Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: London Under

Opening a new Peter Ackroyd is a bit like cutting the foil on a bottle of vintage port. There's the thrill of anticipation, reading the short paragraphs on the outside with an approving nod before finding a cosy chair to relish its smooth joys.

And it doesn't disappoint, as long as its not corked (i.e. fiction - the less said about First Light the better).

In this slim book there are indeed riches of vocabulary and turn of phrase, ornate and decorated, sentences rising as high as a croquembouche.

Previously I reviewed Ackroyd's Thames and it was a memorable book - maybe too long, for it is a style that can overwhelm the reader. Maybe that's why I skipped his follow-up London, The Biography (a typical bold claim, to use the definite article) in favour of Beter Sackroyd's "Piddle - A Gentle Stream".

London Under as you might expect is an exploration of the lands below our feet, the catacombs, rivers, sewers, water pipes, electric, communications, tube lines, pedestrian tunnels, secret bunkers and bomb shelters. To go below the surface is to burrow into history, layers of London stripped away as we travel back to pre-Roman Britain.

Time itself seems subject to his whim: "Time itself does not matter in the presence of the lost river" he says to which I respond with a baffled frown of someone who once could do space-time tensor algebra.

As you might expect from Ackroyd, pretty much anything can be a sign of the sacred, so that, for example, the water pipes "create a blessed space" - but there are demonic undertones underground too. He sometimes isn't sure which - maybe both, which no doubt is spiritual equivalent of double cream, naughty but nice.

There is mention of course of the controversial and much debated Thames Tunnel (as blogged here), though rather strangely he calls it "not widely known or discussed", which makes we wonder whether we have strayed into a parallel universe, otherwise called planet Ackroyd.

Having said all of this it is a great read and totally quaffable in a minimum of sittings.

Just remember to have a pinch or two of salt to hand.

Picture from: Amazon

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