LONDON: The Biography

Peter Ackroyd, Author . Doubleday/Talese $45 (832p) ISBN 978-0-385-49770-1

Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling "biography" of the city of London. The reader segues through this litany of lists and anthology of anecdotes via the sketchiest of topical linkages, but no matter—not a page is dull, until brief closing chapters in which Ackroyd succumbs to bathos, for which he's instantaneously redeemed by the preceding chapters. He admits to using no original research, openly crediting his printed sources. Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. "The opium quarter of Limehouse," he tells readers, for example, "is now represented by a Chinese take-away." Fast food, it seems, was always part of the London scene. When poet Thomas Southey asked a pastry cook why she kept her shop open in the worst weather, she told him that otherwise she would lose business, "so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter." Ackroyd covers unrest and peace, fires and ruins, river and rail transport, crime and punishment, wealth and poverty, markets and churches, uncontrolled growth and barely controlled filth. If there is a hero among the throngs, it may be engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who in 1855 began building 1,265 miles of sewers to contain the Stygian odor of progress and keep the huge, ugly metropolis livable. No one should mind the extraordinary price of this extraordinary achievement. B&w illus., maps not seen by PW. (On sale Oct. 16)

Forecast: Published to acclaim in England, this is virtually guaranteed major review coverage here, and the publisher will also shoot for national media. Anglophiles and others will rejoice.

Reviewed on: 08/20/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
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