London: The Biography (2001) is novelist and historian Peter Ackroyd's epic, ludicrously erudite, love/hate letter to London. The book is a sprawling organic mass, not, significantly, unlike the city itself, 800 pages of exhaustive research on a city that Ackroyd himself would be the first to admit he is obsessed with. It's not a linear narrative history of London, but skips around in time and subject, so that a chapter on Clerkenwell's history as a haven for political and religious dissenters might be followed by one on the history of London's street fighters and the Gordon Riots, and preceded by one on the various accounts of the quality of morning in London through history.

Ackroyd's thesis, as even the title gives away, is that London is a living organism, growing and mutating but in many ways unchanged through time. Thus the book is organized, inasmuch as it can be said to be organized at all, into sections that detail various qualities and character traits of the city. Ackroyd is much given to diversions and odd little cul de sacs of detail, which can often be the most intriguing and diverting parts of the book, as when he outlines the history of a particular alleyway, or that of takeaway food stalls, or of tobacco use, and the scavengers whose job used to be finding still-good cigar and cigarette ends on the streets.

Ackroyd is particularly fascinated by the way phenomena seem to recur in the city, so that succeeding waves of transients and ne'er-do-wells end up in St. Giles (he seems to regard the current, boring state of New Oxford Street as a kind of abomination), or accounts of the Blitz eerily mirror those of the Great Fire of 1666.

This account of London is one from the bottom up, focused almost entirely on the working class and lumpenproletariat, and to a lesser extent the rich mercantile class, with the aristocracy more or less relegated to margins, usually as aghast observers. Ackroyd's London is governed by the conflicting impulses of ever-expanding commerce and the often-destructive passion of the mob, forever hovering on the edge of catastrophe yet bursting with energy and vitality.

Ackroyd's greatest contemporary influence would seem to be his friend Michael Moorcock, whose novel Mother London this could be seen as a companion piece to, part of a shared project of the psychogeography of London. London: The Biography also works well with From Hell (the Alan Moore graphic novel more than the movie), which is similarly obsessed with the idea of London as a character, and China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, which is set in a sprawling, overcrowded and half-alive slipstream metropolis clearly inspired by London, and almost seems its hallucinatory mirror image.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, or for people looking for a clear historical narrative of the stages of London's development. But for people willing to tolerate a few diversions and odd turns, London: The Biography is almost limitlessly fascinating.

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