London The Biography is, for many, the defining history of our city from recent times. Where does the master go from there? Well, he pumped out a similarly hefty tome about the Thames a few years back. Now he turns his attentions to subterranean London. Like a demented badger, he churns up the Tube, buried rivers and wells, ‘secret’ bunkers, Roman remains and all the rest in just 182 pages.
While many authors have shone a flashlight on London’s catacombs and tunnels, Ackroyd’s vision is infra-red. He’s at home in the gloom. He’s visited these realms before in novels such as Dr Dee and the Clerkenwell Tales. The prose drips like a leaky sewer with personality and human experience. It is the polar opposite of Anthony Clayton’s recent re-release of Subterranean City, an academic if more-comprehensive book. The Mole Man of Hackney, for example, receives more sentences than the entire deep-level shelter system.
The author is also skilled at connecting past, present and future. He notes, for example, that our modern Underground system was initiated by a man born when Marie Antoinette still possessed a head. Elsewhere, he muses on future archaeologists excavating a long-vanished St Paul’s.
Oddly, the book begins by stating that ‘there is little interest in this vast underworld’. The bibliography, listing 40 similar volumes, begs to differ. Given the popularity of the Kingsway and Thames tunnels, and the disused Aldwych station, which all briefly opened to visitors recently, it seems a bizarre assertion.
This one transgression aside, Ackroyd (or his editor) has reined in the whimsical generalisations that mar his earlier books, with not a single utterance of that Ackroydian cliché: “London has always been…”. (Fans of Ackroyd bingo will also note a significant diminution of ‘noisome’ occurrences, with a concomitant increase in ‘meets its quietus’.)
This is a short but punchy book. You can easily read it in two sittings. If you’re already well-versed in hypogeal London, you may want to wait for the paperback. For those looking for a highly readable introduction, plumb any depth to get hold of a copy.