Through the Under-Town of London – A Review of London Under by Peter Ackroyd

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I hate admitting this, but the first and last time I was in London, I didn’t get to see the city properly. It was simply an entry-and-exit point for the European tour my parents had given me as a combination eighteenth birthday and graduation gift, something I’d asked for when I was sixteen. So I never truly got to see the palaces, the museums the churches – and don’t think my heart still doesn’t ache that I didn’t get to see those last two. Considering that so many literary greats lived, or continue to live, in London, and so many excellent books are set in the same city, one would think I’d take the time to see it, but there simply wasn’t enough time to do so.

This is, I know, a very great pity. London is not only one of the greatest cities of the world (albeit one of the gloomiest, sad to say), it’s also one of the oldest. London as it is today has grown from a Neolithic settlement to the current metropolis, and so much of that history is still there, in London itself. Much of it is visible: there are many old buildings still visible, and quite a few of them are still in use today. Even a quick spin through the city will take the traveler through the medieval, to the Renaissance, to the Baroque, to the Victorian, and beyond, often in unexpected ways and juxtapositions. So much of what London is, of its character, is right there for the seeing and experiencing.

But that’s only one side of London. To truly understand the city, one needs to look beyond the surface, to what lies beneath – and I mean this in a very literal sense.

London, like all old cities, and all very big cities, has an underworld of its own. It’s not just the underground railway system, or the Tube, though it does play quite a large role in that. It’s the network of tunnels connecting important government buildings. It’s the layer upon layer of ruins and history that lurk in the most unexpected places – history that is valuable because it describes the growth of London from what it was into what it is. All the surface’s secrets, everything it doesn’t want the world to see, to know, is hidden in the underworld – and in London, that underworld is especially rich and vast.

It is this underworld that’s explored in Peter Ackroyd’s London Under. Given the length of this book (remarkably short, especially in comparison to some of Ackroyd’s other hefty tomes), I believe it’s meant to be read as an addendum of sorts to London: The Biography, which purports to be a fuller exploration of the city. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot without having read London: The Biography because I wanted some insight into Ackroyd’s style, as a preliminary to reading some of those hefty tomes I’ve mentioned. Also, I rather liked the narrow focus of this particular book, since the underground is an aspect of any city that’s rarely explored in detail by some of the more popular travel guides available on the shelf.

London Under explores four major aspects of the London underground: the hidden rivers and water sources under London; the tunnels, pipes, and the Tube; the graveyards and plague pits; and, of course, the people who are connected to them, which is to say, pretty much all of London’s population, past and present. Interwoven in this exploration of the underground are various philosophical musings, history, and bits of folklore and literature, threading together the surface and the underground in such a manner as to illustrate that the relationship between the two is a mutual one. There have been, and are, people who would like to believe that the underground has very little to do with the surface, but in truth the two are intimately linked.

My first take on this book, before I’d even begun reading it, was to treat it as something of a travelogue, or a travel guide. Now, though, I do kind of wonder how much of the underground that Ackroyd describes he’s really seen for himself. I don’t doubt he’s experienced the Tube, of course, but what about the sewers? Has he attempted to walk where Jack the Ripper is suspected to have walked? Has he tried to trace the paths of the hidden rivers like the Fleet and the Effra for himself? Has he visited some of those lost stations of the Underground that he’s mentioned? I rather doubt he’s done any of those things, given how most of his information seems to come from secondhand sources, albeit reputable ones. This has rather taken the shine off the narrative as travel guide, but I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else. Ackroyd is primarily an academic, and doesn’t really strike me as the adventurous type.

Nevertheless, even though he likely hasn’t seen a lot of these things or done a lot of traveling beyond his own desk, the way he talks about and describes the underground is very interesting. Interspersed between the geographical details about what lies where are histories, literary references, and folktales about the underground, as well as Ackroyd’s philosophical musings on the many aspects of the underground itself. Ackroyd draws quite a bit on classical myths and Campbellian concepts when speaking of the underground, especially in the references to the Christian concept of Hell, and the ancient Greek and Roman concept of Hades. This makes quite a bit of sense, I think, since these are the ideas and concepts that many previous thinkers have applied to the underground, and whose writings Ackroyd made use of for his book.

I did, however, find myself wishing that Ackroyd had taken a more multicultural approach to his discussion of the underground. Even in Roman times London was already a multicultural city, and I’m very sure that these other groups have their own thoughts on the nature of the underground. What does London’s very large South Asian population, for instance, think about London’s underground? What about those who come from Africa, or Asia? Many of these groups have been present in London since it was called Londinium, and I’m certain they have their own lore, their own philosophy and perspectives, on London’s hidden world. I think Ackroyd would have been able to add a significant amount of depth to his book if he’d considered these perspectives.

One major flaw in this book that I wish Ackroyd had thought to address was the absence of maps. I suppose he believed that only Londoners would be interested in this book, but I still firmly believe that a map or maps would have greatly helped comprehension of this book. My workaround was to use Google Maps and try to find my way around that way, but it’s a poor substitute for an actual map, especially when it comes to studying the courses of the hidden rivers, for instance, or understanding just where the lost stations of the Tube are located. I understand that some maps can simply never be produced (the tunnels connecting important government buildings, for example), but there’s still a lot of room for other kinds of maps. It’s nigh-on impossible, in my opinion, to talk about geography and topography without showing at least one map, and it’s a bit of a disappointment that Ackroyd, with the level of scholarship he’s put into this book, neglected to include something as simple as that.

On the whole, London Under isn’t a bad book at all. It’s given me a pretty good sense of what Ackroyd’s writing style is like, and though that style doesn’t work very well for me in non-fiction, I might give his fiction a shot. As for the book itself, it’s an interesting meditation and mental, but not actual, exploration of London’s underground and it’s significance to the city itself, and should be treated as such. It can be read as a travel guide, but it doesn’t really work well as that, especially given the absence of any maps in the book. It does, however, serve as a very good companion book to other books, particularly novels that deal with with the underground. Readers about to start on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, for instance, or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or even China Mieville’s Kraken and Un Lun Dun might want to at least browse this book, for better comprehension and enjoyment of the novel they are about to read.

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