A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
Here are two thousand years of London’s history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar’s and Charing Cross, Paddington and Bedlam. Westminster Abbey and St. Martin in the Fields. Cockneys and vagrants. Immigrants, peasants, and punks. The Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz. London at all times of day and night, and in all kinds of weather. In well-chosen anecdotes, keen observations, and the words of hundreds of its citizens and visitors, Ackroyd reveals the ingenuity and grit and vitality of London. Through a unique thematic tour of the physical city and its inimitable soul, the city comes alive.
Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot;etc.) offers a huge, enthralling "biography" of the city of London. The reader segues through this litany of lists and anthology of anecdotes via the sketchiest of topical linkages, but no matter not a page is dull, until brief closing chapters in which Ackroyd succumbs to bathos, for which he's instantaneously redeemed by the preceding chapters. He admits to using no original research, openly crediting his printed sources. Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. "The opium quarter of Limehouse," he tells readers, for example, "is now represented by a Chinese take-away." Fast food, it seems, was always part of the London scene. When poet Thomas Southey asked a pastry cook why she kept her shop open in the worst weather, she told him that otherwise she would lose business, "so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter." Ackroyd covers unrest and peace, fires and ruins, river and rail transport, crime and punishment, wealth and poverty, markets and churches, uncontrolled growth and barely controlled filth. If there is a hero among the throngs, it may be engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who in 1855 began building 1,265 miles of sewers to contain the Stygian odor of progress and keep the huge, ugly metropolis livable. No one should mind the extraordinary price of this extraordinary achievement. B&w illus., maps not seen by PW. (On sale Oct. 16)