Book Review – London: A Biography


This review is a long time in the making. I started reading London: A Biography almost a year ago. I think it took me so long because it’s over 900 pages long and as one of the definitive histories of London, it can be rather dense. Peter Ackroyd (or his editors) made a really good decision by making each chapter a manageable length and just enough to read before bed. Reading a chapter before bed of a 900 page book meant that it takes ages to finish.

London: A Biography has been called a definitive history of London and I think that’s a fair description. In both scope and time periods covered, I don’t know of too many other books written on London or anything else  that attempt such a range. It covers London from prehistory to very near the present day. (London without the Shard already feels dated.) It also fairly comprehensively discusses both ‘high’ historical concepts as well as the social history of the city. It is very much a popular history book though and the emphasis is very much on entertainment.

Sometimes when an author attempts to cover too much, the results can be very simplistic with sweeping generalisations that are desperately trying to create a narrative out of what is essentially a list of facts written into prose. The length of this book renders that a general impossibility, however Akroyd does have an agenda and his own generalisation about London. He emphasises the continuity of London ranging from dubious claims of the same social activity perpetually occurring in certain geographical locations to short histories of the building activity on a certain modern footprint (like St. Pauls Cathedral).

The social history of the book is very much written from a privileged position. There is a token chapter on women and children and one on the east and the south of the city. These chapters felt awkward and the topics worked better when included in the main body of the text (to which an attempt was made). Ackroyd also at points seems to justify the timeless nature of the homeless in London as inevitable and just the price to pay for progress. London seems to romaticise and condone the inhuman way Londoners treat each other, that is to say ignoring them. It seems to collectively clear the conscious of London and absolve Londoners of any responsibility towards their fellow citizens.

For a popular history book, I think London: A Biography straddles general appeal and good history very well. There are shortfalls, but I think it’s worth the investment of time to read. It aims to entertain and generally achieves this. Who knows, you might just learn something too!

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