An impressionistic history of England’s capital city, by British novelist/biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers, 2000, etc.), who knows his subject well and writes about it with considerable passion.
This is not a history in any usual sense of the term, still less a travelogue or walking guide, although it has elements of all of these genres. What the author attempts to provide instead is a roughly chronological portrait of the character or soul of a great metropolis, drawn in large part from contemporary accounts of widely divergent veracity and literary skill. Folk tales, ballads, royal chronicles, Restoration comedies, journalism, court records, ecclesiastical histories, novels, biographies, and gossip columns (going back to Addison and Steele) all come into play, and the resulting mosaic is graced by a richness and depth of color that go a long way towards making up for the unwieldy size and loose organization. The “London as Theatre” section, for example, takes us into the bear-baiting pit as well as the Globe Playhouse, while “London’s Outcasts” examines the plight of the city’s downtrodden from the medieval beggars clustered about the gates of churches and monasteries to the madmen who haunted the asylum wards of Bedlam. Eventually Ackroyd finds his focal concern in wondering “what is it, now, to be a Londoner?” He concludes that the city is of such immensity, so variegated in its component functions and populations, and so rich in historical associations, that it is “all singular and all blessed.” Although the author does not quote Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” he does illustrate Johnson’s assertion that “London has therein all that life affords.”
Somewhat rarefied, but a splendid tribute to the great metropolis.