‘London Under’, Peter Ackroyd, Vintage, 2012, London
“If London is endless and illimitable, so are the books and essays devoted to it” remarks Peter Ackroyd in his unique take on the indomitable city. Chaucer and Conrad, Defoe and Dickens, Orwell and H.G. Wells and not to speak of Shakespeare are some of London’s literary luminaries. Ackroyd is a living chronicler of London. He digs into the city’s under-belly, the dark side, its low life. The Roman site Londinium was established in 43AD. He examines the poverty and squalor of the ‘have-nots’ that has long been part and parcel of any burgeoning human settlement through the ages. Here we have extensive elaborations of alm-houses, bordellos, con-men, hangings, healers, leprosy homes, jousters, jugglers, pickpockets, prisons, sewers, taverns, quacks, street entertainers, vendors. For your immediate information, according to Martin Fido in The Murder Guide to London (1986), “more than half the memorable murders of Britain have happened in London.” Through it all is the backdrop of the “theatricality of London.” It came to mind, Jack London’s account of slumming ‘The People of the Abyss’ in London in 1902. London, the author writes: “I went down into the underworld of London with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of the explorer.”
The River Thames was always the river of commerce. By 1700, 70 per cent of the country’s trade passed through the city. Covent Garden was the most illustrious of markets in all Britain and “confirming its status as an emporium of world trade. ‘There is more certainity of purchasing a pineapple here, every day in the year,’ John Timbs’s declared in Curiosities of London ‘than in Jamaica and Calcutta, where pines are indigenous.’ The city has always been “a globe of many nations” attracting immigrants through the ages. The year 1652 saw the establishment of the first coffee house. A grocer Daniel Rowlinson was the first man to sell a pound of tea in the 1650s. Prosperity engineered civic developments. In the 1780s a German visitor wrote: ‘In Oxford Road alone there are more lamps than in all the city of Paris.’ As for ‘clubbing’, the term was first used in 1660 by Samuel Pepys. London’s infamous fog? Well, Ackroyd informs us that it was unfavourably commented about in 1257.
For any Londoner by residency or adoption, the slew of facts and the collection of curiosa are fascinatingly contextual. Familiar with the city’s signature monuments and everyone having his or her own comfort zone of places, Peter Ackroyd’s unique biography of London takes the reader through the historical and geographical by-lanes as well as expansive landscape of one of the world’s most captivating metropolises.