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London: The Biography
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118 of 121 people found the following review helpful
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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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63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
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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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 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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64 of 74 people found the following review helpful
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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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 27 August 2004
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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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 January 2012
I took this book with me on holiday and all who saw me reading such a big book must have thought me real clever. This was not so, the subject was so fasinating and the writing so well put together it was easy reading. I could not put the book down and despite it's size I finished it in a week. I left it as a gift with a proud Londoner when I came home. Strongly recomended to any reader who likes history made interesting.
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
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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