Into the labyrinth. Peter Ackroyd's new book on London renders all others on the subject redundant. Will Self reads a contemporary masterpiece
London: the biography
Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus, 822pp, £25
In a decade that has seen two large and structurally sound pillars erected in the ever-expanding historiographic monument of London - Roy Porter's London: a social history and Stephen Inwood's A History of London - comes Peter Ackroyd's sublime capstone. Porter's work conceived of the city in terms of its inhabitants' quotidian lives, social mores, political organisations and their religious turmoils. Inwood's looked to the city as an entrepot of the Hegelian world spirit, detailing the personages and events that have enmeshed London, both with its own past and that of other political realities. But Ackroyd has encountered the great modern Babylon face to face. He has bearded it and felt the heft of its mighty agglomeration of masonry, metal, wood and earth. He has discoursed with its teeming inhabitants in all ages and all states of being; he has wrestled with its tortuous thoroughfares and contorted byways; he has smelt its moods and partaken of its strange delusions; he has stared into the basilisk eyes of the metropolis and wrested from it an account of its entire life, from conception, to this: the latest instantiation of its triumphal brazening. Truly, he has written London's biography.
Reading both Porter and Inwood, one felt the lack of a book, the absence of a text that, like debris filling in the walls of an old London building, could bulk out the city, give it form and substance, bring it to life, not in the way that a mere account of its people's mores would, but in the way that some Frankensteinian machine might vivify an assemblage of body parts, rendering them both mobile and sentient. These earlier accounts of millennial London were like Jaws without the shark - Ackroyd has given us the shark.
To write this book we needed a visionary; we needed a writer who combined an encyclopaedic erudition and an effortless ability to progress a narrative, with a hypertrophic level of identification with his subject. In Ackroyd, we have this. He is our contemporary Dr Dee, effecting cohobation from the dross and vapours of the urban scape to produce this golden vision; and he is, like his biographical subjects Blake and Dickens, the quintessential London walker-as-writer. He burnishes the rest of us by association - it is a privilege to be describing the same things as he is, in the same era.
I may be taken to task for this - although, I warrant, only by non-Cockneys - but we also needed a native Londoner for this labour, we needed someone who feels the city to be both constituent of all that he is, as much as he feels himself to be part of it. I dare say others will look at Ackroyd's London in terms of the writer's own biography, but to do so would, in my view, be a poor species of reductio-psycho-absurdum. Rather, let us celebrate the intensity of his indentured identification, and allow him to disappear into the hubbub and the brickwork, the clatter and the patter of the city he has so splendidly memorialised. In more than 800 pages, the author only pokes his "I" above the narrative parapet twice, once to recollect how much tranquillity he gained as a boy from sitting by the fountain in the gardens of the Middle Temple, and once, at the very end, to encompass all times and modes of London into a single purview. This subtle economy of affect left me weeping.
Such a mystical approach to the life and times of a city will not be to everyone's taste. Ackroyd unabashedly proclaims London to be not merely an organism - but a person; an individual who is "half of stone, half of flesh". He rejects any conventional narrative of London as being an attempt to subdue the multifarious forms of time found in the city to one, crude, linear progression.
So, instead of detailing events chronologically, or describing the area of the city from a fixed orientation, Ackroyd has approached his subject using a species of literary circumambulation. He begins at the beginning of each aspect of the city's being - its criminality and laws, its violence and debauchery, its smells and lighting, its music and noise - and takes us down into the streets to wander about in his train, accruing his observations alongside him. Thus he will stroll from past to future, while never losing the particular fugue he has embarked upon. Yet, with each compass he undertakes, he strays further, in time and space, until he has achieved a prodigious kind of inclusiveness.
It is always notable in a work of great length and intense perspicacity that a writer will use and reuse one or two words that sum up the mood of the piece - in Austen's Emma the word is "approbation", in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov it is "ecstasy". For Ackroyd, the words that best express London are "mer- cantile", "pagan" and "curious". Reading him, you cannot help but feel that, like Thomas de Quincey, another seer of the Great Wen whom he quotes with approval, Ackroyd has also experienced the city as "a vast magnetic range", imparting a "suction so powerful, felt along radii so vast, and a consciousness, at the same time, that upon other radii, still more vast, both by land and sea, the same suction is operating". All roads not only lead, they compel towards the city.
Ackroyd sees the stone half of London as its body, the fleshy half as its ego, and its soul as something altogether stranger. He writes at length on all the ways that Cockneys have earned a crust, from the booths of Cheapside to the "big bang" of the Stock Exchange. He submerges himself in the offal commerce of Smithfield and the tatter medallion on offer in Petticoat Lane. Understanding that the city's raison d'etre is trade - and trade alone - Ackroyd is unfazed by civic hypocrisies and public vices. He urges us, again and again, to remember that London is ungovernable and unmanageable; it is red, it is raging, it is drunken, it is unforgiving.
For Ackroyd, each core district or neighbourhood, whether corresponding to an ancient ward, a parish without the walls, or a more recent suburban enclave, is possessed of its own inalienable character - and, by extension, its own destiny. He begins his case by examining the history of the ancient St Giles parish (roughly compassed in the present by New Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and St Martin's Lane), and advancing the view that this place is always fated to be debauched and deluded, inhabited by the sedulous and the credulous. He centres the magical preoccupation on Seven Dials, and the micturating one on the slums to the north. Even if the "front line" for street-dealt hard drugs had not always run (following Eros's hypodermic arrow) up Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road to where, at present, it quivers in Centrepoint, Ackroyd's thesis would still have a fearful resonance.
As it is, that he can convey his sense of this district's intrinsic mood without recourse to any such modern ephemera tells you how queerly objective the intimacy he enjoys with London really is. Ackroyd writes of the idealised perspective that so many painters of London's panorama have adopted - as if they were poised in mid-air some hundreds of feet above the spire of Southwark Cathedral; and yet he himself occupies a similarly vertiginous and queasy relationship with his subject, at one and the same time its possessive lover and its jealous cuckold. He may not have written the biography of "my" London, but his book is an exhortation for all of us to know the city that we inhabit, to understand the way it operates on our psyches. And it is the antithesis of all the estate-agent twaddle that reduces London - with arrant spuriousness - to a collection of villages. By making of the metropolis an entity, he explains why we feel so corpuscular when we course through its arteries, and so like social insects when we labour in its mines of pelf, and so like historical figures ourselves when we walk upon its stages.
And what else is in Ackroyd's "London" besides? Why, everything: this is a city without circumference, illimitable and unknowable. And he tells us of all the curiosities, in this most curious of cities, from the 18th-century foundlings of Covent Garden given the surname "Piazza", to Henry Moore wandering the Tube stations during the Blitz, and noting: "I had never seen so many reclining figures." On every page there is another anecdotal nugget to be panned from the printed stream - or five, or ten.
To review Ackroyd's London in any conventional way would be to do this book a great disservice. If it isn't truly as compendious as that which it describes, it at least manages that very theatrical London feat of seeming to be so. I began rereading it as soon as I finished, and I urge you to read it as soon as possible, so that you can begin rereading it as well.
Will Self reviews regularly for the NS's books pages