate for his home and how it is a template for the gamut of human experience, ignorance and knowledge, a dark nightmare of insanity, a fantasy dreamland of colour and extremes, a sanctuary of calm, modest courage and reason. Its ancient inheritances bubble up here, there and everywhere but never expectedly, like the ancient artefacts forever being unearthed from its disinterred bowels, disturbed for unceasing growth and expansion. A blank face to an unknowing world, a world drawn by its magnetic influences, evil and benign. Order shields life and chaos, for passivity is the toll of death.

Unceasing in international trade since the Thames was spanned in the first century AD – though its Celtic and bronze age relics disclose origins long before – its markets for mammon and stomach evolved into markets of money itself, secured by the great bullion hoards of the Bank of England. The spread of wealth to the north, south and west and the hegemony of global finance colonised and all but obliterated the massive river port, dense with sea traffic and cargo to the east.

Smithfiels Market. Site of St Bartholomew's Fair

Smithfield Market.
Site of St Bartholomew’s Fair

An independence derives from the power of its commerce, relied upon, to this day, by the country at large, the constitutional monarchy and the national government even, such that it retains the character, say, of an Italian city state. Seafaring begat navigation, navigation begat astronomy, astronomy begat scientific discovery. spurred by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. See for yourself at Greenwich.

And wealth led to the cleansing and lighting of streets, great building projects, magnificent public and institutional buildings, churches greater in number than any city in Europe – a city viewed by Canaletto from Westminster Bridge as Italianate, masking a wretchedness and poverty on every street corner – devastated by German bombs. The centre of international trade, London became the centre of empire, but also a dream of democracy, freedom, justice, mercy and equality before the law, standards marred by human trafficking and the bloodthirsty spectacle of those public hangings all over the city as well as at the ancient site of Tyburn.

Turner Paints Parliament on Fire, 1834.

Turner Paints Parliament on Fire, 1834.

A city that rose again many times from the ashes. Moscow, did you know, was rebuilt, after Napoleon burned it, on London ash, ash gathered from a rubbish dump at King’s Cross and, inevitably, sold for profit.

Food stalls with excrement stored beneath, ubiquitous, scruffy coffee houses requisitioned for business, the city guilds, the fairs, festivals and street musicians, all with echoes to the present day.

So the story must continue, and I must continue to read.

Flowerseller in Piccadilly. Circus see the suffering in her eyes.

Flowerseller in Piccadilly Circus. See the suffering in her eyes.

[Images reproduced from the book]

10 thoughts on “Peter Ackroyd: London the Biography

          • Prefaces are composed by the authors of the books, and as such constitute legitimate parts thereof. Basically, a preface is chapter one, although the author, for whatever reason, chose to label a later chapter as the first, and the first and/or second as a “preface” or a “prologue” or the like. Thus, a preface, should there be one, forms the beginning of the actual book. A foreword, on the other hand, delays the beginning of the book by exactly the length of the foreword.

  1. I learned quite recently of a woman time-teller who, as late as 1939, would, after checking somewhere that scientifically recorded the exact time, walk the streets of London and, for a small fee, would tell the correct time to anyone who wished to know.

    No doubt she had her counterparts in other cities.

    This reminds me of that old cartoon, that I think appeared in “Punch”, of a workman carrying a huge grandfather clock down a street (a London street?), and a bystander asks him, “Wouldn’t it be easier just to wear a watch?”.

    • What differentiates the “exact” or “correct” time, Christopher, from “the time”?

      I recall that cartoon. I agree, time must weigh heavy in some occupations.

      • “…….What differentiates the ‘exact’ or ‘correct’ time………from ‘the time’?………”

        Well, when a boy I was given to understand there was only one correct time, which was Greenwich Mean Time, as shown by the Greenwich clock. Since coming of age, I’ve never – in the matter of what is the correct time – had reason to change what I was given to understand when a boy.

        I mean, what was good enough for Ruth Belville, has always been good enough for me. And I hope it’s good enough for you too.

        • According to Ackroyd:

          “The nature of time in London is mysterious. It seems not to be running continuously in one direction, but to fall backwards and to retire; it does not so much resemble a stream or river as lava flow from some unknown source of fire. Sometimes it moves steadily forward, before springing or leaping out; sometimes it slows diwn and, on occasions, it drifts and begins to stop altogether. There are some places in London where you would be forgiven for thinking that time has come to an end.”

          After the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill, near Upper Norwood, a suburb where two boroughs and an Urban District met at a single point: Lambeth, Croydon and Anerley in Kent. The library was administered and funded by all three. Boundaries have now changed and three London Boroughs meet, Lambeth, Croydon and Bromley, all part of Greater London since 1972, meet at the same point.

          In the 1930s the Crystal Palace spectacularly burned down. From a fashionable resort, Upper Norwood fell into decay. Once grand Edwardian mansions were divided into squalid tenements, always carrying an air, inside and out, of their illustrious past, one-time widows of owners sometimes banished to a room or two on the ground floor. Of the place my father said in the late 1960s, “It is as if time stood still.”

          After examining words and phrases concerning time in medieval documents, Ackroyd describes how when masons were rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral in the 14th Century they discovered the unblemished corpse of a pagan judge that spoke: “How long I have lain here is from time forgotten. It is too much for any man to give it a length.” The corpse is baptised and “all the bells of London rang loudly together.”

          Ackroyd goes on:

          “… Beyond the time measured by human memory there exists, therefore, sacred time invoked by those bells … where sacred time met secular time. …”

          On the roof of the old Greenwich observatory, which stands on a hill, is a pole. A Large ball is, to this day, run down this pole precisely on the hour by which passing vessels may correct their chronometers, if they still have them.

          And, according to the Common Law, time immemorial is the accession of Richard the Lionheart in 1189. He succeeded his father, Henry II, who did so much to establish it.

          I looked up Ruth Belville in Wiki. I wonder if Ackroyd has ever heard of her. He likes to illustrate how all things in London are slaves to commerce. Thank you.

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