Saturday, June 30, 2012

London Under - Peter Ackroyd

London Under by Peter Ackroyd
London Under
Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese
Copyright: November 2011
978-0385531504

The amazon.com product description:
London Under is a wonderful, atmospheric, imagina­tive, oozing short study of everything that goes on under London, from original springs and streams and Roman amphitheaters to Victorian sewers, gang hideouts, and modern tube stations. The depths below are hot, warmer than the surface, and this book tunnels down through the geological layers, meeting the creatures, real and fictional, that dwell in darkness—rats and eels, mon­sters and ghosts. When the Underground’s Metropolitan Line was opened in 1864, the guards asked for permission to grow beards to protect themselves against the sulfurous fumes, and named their engines after tyrants—Czar, Kaiser, Mogul—and even Pluto, god of the underworld.

To go under London is to penetrate history, to enter a hid­den world. As Ackroyd puts it, “The vastness of the space, a second earth, elicits sensations of wonder and of terror. It partakes of myth and dream in equal measure.”
Ever thought that there was a world beneath the London we see today? Hidden, but just as alive and busy? No, I'm not describing another fantasy novel here, it's the world that Peter Ackroyd delves into in the book London Under.

For a fairly short book (240 pages), he covers a lot too. The book starts with the geology of London, some of the noted prehistoric finds and goes forward through time until the present. At the same time, he narrows in on specific aspects of London's underground history such as the various rivers and canals that have been covered over through the years.

Much of the book covers the medieval era to the present, although there are mentions of some of the prehistoric and Roman era discoveries that were made during the building of the sewers and the Underground (Tube) tunnels.

After the rivers, Ackroyd looks at the various sewer tunnels that were built during the middle ages to the eighteenth centuries and the effects they had on London, followed by the earliest versions of underground transport right up to the modern-day Underground system.

I'd be willing to bet that this book goes extremely well with Ackroyd's other book London: The Biography, which leads into my main complaint about London Under: the lack of maps. This book seems to be assuming that the reader is fairly familiar with London and it's geography. I for one am not, although I have visited a couple of times. Therefore, I found it rather hard to visualize the streets and intersections as Ackroyd mentions and follows them through the pages.

In spite of that, this is a book I have to recommend. It's fascinating, hard to put down and makes for a very different view of London and the history of that fine city. It also made me wish I could see some of the sights that the author mentions, such as the abandoned Underground stations where the posters are still on the walls, and have been since the early 1900's. The whole thing is written in a way that captures the imagination. I could see writers being inspired by reading London Under and setting up whole civilizations using what Peter Ackroyd set out.

That's something else that he focused on in this book. Peoples's views and stereotypes about the underground and tunnels as well as the people who used them and lived in them, as was the case for some people. It's interesting, the way it all ties into ideas about things like underground movements, religion, and class.

Overall, London Under is a book that definitely peaked my curiosity about London, it's history, present and future. I just wish there is a way I could see some of the things he described - most of it is closed off for various reasons, and of course, I live far too far away to get there. Definitely worth the read - and a fairly quick read too. Might be worth reading before the London Olympics to get a different view of the city.
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