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LONDON UNDER by Peter Ackroyd


The Secret History Beneath the Streets

by Peter Ackroyd

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-385-53150-4
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

The indefatigable expert on the Big Smoke considers the history below London’s streets from a historical, mythical and psycho-geographical perspective.

Ackroyd (Venice: Pure City, 2010, etc.) has worn many literary hats over the years—historiographer, biographer and novelist, to name a few. After recent years of reliable and prolific just-the-facts history on everything above ground in London (including the River Thames), the author lowers himself into the muck of London’s mysterious underworld in this compact but surprisingly diverse study. “Like the nerves within the human body, the underworld controls the life of the surface,” writes the author. Alongside the usual straight-laced factual history, Ackroyd enhances his research with airy philosophizing, grandiose pronouncements and fashionable filth-mongering, all while teasing out the hidden meanings and subterranean lore of life under the capital. He contemplates underground rivers and streams, the London Underground transit system and the “tube,” the elaborate network of sewers, tunnels, buried wells and springs, former bomb shelters, and, of course, the city’s cemeteries and catacombs. He provides the back story on how London’s geographical nomenclature is tied to its rich underground history, not to mention how this netherworld has become a source of terror and wonderment in the minds of surface-dwellers. Throughout, Ackroyd is at his most wildly associative and experimental. A good example of his approach throughout comes in the chapter “Far Under Ground,” where he personifies individual tube lines: “The Circle Line is adventurous and breezy, while the Bakerloo Line is disconsolate and brooding.” Readers who have experienced the same underside of London will find it difficult not to concede the accuracy of characterizations like these, however whimsical.

Eloquent and visceral.