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on 19 March 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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on 2 September 2001
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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on 15 October 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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on 21 February 2002
This is a very disappointing book which must have got its good press reviews thru Peter A.'s standing and friends. Peter Inwood's A History of London dominates this book, as it contains everything The Biography does and more besides, and in my opinion is better written. An example: Ackroyd has a special section on political violence in Clerkenwell (one of his weird special qualities of places ideas) but he doesn't mention the Fenian bomb of 1867 at all. Likewise he doesn't tell us anything much about the Gordon riots, the Jacobite panics, or trade unions in London, or heavy industry, or anything very much at all. Inwood (no connection, I assure you!)is just so much better, but only got a fraction of the press attention.
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on 23 September 2011
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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VINE VOICEon 5 January 2001
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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on 12 March 2001
The definitive 'biography' of London is Michael Moorcock's great novel MOTHER LONDON, which Ackroyd praises, but I have liked pretty much all Ackroyd's other books and enjoyed this, as the other biographies, as a kind of metafiction. Ackroyd is a better novelist and a worse biographer than we give him credit for. Like Sinclair, with whom he's also compared, he takes the stuff of real life and gives it an extra mythological twist. His characters are, indeed, often larger than life. Sometimes London seems, in his hands, larger than life, too. He doesn't seem to be able to help himself invent London as it should be, any more than Sinclair. This book does have errors and omissions and can be a bit irritating in its presumptions (it's wrong on some details, very accurate on others) as long as it isn't taken as an academic book or responded to as attempted gospel truth but read as fiction, it's a wonderful bit of background for Ackroyd's other quasi-fictions about Dickens, Blake and Co. It's a tribute to his talent, I think, that we are often wholly convinced by his wonderful versions of these characters. Ackroyd should be relished not so much as a scholar (there are actually better London 'biographies' as a quick look at the topographical section of most London bookshops shows) but as a visionary, creative critic, a bit like Ruskin at his best!
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on 25 July 2002
This splendid book is one to which you will refer time and time again. It is written in an easy style so you do not have to be an historian or committed student of the subject to understand it.
It really brings London to life. You feel that you are actually walking the streets of the different periods and can smell the perspiration and bad breath, the stinking cabbages and the dung heaps with the horrendous noise and din ringing in your ears. Your mouth can water or otherwise at the food that was eaten and you can realise that "fast food" is not just a thing of today. From theatres, to criminals, from prostitutes to Street names, from buildings to sewarage, from Prisons to paupers, there is little that this book does not cover.
Do not be put off by its size. Each chapter can stand alone and you can pick it up and put it down whenever you wish, learning a little more each time.
Maybe there are books more scholarly but for those wishing much deeper material there is a comprehensive list of sources which can be investigated.
This is a book for the all people and not just academics. Shame on those who only gave it one star. I thought I knew quite a lot about London but I have learned a good deal from this wonderful book. It is entertaining, often very amusing (see the chapter on Clubbing) and a thoroughly good read.
Cheap at the price I highly recommend it and congratulate Peter Ackroyd on what has obviously been a labour of love.
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on 28 March 2012
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. A collection of factoids (seemingly all taken from older encyclopedias of London and other books). Once collected in chapters under themes (Gambling, weather, natural history)the chapters receive a short pithy summation: City life is a gamble, London's nature is urbanised, weather defines the city or some such insight and then move on to another topic. A mystery as to why this book was so lauded with praise.

Far, far better is the late Roy Porter's London: a social history . A structured march through the City's development with insight, wit and conviction. All the things lacking in Ackroyd's book.
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on 31 August 2006
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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