Review: Peter Ackroyd, London Under. London: Chatto & Windus, 2011. DA689.U5 A25 2011.
At first glance, one might perceive my area of historical interest—post-1850 London with a focus on urbanization and transportation—as fairly technical. One might assume that to explore these topics, on needs to focus on technological improvements and administrative policy changes that transformed London during and after the Industrial Revolution. And this certainly is the case in some instances. Often one cannot avoid referencing these sources. However, this is not the whole story concerning this period in London. There is an entire culture, folklore, and identity tied with perceiving London as an urban space.
Peter Ackroyd realized this in 2003 when he published London: The Biography. The title reveals something very important about Ackroyd’s work. By calling it, London: The Biography, Ackroyd relates London more to a person, a living entity, rather than merely calling it London: The History or London: The Chronology. London is dynamic, vibrant, and changing. It is both the aggregate and the individual—not just where they live and work.
Ackroyd’s follow-up piece, London Under (2011), builds upon the “biography” of the first, but instead of looking at the London we see everyday, he digs deeper (pun intended) to explore the exciting, frightening, and often obscure history of what happens beneath this energetic city. Moreover, Ackroyd does not limit his account to a schematic or an inventory of what lies beneath the metropolis, but instead considers Londoner’s perceptions of their city’s hidden, and often dirty, secrets. From forgotten springs to buried rivers, from intrepid (or crazy depending on the perspective) underground explorers to the London Tube, Ackroyd balances a history of what lies beneath London with an analysis of people’s interpretations of the underground in general.
Ackroyd utilizes fears, superstitions, and myths to describe perceptions of the underground. Londoners attributed the underground with hell, poverty, filth, and danger. And these perceptions lingered long after underground space became utilized more routinely. One of the first locomotives used in the London subway system was appropriately, and perhaps ironically, named Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. In the early 1900s, Londoners worried of women travelling on the underground alone at night, fearing that Jack the Ripper could be travelling in the same carriage as her. However, Ackroyd does not just focus on the negative perceptions of the underground. In World War II, during the German Blitz of Britain, Londoners flocked to the underground as a sanctuary and place of refuge. To Ackroyd, the underground is frightening, mysterious, safe, and beautiful all at the same time. It is both enigmatic and profound.
A city is much more than what you can see from the surface. As Ackroyd says in his introduction, “Order and harmony are the properties of the lighted world. All below is shapeless, formless, void. Forgotten things, discarded things, secret things, are to be found deep below” (13). Peter Ackroyd’s London Under succeeds in holding a flickering candle to London’s deepest and darkest secrets.