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London: The Biography [Hardcover]

Peter Ackroyd
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Oct 2000
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 an organism with its own laws of growth and change, so this book is a biography rather than a history. Ackroyd reveals the dozens of ways in which the continuity of the city survives - in ward boundaries unchanged since the Middle Ages, in vocabulary and in various traditions - showing London as constantly changing, yet forever the same in essence.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 824 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus; First edition edition (5 Oct 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1856197166
  • ISBN-13: 978-1856197168
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.2 x 5.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 58,227 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, 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 fourteen-year-old boy, only eighteen 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 the variousness of London's chapters mean 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 twenty-first 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


"Fizzles with vitality and originality" -- "Sunday Times"
"Marvellous - "the" book about London." -- "Daily Mail"
"Peter Ackroyd was born to write the biography of London...A brilliant book." -- "Sunday Telegraph"

"From the Trade Paperback edition."

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
108 of 111 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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7 of 8 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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11 of 13 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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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars re Ackroyd 31 Aug 2006
By Daniel
Those who have expressed the strongest criticism of this work are, I suspect, historians (particularly social historians) or, if they are 'literary' readers, they read from a perspective influenced by social theory and cultural studies. The latter is a common mode of reading in current academic circles; one that Ackroyd is well known to dislike, so it is unsurprising that they do not care for his work. Anyone seeking to understand Ackroyd's views as a literary critic should try his 'Notes For a New Culture' and this might help those who are confused or disappointed by his style and method. Actually I am surprised that so many people are arguing about this work as a 'history' - it is not a history but a piece of literature, as its title self-consciously suggests, and if one follows Ackroyd's belief then there need be no relation between the two types of text - for him they operate in entirely separate spheres.

Ackroyd subtitled 'Albion' as 'The Origins of the English Imagination,' and he is likewise here concerned with the London imagination - and imagination is neither reality nor the concern of social realists.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A book for the Londonphile
This book is very interesting and informative. Lots of historical detail which would take years to walk around and investigate.
Published 6 days ago by J. M. Maden
4.0 out of 5 stars Great to dip in and out of
Great to dip in and out of. Dazzling cornucopia. But you wouldn't want to have to carry it too far. Kindle edition would be more convenient but this is a book you want to jump... Read more
Published 10 days ago by Chuck E
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Published 19 days ago by Paul McGeoch
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
a great present
Published 23 days ago by Larryf
3.0 out of 5 stars but did not enjoy it as much as I though I would
I was looking forward to this, but did not enjoy it as much as I though I would. A little too brief on each chapter.
Published 25 days ago by S
1.0 out of 5 stars I was disappointed. Anyone wishing for a truly informative history of...
I really find it difficult to see why this book has attracted such accolades. It is short on facts and nothing more than a long winded diatribe of anecdotes, second hand quotes and... Read more
Published 1 month ago by gillingham
5.0 out of 5 stars Warning to general readers this is a meaty tome at over 900 pages - I...
Phenomenal piece of scholarship. This is THE comprehensive book on London. Staggering amount of information and fabulous hidden tales and histories from the London we think we... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Donald Polson
3.0 out of 5 stars second hand copy
The book was supposed to be in good condition but in fact it was badly water damaged which was disappointing.
Published 4 months ago by wpb
5.0 out of 5 stars London: The Biography
I think, that I bought an excellent book, that I expected to be in advance. I bought a lot of books, many of them of different topics,
so I cannot Review all of them within a... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Karl-Heinz Loeffler
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 11 months ago by Alexandra Mantikou
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