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London: The Biography [Paperback]

Peter Ackroyd
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
RRP: 18.99
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Book Description

21 Aug 2001

Much of Peter Ackroyd's work has been concerned with the life and past of London but here, as a culmination, is his definitive account of the city. For him it is a living organism, with its own laws of growth and change, so London is a biography rather than a history. It differs from other histories, too, in the range and diversity of its contents. Ackroyd portrays London from the time of the Druids to the beginning of the twenty-first century, noting magnificence in both epochs, but this is not a simple chronological record. There are chapters on the history of silence and the history of light, the history of childhood and the history of suicide, the history of Cockney speech and the history of drink.

London is perhaps the most important study of the city ever written, and confirms Ackroyd's status as what one critic has called 'our age's greatest London imagination.'

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London: The Biography + London Under + Thames: Sacred River
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Product details

  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (21 Aug 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099422581
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099422587
  • Product Dimensions: 15.4 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,919 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Ackroyd is the author of biographies of Dickens, Blake and Thomas More and of the acclaimed non-fiction bestsellers London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River. Peter Ackroyd is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, biographer, poet and historian. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature's William Heinemann Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and the South Bank Prize for Literature. He holds a CBE for services to literature.

Product Description

Amazon Review

When the eminent novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd finished writing London: The Biography, he almost immediately had a heart attack, such was the effort of his 800-page work about the "human body" that is this most fascinating of cities. And not just any human body either, but "envisaged in the form of a young man with his arms outstretched in a gesture of liberation... it embodies the energy and exaltation of a city continually beating in great waves of progress and of confidence."

Probably there is no one better placed than Ackroyd--the author of mammoth lives of Dickens and Blake, and novels such as Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Lime House Golem which set singular characters against the backdrop of a city constantly shifting in time--to write such a rich, sinewy account of "Infinite London".

Ackroyd's London is no mere chronology. Its chapters take on such varied themes as drinking, sex, childhood, poverty, crime and punishment, sewage, food, pestilence and fire, immigration, maps, theatre and war. We learn that gin was "the demon of London for half a century", and that "it has been estimated that in the 1740s and 1750s there were 17,000 'gin-houses'." Fleet Street was an area known for its "violent delights" where "a 14-year-old boy, only 18 inches high, was to be seen in 1702 at a grocer's shop called the Eagle and Child by Shoe Lane." By the mid 19th century "London had become known as the greatest city on earth." By 1939 "one in five of the British population had become a Londoner."

Though London's chapters vary meaning that it can be dipped into at random, Ackroyd is employing a skilful and continuous theme throughout, which constantly links past and present--the similarities of children's games in Lambeth in 1910 and 1999; the obsession with time--"in 21st-century London time rushes forward and is everywhere apparent", while in 18th-century London the church clock of Newgate "regulated the times of hanging." Above all, he insists that the "dark secret life" of the metropolis is as relevant today as it was in perhaps its most appropriate period, Victorian London.

Again and again Ackroyd returns to the image of London as a living organism, hence his use of the word "biography" in the title. At once awed by and intimate with this "ubiquitous" city, he stresses that "it can be located nowhere in particular... its circumference is everywhere." –-Catherine Taylor


"It would be no exaggeration to say that Peter Ackroyd's 'biography' of our capital is the book about London. It contains a lifetime of reading and research-but this huge book is light and airy and playful-[He] leads us on a journey both historical and geographical, but also imaginative. Every street, alley and courtyard has a story, and Ackroyd brings it to life for us - marvellous" (A N Wilson Daily Mail)

"Nothing can quite match the huge strange echo chamber of life-stories, folktales, and urban myths conjured up in Peter Ackroyd's epic vision of his native city. Sparkling, witty scholarship is constantly transformed into smoky mystical street-history, with dark hypnotic meditations on fog, fire, sewage, suicide and civic resurrection" (Richard Holmes Daily Telegraph)

"Ackroyd is the most effortless guide. You wander by his side through the streets of the old city, savouring its bustle, colours and its smells, the stink of living. This is much more than history; it is a tapestry of inspiration and love. You will not find a better, more visionary book about a place we take for granted" (Observer)

"It's this decade's finest work of non-fiction" (Jude Rogers The Word)

"[London] may be several years old but it remains one of the leading narratives as he cleverly weaves through centuries of history to reveal to us the hundreds of different cities within a city" (Fiona Hamilton The Times)

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
105 of 108 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History as shifting perspective 19 Mar 2001
As a history of London, Ackroyd's shifting perspective of the Metropolis lays itself open to criticism from the professional historian. Instead of nailing the City down to a time-line, Ackroyd keeps his structure fluid, his perspective shifting in time and place like the City itself. Grouping his mass of material under headings as diverse as "weather", "murder", "children" etc. allows him to take us back and forth in time within the scope of each chapter. It is the ideal format for his portrait of London as a timeless entity, that encompasses past , present and future and displays each unceasingly. If you like your history caught on the wing, graphic and alive, then I can recommend this book. Peter Ackroyd is more poet than historian, but to capture the feel of a city and its people, to make you smell the medieval, victorian and restoration streets, the poet is the man for the job. He shows us the histories of the hooligan and the aristocrat, bank clerk and psychopath, all detailed with compassion and style. His facts are anecdotal and fascinating, the use of four-letter words down the centuries, where you could get a cheap dinner 300 years ago and who you were likely to meet. An academic history of London it isnt, as a tour of London its the best you'll get.
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60 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece 2 Sep 2001
By JonW
This is a wonderful book. A really compelling read, and full of fascinating information. It's not often that a 600+ page book can keep me turning the pages, reading it pretty much from cover to cover, but this one did.
Having read it, I now find that when I'm in London, I look at the city in a different way - Ackroyd sheds so much light on the city's history and character.
Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Everything one wants to know about the history of London, the reason of the existence of some names or habits, a detailed and introspective analysis of the city as if it were a living being, a vivid and real snapshot of past vices and common uses, a comprehensive fresco of the world's most beautiful and enthralling city. Take you time for an accurate and thorough reading, the book is about 800 pages, but once you are in it it gets difficult to put it down
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64 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Very Different Read 15 Oct 2000
When I first encountered this [book], my first thoughts were, "Why would anyone want to write, let alone read a book about a city, it's hardly rivetting is it, especially one as long as this!" Having been lent this [book] by a friend who I know has impeccible taste in book, and with a lot of persuation by him about good tis book was, I finally decided that I would give the few pages a whirl, and see how it went. About two hundred pages later, and steaming through it, I have to say I was hooked. This [book] was the most unusual, and yet fascinting book I think I have ever read. Through this [book] the history and development of London is charted. This is so well written that the city itself develops as something of a character, and I soon began to feel emotions towards it just as I would with a character in any other good novel. I must say, to achieve this with a landmark is quite a feat! I would recommend this book, as it really is a good read, however it does take some time to get through as it is an extremely long, albeit powerful [book]. All in all, a Capital [book]!
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A history lesson and funny little stories 21 April 2006
Don't be put of by the size of this book - it is full of fantastic information. Calling it the 'Biography' is right - it seems like Ackroyd holds some sort of dear love for the city. You might expect it to be a heavy going, scholarly chronicle, but this simply isn't the case. In between information and facts there are juicy (and often funny) little stories about people that lived in London. Little stories like court cases over stolen pigs, mad drinkers, priests, prophets, poets and people ran out of the town as it was believed they were cursed. Well worth reading if London has any impact in your life.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love it or hate it... 31 July 2007
Whether you love London or hate London, you have to admit that it has been a world-important city for centuries, perhaps millenia. Living in the place it is very easy to actually love and hate it at the same time. The detailed and well-researched book by Peter Ackroyd decribes the highs and lows of London from pre-history to 2000. The writer's strong and accessible style brings the city to life to the extent that one can almost hear it and smell it. Only one very minor quibble about people moving to the United States after the Great Fire - over a century before there was a United States - calling it the American Colonies would have been better. But that should not detract from Ackroyd's description of a city that was almost a country within a country for much of its history, and in some ways perhaps still is.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History as Literature 5 Jan 2001
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
One of the best books I've read all year. I've read and enjoyed most of Ackroyd's fiction and this comprehensive history of London makes every bit as intriguing and absorbing a read as the novels. Arranged in sections according to theme rather than chronologically, it's a marvellous book to dip into - or to read from cover to cover. Ackroyd treats the city like a living entity; by no means benign, often aggressive, and almost as old as mankind itself. Unmissable.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every true Londoner should read this book. 27 Aug 2004
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have not read anything so engrossing in a long time. To those people that gave the book one star, you were probably impatient and expecting too much drama. The chronological history of London has been written and re-written many times, Ackroyd did not need to repeat what has already been done. His approach is different, it deals with themes such as homelessness, drinking, rivers, theatre etc. And in each section I learnt something new. And the great thing is that many of the streets and buildings are still standing. And it is the little things that amazed me. An example is the rivers that have been buried under the city - or the Westbourne river whose course can be seen in a pipe at Sloane square tube station! Bravo Peter Ackroyd!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
I am learning so much about London. My lecturer recommended it and I am happy to read it. Very very pleased
Published 5 months ago by Alexandra Mantikou
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb book
This book is superb, fascinating history and can be used to look up randomly all sorts of facts and information, it is a good dipping in and out of book
Published 8 months ago by Wendy Ann
5.0 out of 5 stars London The Biography by Peter Ackoyd
haven t completed reading this book yet but its a book i knew i would enjoy reading having been born in the east end of London and always wanted to learn its history also in the... Read more
Published 8 months ago by irene kent
3.0 out of 5 stars A over-long ramble
Unfortunately, the author had a set of facts, relevant or not, and he was going to include them, no matter what. Read more
Published 9 months ago by IanN
5.0 out of 5 stars Great reading
This a a great book for young and old alike. So much information,love it. Would recommend to anyone interested in the history of London :)
Published 10 months ago by dosierosie
5.0 out of 5 stars London through the Ages
Peter Ackroyd's book is historically and thematically based. He brings the whole story of London's rich heritage alive. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Rev. T. J. Carter
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book
Good copy at a modest price. As ever, his work is wide ranging - a book one dips into frequently, rather than reading it through.
Published 16 months ago by Mr L C Hughes
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull with no sequence
Firstly let me say I do prefer a history or biography to be in chronological order. Mr Ackroyd did not persuade me differently with this tome. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Gary Selikow
1.0 out of 5 stars A sprawling mess
Had tried The Thames by Ackroyd years ago but did not get far. That was a while ago. Tried London: the biography this week and felt the same. Read more
Published on 28 Mar 2012 by dbass51
5.0 out of 5 stars easy reading
I took this book with me on holiday and all who saw me reading such a big book must have thought me real clever. Read more
Published on 30 Jan 2012 by Mr. I. V. Collett
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