Am eking out the Xmas period still, down in the Ashdown Forest and almost at the end of all 800 pages of the magisterial London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s part pure pleasure, part also of the mulling around the novel I’ve been working on for almost a year now about the city (55,000 words so far, slow bugger that I am).
Ackroyd is one of those writers whose absence would severely diminish our cultural landscape: he is unique, extraordinary, flawed, limitless in his ambition, vulnerable, a joy to read. London is not set out as a history but as an attempt to write the biography of this character, London, whom we all struggle to identify. Ackroyd is not so foolish as to think he can nail it but he has such fun in getting as close as anyone might.
The book is packed with remarkable people: the defrocked ecclesiastic who stalked the streets of Shoreditch and drugged young women of wealth to marry them off to ne’er-do-wells, who went under the name of The Bishop Of Hell; the fraudulent bailiffs whose punishment was to be led through the city towards the stocks with a turd in their mouths; the pitiful children who were enslaved to chimney sweeps who were never washed but who once a year were allowed to dress up and dance in the streets.
This is a London more fantastic than any fiction and should remind us to treasure those rare talents like Ackroyd (from whom the critics inevitably tend to keep their frigid distance) who remind us what it is to be alive and living in the metropolis.