Simon Thurley considers the protean nature of England's capital city
Books about London are currently almost two a penny. London's continued economic prosperity and cultural revival seem to be a gold mine for publishers and booksellers alike. At first sight, Peter Ackroyd's book might seem to be another soon to join the London sections of the remaindered bookshops. I doubt that it will ever get there. For it is an original, personal, eccentric, even dangerous book that transcends the mediocrity that characterises much London writing.
This is due to the fact that Ackroyd has been thinking about London for years. London : The Biography is no potboiler dashed off to cash in on a vogue; it grows out of a deep-seated love of London and an almost psychic understanding of it. It also grows out of Ackroyd's previous books. His novel, Hawksmoor , and his excellent biographies of Dickens and More are set in London and are suffused by the spirit of the place that his heroes inhabit. These London characters reappear in his latest book as old friends, as guides to the city he so loves.
It should be said from the beginning that this is not a history book. To write it, Ackroyd has read widely (he owns a library of 600 volumes on London) but he has avoided using footnotes and has integrated the authors and titles of the books he has used into the text. This device, which could be annoying, works surprisingly well as a signpost rather than an obstacle. His reading results not only in a justifiable authority of tone but also in a certainty of opinion that no historian would dare espouse. Who could really justify statements such as "Londoners are fascinated by excrement", "London is a city perpetually doomed" or "London drives some of its citizens mad"? This is the difference between the "biography" of London and its many other histories. The biography does not merely tell us about London, it attempts to explain what London really is by weaving a tapestry of 2,000 years of successful habitation.
The book begins with the very stones of London and moves chronologically through the first 100 pages, leading the unwary reader to imagine 700 more pages of chronological narrative. But just as the story starts to unfold, the book fragments into chapters covering topics as diverse as night, tobacco, murder, the weather, women and children, and magic. The underlying historical narrative somehow rides above this, despite the fact that Ackroyd claims in his introduction that "the biography of London defies chronology". This is a book to be savoured over many sittings, with each chapter able to stand alone as a glimpse of the city, often without reference to the others.
Ackroyd's view of London is a personal one, seeing the continuity of human activity as the most important component of a great city. Activities undertaken on the same spot for hundreds, if not thousands of years have suffused the earth with their effects and act as a magnet to keep them there for all time. The spirit of the place is the underlying thesis of Ackroydian London. The last chapter, titled "Resurgam", records the author's reveries on a walk from the massive 1980s Broadgate development in the City of London to Spitalfields. In Spitalfields he passes an archaeological dig, undertaken by my own museum, the Museum of London. He stops and looks at the layers of history pulled back painstakingly, by hand, with small trowels. At the lowest level lies the grave of a 4th-century Roman lady, above her layers of Saxons, medievals, Tudors and Stuarts. Just below the modern tarmac he spies the remains of 18th-century houses bulldozed after the second world war. Pondering this palimpsest of human occupation he muses: "The levels of the centuries are all compact, revealing the historical density of London. Yet the ancient city and the modern city literally lie beside each other; one cannot be imagined without the other. That is one of the secrets of the city's power."
This spirituality of place leads to another significant feature of Ackroyd's London - London as a dark place. He believes in its ugliness, its brutality, its violence, its ambition and its maleness. "London has always been an ugly city," he tells us. "It is part of its identity. It has always been rebuilt, and demolished, and vandalised. That, too, is part of its history." In the darkness and vandalism he sees a beauty, a beauty that "lighter" cities such as Paris or Rome lack.
His book is at its most evocative when dealing with the dark side of life - with prostitution, disease, overcrowding, poverty and the chaos of the Victorian metropolis. Chapter 36 is about waste and begins: "What the voracious city devours, it must eventually disgorge in rubbish and excrement." Rubbish, excrement, disease are disgorged in almost every chapter. We learn that Thomas More used five names for faeces, that streets were named after their activities, such as Pissing Lane, Cock Alley and Grope**** Lane. No wonder we are told that "to live in the city is to know the limits of human existence".
This is a book about Londoners, but very selectively so. The rich are rarely, if ever, mentioned; kings and queens only play bit parts. The court might as well not have existed. Where are the rich, the finely dressed, the aristocrats, the beautiful people? They have no place in Ackroyd's biography, which is about "ordinary Londoners". The "ordinary" people live in the City, not in Westminster, and only in later times in the outlying areas. These facts might seem to distort the biography. But in a sense, Ackroyd has hit, perhaps accidentally, on a historical truth. London has always been a great trading place, a city built on money-making, on the success of its businesses. Those businesses have rarely been owned by the aristocracy or the monarchy and have rarely been based outside the city. The English court, unlike other foreign courts, was responsible for only a tiny fraction of the trade and wealth of London, even at its peak. Westminster and the further western reaches were always residential. Money was made in the City and industry was in the east. So Ackroyd's socially exclusive biography can get away with ignoring the upper classes and the monarchy, even with the fact that I could not find one mention of Queen Victoria.
Although people are the author's trade, he also grasps the fundamental loneliness and isolation of city life. "Ordinary human existence seems uninteresting or unimportant in this place where everything is so colossal," Ackroyd observes. The massive 19th-century expansion of London left its population feeling dwarfed by its magnitude. Individualism seemed to be crushed. "To be perpetually reminded that the single human life is worth very little, that it is reckoned merely as part of the aggregate sum, may induce a sense of futility," he writes.
So what is London for him? It is certainly not simply a geographical place. He is not the first London writer to be confounded by a geographical definition of the metropolis. The Museum of London does not attempt such a definition - sometimes we include Croydon in London, sometimes we do not. Nor is the "zone of influence" definition satisfactory, as this could embrace half of southern England. Ackroyd gets it right, to my mind, by suggesting that London is "a state of mind". "The more nebulous its boundaries, and the more protean its identity, has it now become an attitude or a set of predilections?" he asks. London is a world city that has burst out of cultural, national and ethnic boundaries and contains the world. This is why, Ackroyd tells us, "so many millions of people describe themselves as 'Londoners', even if they are miles from the inner city. They call themselves Londoners because they are pervaded by a sense of belonging. London has been continuously inhabited for over 2,000 years; that is its strength, and its attraction. It affords the sensation of permanence, of solid ground."
These are important lessons for a city that is struggling with its own identity - issues that a city with its own government once again should address. History, to its present rulers, may be a political no-go area, although it is in history that the salvation of the modern capital lies. But Ackroyd's book is not history, it is a tonic for metropolitan life, so perhaps our rulers will read and learn.
Simon Thurley is director, Museum of London.