Sunday, 10 January 2010

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

I read an awful lot of interesting books last year and I regret that I did not take the time to record them so here seems as good a place as any and if there are nice publishers out there who want to send me preview copies of their books then I'm a more than willing recipient.

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd (Vintage - 2001)

After Peter Ackroyd finished writing this 800 page monster he suffered a heart attack and for Peter this was something quite appropriate of London as a city, an angry and violent place; a place that kills (although I might suggest that his portly stature belies a different truth). This is a history book without chronology which rather than following a standard narrative (Romans, Normans, Plague, Fire, Queen Vic, Empire and Blitz) is more a series of essays on London as Theatre, Crime and Punishment, Mobocracy and Violence etc... As disconnected as that sounds there are themes that penetrate the essays: London's innate theatricality or the continuities that exist and have throughout the centuries. Camberwell, for instance, as the home of disquiet was invaded by Wat Tyler during the peasants revolt, that the Chartist movement grew up there, that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were welcomed there first on their return from Botany Bay, that a revolutionary press was founded upon the green by the likes of Elanor Marx and that during his stay this press was used frequently by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that in the 90s the communist daily the Morning Star had its offices in the area and that now it is inhabited by the magazine for the homeless and unemployed, the Big Issue.

I've learnt some interesting details about events and people some of which leave me wondering how there has never been a film about them. The story of Jack Sheppherd is one such story. He was a criminal hero of london held at the infamous Newgate Prison which once stood where the Old Bailey stands today and who gained notoriety by escaping from confinement six times using his skills gained as a carpenter's apprentice.

The first time he was arrested he escaped within three hours by cutting open the roof and lowering himself to the ground using the sheets from his bed as a rope. The second time he was pinioned with links and fetters and managed to saw through the fetters, cut an iron restraint and bored through a wooden bar nine inches thick. While out he was recaptured by the notorious criminal taker Jonathan Wild and sentenced to death. Somehow he managed to smuggle in a spike with which he managed to carve an opening in the wall and with the help of friends on the outside was dragged out through it disappearing into the crowds of the Bartholemew Fair. Once again he was recaptured and brought back to Newgate and he was removed to the 'stone castle', chained to the floor, legs secured with irons and hands cuffed and kept under surveillance. Somehow he managed to slip out of the cuffs, loose a link from the chains on his legs, squeeze his body through the chains and then with a nail broke the locks of five doors on the way to his escape. During his freedom he stole some money, bought a suit and hired a coach and following on with the theme of London theatricality, drove the coach right through the front gates of Newgate Prison. This time he was recaptured within two weeks and sentenced to be hanged within the week. Sheppherd had one more escape planned but the pocket knife with which he wished to cut his noose was found upon his body and on the 16th November 1724 he was finally executed. It's a fantastic story with so much intrigue and showmanship, would be a wonderful film, I'm sure Johnny Depp's available.

Now for the confession, I didn't like this book. Peter Ackroyd's pretension strikes you from the off with the title 'The Biography' as if stating its place as the definitive book on London which it certainly is not. There is so much that annoys me, first is that he is a popular historian but his sources are of other popular historians (I can't count the number of times that Jenny Uglow is quoted for instance), there is little evidence of any actual academic historiography in view and in fact the book feels like an aggregation of other people's work. Quite often he uses literature when he's seeking to make a point which also annoys, I'm quite happy with quotations from literature but if you're trying to make a point about a characteristic of London history or people then surely the connections are better made with actual people or events? And speaking of events, some are so horribly glossed over (like the great plague) that you wonder how ever this book could be considered definitive. The interesting facts are too few and far between and the obscure points he makes could be made about any city and its relevance to London appear slim. I really did want to enjoy this book not least because it is about the city I live in and see about me every day but because I was going to be with it for 800 pages however Peter Ackroyd's pomp and arrogance were too much for me too overlook and I am confident that there are far better books on London history to be had out there.

To sum up, it's a bit disappointing.