on 28 January 2011
My dad bought my mum this for her birthday (that's love eh!) and when I landed a new job in London, what better to occupy my commute than London and it's dead!
The book is essentially interesting, factual and engrossing. But the chapters are more than a little hit and miss and with no contextual focus.
I found there to be a brief skipping over of Roman burials and aspects of death that really left me feeling, is that it!? It felt more like a 'prologue' than any real look into Roman deaths and burials... Then skipping quickly on to the plague...
I enjoyed the chapters on medieval London, on the pestilence, suffering, and horrific conditions people lived and died in during the plague years. I found there to be a few facts I would disagree with but it didn't matter as I was genuinely compelled by what I was reading.
Coming from a clergy family, I was particularly interested in the role of the clergy during the plague and was left feeling a little lost by the lack of real investigation into the clergy during this time. A few grisley annecdotes about rebellious rectors didn't really suffice.
There was one thing that really annoyed me, and perhaps it's just me, but the constant referring to Christopher Marlow as 'Kit' and the lack of substance written about him. Upon seeing his name mentioned I thought I was in for more than skipping over his name and the inaccurate mention of the Deptford bar-fight?! There was a chance to really expand on death and conspiracy and indeed speculate upon similar instances.
This 'flitting' carries through the whole book with Arnold going off on tangents which aren't really anything to do with London, and don't add anything to the context, as well as skipping whole periods of history. I think the reader was owed more than a brief mention of the great fire of London (or did I miss that bit?).
For the ammount of time Arnold spent narrating death in the Victorian era, I would have thought we were maybe due a little more time on the great war, or the Roman Empire in Londinium, instead of giving us classroom information on the Victorians.
Now just to be pedantic, yews were not planted to make bows from, they were originally planted as part of a pagan belief, and more practically to keep livestock away from burial sites. Yew is poisonus to horses amongst other animals, and thus was used to keep animals away from graves.
If the publishers/editors should have been a little stricter in general, this may have been a truely brilliant book. In reality it was nicely occupying, despite lack of focus.
on 20 May 2006
London and its dead covers the period from Roman times to date, with emphasis on the periods of the Black Death, the Victorian era and the Second World War. Very well written, and the macabra nature of the subject matter is treated sensitively. It is informative and amusing by turn, detailing some of the grisly aspects of death, various cemetery related scandals and lots of good hard factual information. If you have an interest in cemeteries or in London as a city this is a must read book. My only quibble is that there were very few illustrations, and those chosen were not good. Other than that, it's excellent!
on 25 July 2007
Necropolis: London and its Dead is a fascinating study of London's status as centuries-old burial ground, and how the city's relationship to death and its dead has played a pivotal role in its history. It begins with the Neolithic tribal settlements in the area which became the capital, moving onto Roman ritual and burial and then,in the post-Pagan centuries, the vast differences in the treatment of death via Christian belief. Medieval death, plague and the notion of ars moriendi (the art of dying well) are explored, as is the Great Fire of 1665, the population boom of the following two centuries. The crystalisation of Victorian attitudes to grief and mourning naturally take up a great deal of the book, as do the completions of the vast (then) out-of-town cemeteries such as Kensall Green and of course Highgate, after the massive scandals of the Resurrection-Men, mass burials, cholera and the public health horrors of the mid-1800s. Moving on from the nineteenth century, Arnold argues that the intricate and established cult of grief long-held in Victorian London necessarily had to alter after the mass deaths of WWI made intimate mourning and, indeed, graveside reveries, impossible and contrived in the face of rapidly advancing, agnostic modernity.
The amount of material covered in this slim paperback edition is quite staggering, but Arnold makes easy work of the vast subject matter and manages to convey a neat narrative progression throughout. She has an obvious relish for the macabre, but never falls into either of the standard-issue pitfalls when dealing with the subject of death: she neither becomes overly hammy and lighthearted, nor does she descend into the sober depths of elegy. At all times she is even-handed, engaging, critical and honest.
The Victorian period is allotted a considerable amount of space and this book would be of great interest to those interested in Victoriana. Far from revealing an especial prejudice on the part of the author, however, this merely reflects the fact that it was during the nineteenth century that the subject of death was critical from a social, cultural, political and health point of view. Proof that we take many things for granted nowadays, Arnold retells the horrors of Victorian burial: the foul, crammed churchyards, the thefts of bodies, the mass graves where decomposition was often aided with quick-lime and bodies were made to fit their 'snug' abodes via dismemberment, or unscrupulous undertakers jumping up and down upon the corpses...facts both intriguing and harrowing illuminate this book throughout. The Victorian industry of death is also examined: the importance of mourning fashion, of status, of monuments and propriety.
Fascinating throughout, I would recommend this book to anyone with even the mildest curiousity about the subject matter. It is thorough and never exploitative. You will finish reading it, as I did, and feel absolutely certain that London has a unique and sometimes ghastly relationship with its dead. To finish: did you know that part of the London Underground near Kensington veers away from its usual straight course due to the impossibility of drilling through a mass grave of plague dead on that site?...
I did some courses at University on death and mourning rituals and they were fascinating. When I lived in London I also used to spend a fair amount of time visiting Highgate cemetery, also fascinating. Coming across this book seemed like a blessing, dealing with and adding knowledge to areas of interest.
Sadly, I think I know too much. The issue with this book is that it is 'death lite'. I think that it's great as an introduction to the subject, but if you already know things, it's not going to take you any further forward. There is already an excellent paperback book available on underground London the name of which escapes me, but which covers much of the ground Arnold goes over here. The section on Highgate is no more than you would get if you went on one of the excellent tours held by The Friends of Highgate Cemetery. I was most disappointed here, as I was really hoping for something new, rather than the highlights.
I also think the section on Diana is gratuitious and this is going to sound ironic for a book about death, but rather tasteless. Again, nothing you wouldn't know if you had followed the story with any interest at the time, and it strikes me as something the marketing department thought might be good to sell books rather than something Arnold herself had more than a passing interest in.
The bones, ha ha, are here. It just needs fleshing out. This would have been a much more satisfactory book if it had been better researched and about twice as long. As it is, it's just a coffee table book or something you can chat about to Londoners at a dinner party other than the housing market.
on 30 April 2013
The first half of this book is a suitably ghoulish, fascinating and quite disgusting history of London and its problem of what to do with too many bodies and not enough graveyards.
Unfortunately, the author cannot maintain the early pace, and the middle of the book slows to a crawl, with long and frankly not very interesting descriptions of the establishment of the large modern graveyards - material that is perhaps more suited to an academic work, and less so to a popular paperback.
If you can wade through the middle, the last third picks up a bit, and there are some interesting sections, but nothing that can rival the revolting sections on plague and pestilence, over-flowing graveyards and rotting corpses etc.
on 30 July 2014
On a recent visit to London I saw ‘Necropolis’ on a table on the pavement outside a discount bookshop. I immediately bought it: a writer myself and having written about Paris’s cemeteries (like Père Lachaise) I began reading the book on the Eurostar returning to my home in Paris and on arrival at Gare du Nord station I realised that I had not once lifted my eyes from the book to have looked out the window! The book is *that* fascinating.
There is criticism in the reviews that Author Arnold has some details wrong and also that she wanders off to cemeteries in other countries. Not knowing London cemeteries as I know those of Paris, I was not able to spot the incorrect details (I am sure there are only a few), but the story of London and its dead is such a fascinating one, that I cannot find fault with it.
Author Arnold takes the reader through the streets of London during plagues, pandemics, the two world wars and finally to the day of Princess Diana’s funeral. Personally, I would not have included the Princess’s death, but what Arnold wrote does show how death and mourning have changed over the centuries.
I am going to briefly quote from ‘Necropolis’ (I hope that Catherine Arnold won’t mind) but I want to show potential buyers what they will find in this book.
This is what Author Arnold writes about Horatio Nelson’s death: Elaborate funerals were part of the rich panoply of nineteenth-century life. Horatio Nelson set the standard after he was mortally wounded by a sniper at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson’s body was pickled in brandy, which was replaced with wine in Gibraltar, and brought back to England, amid macabre speculation that the Admiral’s crew had drunk the embalming brandy in transit…
In this book you will discover why black is the colour of mourning, why we eat and drink after a funeral, why we bury in wooden coffins, why some religions forbid the cremation of a body, and so on and so on.
You may say, "not my cup of tea" but I can assure you that the book is by no means depressing or frightening. On the contrary it is very informative.
I am now going to buy Catherine Arnold’s other books because I am certain that they will be as informative and fascinating as this one.
on 14 January 2013
This is a pleasant enough read - though it does ramble and jump about a bit sometimes, but my concern is factual accuracy. I found from time to time I was reading something I knew about - and what I was reading was not factually accurate. So what of the rest of the book - are they real facts, or are they just made up too?
"Fawkes's confederates gathered on Highgate Hill to witness [the blowing up of Parliament]". Really? Can we have a source please? Because many people like to think it was Parliament Hill, and there is scant evidence for either.
"Ring o' ring o' roses ... refers to the Great Plague" Not very likely - do some research. The rhyme has virtually nothing in common with the actual symptoms and this "explanation" of the supposed origin doesn't appear anywhere until well into the 20th century.
"In fact, the tunnel [of the Piccadilly line] curves between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations because it was impossible to drill [sic] through the mass of skeletal remains buried in Hyde Park" This "fact" appears in the introduction. Later on in the book the location moves from Hyde Park to "where Brompton Road and Kensington Road meet" (they don't meet according to all my street atlases) and the "fact" is now demoted to "This is said to account for the curving nature of the track"
Yet this is not something mentioned in histories of the Underground, and the actual fact that the curvature of the line can be seen to be following the line of the streets as much as possible is not mentioned (all the early tube railways were built so far as was possible under the roads as this was cheaper than paying property owners to tunnel under their premises and sharp bends occur elsewhere for this reason. The plague pit that is supposed to have caused this would have had to be over 30 ft deep to affect the Piccadilly here yet this remarkable feat of civil engineering isn't touched on.
I have laboured the point somewhat - but it is worth labouring - a simple fact is that "facts" in the book demonstrably are not facts, which casts doubt on the other "facts". How many are just made-up unchecked heresay?
on 6 November 2008
This could have been a very good book indeed. after all, death and its accompaniments are endlessly fascinating and a cultural history of death in the world's most vibrant and interesting city could be a particularly good read. unfortunately, this whistle-stop tour of several millenia of the disposal of London's dead (with a prolonged halt in the Victorian period and an unnecessary diversion to Princess Diana's death and funeral) just doesn't come up to expectations.
Catherine Arnold is very good at the Victorians, their organised and dignified cemeteries a response to the unspeakably revolting conditions of burial grounds in the early nineteenth century. She covers Victorian burial and mourning culture extremely well. However the remainder of the book covers simply too much ground in too little detail with too many irrelevancies (from ghost stories from the Tower of London to yet another rehash of the extraordinary events around the death and funeral of Princess Diana). And around the irrelevancies are too many generalisations, misleading statements and errors. to take just three examples - plague is not due to a virus; the place where Christopher Marlowe was murdered was not an inn; overall life expectancy was short in previous centuries because of massive infant and child mortality - in fact if you survived childhood your chances of achieving a respectable age were actually quite reasonable.
Perhaps most disappointing of all, the book could have been so much better just with decent map/s and a gazetter of important London cemeteries (location, how to get there, main features, interesting sights, who is buried therein). And the few illustrations are generally of poor quality.
So, worth reading for the chapters on Victoriana, skim the rest.
on 20 July 2011
I would rccomend this book to people who know just a little and would like to know more. There is much it doesn't cover but as an introduction it is very well rounded.
I will be seeking out some of the books and websites listed at the back.
I did feel though that the underground and its diverted routes were worth more attention. However the book would have been too long to include everything.
It opens up areas of interest. I will be looking more into books about over subscribed victorian graveards and the plague in general and now apparently the history of the underground.
Light and entertaining: a good introduction.
By the way I am decided most definately now on cremation!!!!!!!!
on 29 March 2010
After touring Highgate Cemetery I was interested in London Victorian Cemeteries. This book seemed (and was) a good introduction to burial rituals of London. My only issue with the book, is that it appears to have very poor editing. It almost feels like watching a US sitcom on DVD. When it gets to where the commercial break is, they stop and then retread the previous 30 seconds. Saying that, Well worth a read for more info on the Cemeteries in the London Area