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London: The Biography: A Biography [Englisch] [Gebundene Ausgabe]

Peter Ackroyd
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When the eminent novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd finished writing London: The Biography, he almost immediately had a heart attack, such was the effort of his 800-page work about the "human body" that is this most fascinating of cities. And not just any human body either, but "envisaged in the form of a young man with his arms outstretched in a gesture of liberation ... it embodies the energy and exaltation of a city continually beating in great waves of progress and of confidence". Probably there is no one better placed than Ackroyd--the author of mammoth lives of Dickens and Blake, and novels such as Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Lime House Golem which set singular characters against the backdrop of a city constantly shifting in time--to write such a rich, sinewy account of "Infinite London". Ackroyd's London is no mere chronology. Its chapters take on such varied themes as drinking, sex, childhood, poverty, crime and punishment, sewage, food, pestilence and fire, immigration, maps, theatre, war. We learn that gin was "the demon of London for half a century", and that "it has been estimated that in the 1740s and 1750s there were 17,000 'gin-houses'". Fleet Street was an area known for its "violent delights" where "a fourteen-year-old boy, only eighteen inches high, was to be seen in 1702 at a grocer's shop called the Eagle and Child by Shoe Lane". By the mid 19th-century "London had become known as the greatest city on earth". By 1939 "one in five of the British population had become a Londoner".

Though the variousness of London's chapters mean that it can be dipped into at random, Ackroyd is employing a skilful and continuous theme throughout, which constantly links past and present--the similarities of children's games in Lambeth in 1910 and 1999; the obsession with time--"in twenty-first century London time rushes forward and is everywhere apparent", while in 18th-century London the church clock of Newgate "regulated the times of hanging". Above all, he insists that the "dark secret life" of the metropolis is as relevant today as it was in perhaps its most appropriate period, Victorian London. Again and again Ackroyd returns to the image of London as a living organism, hence his use of the word "biography" in the title. At once awed by and intimate with this "ubiquitous" city, he stresses that "it can be located nowhere in particular ... its circumference is everywhere". --Catherine Taylor

Pressestimmen

“Fizzles with vitality and originality” -- Sunday Times

“Marvellous – the book about London.” -- Daily Mail

“Peter Ackroyd was born to write the biography of London...A brilliant book.” -- Sunday Telegraph


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Werbetext

A masterpiece: London: A Biography is the culmination and distillation of Peter Ackroyd's lifelong obsession with the history and topography of London. Vividly anecdotal and brilliantly original. -- Dieser Text bezieht sich auf eine andere Ausgabe: Taschenbuch .

Synopsis

Much of Peter Ackroyd's work has been concerned with the life and past of London but here, as a culmination, is his definitive account of the city. For him it is an organism with its own laws of growth and change, so this book is a biography rather than a history. Ackroyd reveals the dozens of ways in which the continuity of the city survives - in ward boundaries unchanged since the Middle Ages, in vocabulary and in various traditions - showing London as constantly changing, yet forever the same in essence.

Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

Peter Ackroyd is a best-selling writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature's William Heinemann Award (joint), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Guardian fiction prize.

Leseprobe. Abdruck erfolgt mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Rechteinhaber. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.

Chapter 1

The Sea!

If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled "Why Can't We Have the Sea in London?," but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, fifty million years before, was covered by great waters.

The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London. The Portland stone of the Customs House and St. Pancras Old Church has a diagonal bedding which reflects the currents of the ocean; there are ancient oyster shells within the texture of Mansion House and the British Museum. Seaweed can still be seen in the greyish marble of Waterloo Station, and the force of hurricanes may be detected in the "chatter-marked" stone of pedestrian subways. In the fabric of Waterloo Bridge, the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea can also be observed. The tides and storms are still all around us, therefore, and as Shelley wrote of London "that great sea . . . still howls on for more."

London has always been a vast ocean in which survival is not certain. The dome of St. Paul's has been seen trembling upon a "vague troubled sea" of fog, while dark streams of people flow over London Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, and emerge as torrents in the narrow thoroughfares of London. The social workers of the mid-nineteenth century spoke of rescuing "drowning" people in Whitechapel or Shoreditch and Arthur Morrison, a novelist of the same period, invokes a "howling sea of human wreckage" crying out to be saved. Henry Peacham, the seventeenth-century author of The Art of Living in London, considered the city as "a vast sea, full of gusts, fearful-dangerous shelves and rocks," while in 1810 Louis Simond was content to "listen to the roar of its waves, breaking around us in measured time."

If you look from a distance, you observe a sea of roofs, and have no more knowledge of the dark streams of people than of the denizens of some unknown ocean. But the city is always a heaving and restless place, with its own torrents and billows, its foam and spray. The sound of its streets is like the murmur from a sea shell and in the great fogs of the past the citizens believed themselves to be lying on the floor of the ocean. Even amid all the lights it may simply be what George Orwell described as "the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes." This is a constant vision of the London world, particularly in the novels of the twentieth century, where feelings of hopelessness and despondency turn the city into a place of silence and mysterious depths.

Yet, like the sea and the gallows, London refuses nobody. Those who venture upon its currents look for prosperity or fame, even if they often founder in its depths. Jonathan Swift depicted the jobbers of the Exchange as traders waiting for shipwrecks in order to strip the dead, while the commercial houses of the City often used a ship or boat as a weather-vane and as a sign of good fortune. Three of the most common emblems in urban cemeteries are the shell, the ship and the anchor.

The starlings of Trafalgar Square are also the starlings who nest in the cliff faces of northern Scotland. The pigeons of London are descended from the wild rock-doves who lived among the steep cliffs of the northern and western shores of this island. For them the buildings of the city are cliffs still, and the streets are the endless sea stretching beyond them. But the real confluence lies in this--that London, for so long the arbiter of trade and of the sea, should have upon its fabric the silent signature of the tides and waves.

And when the waters parted, the London earth was revealed. In 1877, in a characteristically grand example of Victorian engineering, a vast well was taken down 1,146 feet at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road. It travelled hundreds of millions of years, touching the primeval landscapes of this city site, and from its evidence we can list the layers beneath our feet from the Devonian to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Above these strata lie 650 feet of chalk, outcrops of which can be seen upon the Downs or the Chilterns as the rim of the London Basin, that shallow saucer-like declivity in which the city rests. On top of the chalk itself lies the thick London clay which is in turn covered by deposits of gravel and brick-earth. Here, then, is the making of the city in more than one sense; the clay and the chalk and the brick-earth have for almost two thousand years been employed to construct the houses and public buildings of London. It is almost as if the city raised itself from its primeval origin, creating a human settlement from the senseless material of past time.

This clay is burned and compressed into "London Stock," the particular yellow-brown or red brick that has furnished the material of London housing. It truly represents the genius loci, and Christopher Wren suggested that "the earth around London, rightly managed, will yield as good brick as were the Roman bricks . . . and will endure, in our air, beyond any stone our island affords." William Blake called the bricks of London "well-wrought affections" by which he meant that the turning of clay and chalk into the fabric of the streets was a civilising process which knit the city with its primeval past. The houses of the seventeenth century are made out of dust that drifted over the London region in a glacial era 25,000 years before.

The London clay can yield more tangible evidence, also: the skeletons of sharks (in the East End it was popularly believed that shark's teeth might cure cramp), the skull of a wolf in Cheapside, and crocodiles in the clay of Islington. In 1682 Dryden recognised this now forgotten and invisible landscape of London:

Yet monsters from thy large increase we find

Engender'd on the Slyme thou leav'st behind.

Eight years later, in 1690, the remains of a mammoth were found beside what has since become King's Cross.

London clay can by the alchemy of weather become mud, and in 1851 Charles Dickens noted that there was so "much mud in the streets . . . that it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." In the 1930s Louis-Ferdinand C*line took the motor buses of Piccadilly Circus to be a "herd of mastodons" returning to the territory they had left behind. In Mother London Michael Moorcock's late twentieth-century hero sees "monsters, by mud and giant ferns" while crossing the footbridge alongside the Hungerford railway bridge.

The mammoth of 1690 was only the first primeval relic to be discovered in the London region. Hippopotami and elephants lay beneath Trafalgar Square, lions at Charing Cross, and buffaloes beside St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A brown bear was discovered in north Woolwich, mackerel in the old brick-fields of Holloway and sharks in Brentford. The wild animals of London include reindeer, giant beavers, hyenas and rhinoceri which once grazed by the swamps and lagoons of the Thames. And that landscape has not entirely faded. Within recent memory the mist from the ancient marshes of Westminster destroyed the frescoes of St. Stephen's. It is still possible, beside the National Gallery, to detect the rise of ground between the middle and upper terraces of the Thames in the Pleistocene...
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