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Much larger than life

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London: The Biography By Peter Ackroyd. Chatto & Windus, 2000. 820pp. £25

'London has always been an ugly city, 'writes Peter Ackroyd.'It is part of its identity. It has always been rebuilt, and demolished, and vandalised.'London has been the focus of many of Ackroyd's books over the past 20 years. In his novels Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee he dwelt on specific areas of the city (Spitalfields and Clerkenwell, respectively) to create magical, and even sinister, visions of the the overlapping of past and present, of that sense of continuity and profoundity of human experience which pervades so much of London and which even the worst efforts of developers have not erased. As a biographer, Ackroyd has been attracted by figures - Thomas More, Blake, Dickens - who were Londoners to the core.

Ackroyd's latest work is billed as 'his definitive account of the city'- my emphasis, since the book is as personal and subjective account as any Ackroyd devotee could wish for. For scholarly, well-balanced general histories, turn to the recent works by Stephen Inwood, Roy Porter or Francis Sheppard - London: The Biography is one man's vision.

It is a striking, memorable, vivid, and even obsessive vision.

Ackroyd's London is a many times larger-than-life place: it is an organism with a life of its own, quite apart from the lives of those who have inhabited it. London is a place of noise, disease (the 'Great Plague' carried away 8,000 people in one week in 1665), crime, corruption, drunkenness (there were 17,000 gin houses in the 1750s), crowding and misery.

Ackroyd's Londoners are not the proverbially goodhumoured cockneys of legend, but sharp-witted, raucous, violent, grasping, gluttonous, lecherous beings.In 1780, the mob ruled London for a week, burning the gaols and freeing the inmates. Notting Hill (1958), Brixton (1981) and Broadwater Farm (1985) reflect 'a prevalent instinct towards riot which has never been suppressed'. A public hanging in 1807 attracted a crowd of 40,000 - 28 people died in the ensuing crush and hundreds were injured.

In short, Ackroyd piles on the agony - London was not only ugly but appallingly dirty. A whole segment of the city's poor scraped a living by collecting tons of dog excrement from the streets; it was used in the leather trade to cure hides.The London of the 1800s, like that of the 1500s, was a place of cesspools and open sewers. The Thames smelt so powerfully that sheets, soaked in chlorine, were fixed across the windows of the Palace of Westminster.

All this makes for a marvellous read: rarely outside the realm of fiction has the experience of actually living in London in the age of Chaucer, Pepys, Dickens or, for that matter, Winston Churchill been so thrillingly evoked.Of course, it is a partial picture.We learn of the pleasures of London life - music, eating, shopping, sex - but even they seem an expression of the power of the 'Great Wen'to enthral and enslave, and then to destroy.

Ackroyd has always had an eye for architecture, capturing the inner character of buildings and places, as expressions of social life, as well as their superficial aesthetics. Rasmussen's London: The Unique City is one of his inspirations (though, oddly, he seems to be unaware of the greatest post-war work on London architecture, Nairn's London). Recent London buildings generate an unlikely air of optimism in his writing - he rates Canary Wharf Tower, alongside the Monument and Big Ben, as a symbol of London, celebrates the commercial palaces of the City and senses that twenty-first-century London is becoming a place of space and air and lightness.

The truth is, of course, that Ackroyd loves London, a place that 'contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed'.Ponder on those words as you wait for the non-existent Circle Line.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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