London: The Biography

I feel as if I've been reading this book FOREVER, so it was with some relief that I turned the last page. Don't get me wrong; London: The Biography is a fascinating, exhaustive, endlessly interesting exploration of the history and geography of this ancient and still vibrant city, but at 800-odd pages, it is a marathon, not a sprint, and I had to pace myself, with many breaks in between.

London: The Biography doesn't follow a strict chronological plan; instead, Ackroyd chooses one facet of the city's life and traces that through time. London's rivers, its crowds, pollution, theatre, children, the poor, plagues, fires, railways, all receive their own section. He has obviously pulled together a vast amount of research.

As it happened, while I was making my way through London: The Biography, I watched Ripper St, set in Victorian Whitechapel; read Square Haunting, about one Bloomsbury square; and remembered Ghost Theatre, set largely in Elizabethan London, south of the river. London: The Biography helped me to imagine all these areas more clearly, even though I have only made fleeting visits to the city and never had much of a clue about its geography. I do remember on my first visit diving into the Underground to travel a few stops, without realising that it would have been much quicker to walk through the streets on the surface!

Ackroyd (who had previously written another volume devoted to the Thames) seems quite enchanted by the city, resorting to almost mystical terms to describe its immensity, variety and unquenchable vitality and resilience. This book was published before the upheavals of Brexit and the Covid pandemic, but I am sure Ackroyd would point out that London has survived many such crises in its history, and these turbulent times will also pass.

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