The Modest Proposal

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London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets Review by Kevin M. Flanagan Peter Ackroyd
New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2011
$25.00/Hardcover

I typically have trouble reading Peter Ackroyd. While his prose style is gorgeous, his means of narrating history can fall into two general trends. One tendency (which I encountered throughout his 2002 book Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination) was toward the seemingly endless re-visitation of a handful of primary sources. In that text, his exploration of claims by writers like the Venerable Bede (an 8th century A.D. Theologian and historian who provides one of the first written historical accounts of the people of the island) came across as over-reliant to the detriment of a potentially expanded argument. Granted, that book attempted to work with foundational texts in what is now thought of as English literature, so there wasn't necessarily a ton to work with, but it might have been expanded through more extensive use of contemporary histories that revisit the same time period. For whatever reason, that book gave me the sense that Ackroyd was primarily thumbing through a set of well-loved, well-used books that were within arm's reach in his office desk. Another tendency, this one good, is Ackroyd's great ability to synthesize information. Ackroyd is great at creating a narrative out historical scraps, which makes him fun to read when he casts a wide net in an attempt at examining things that aren't necessarily heavily trodden, nor readily intuitive. One of the reasons that his non-fiction works blend so readily with his fiction is that he is able to sufficiently enchant history with the elegance of a fictional telling. Ackroyd will never be confused with fustily academic historians, nor would he necessarily be a comfortable guest at their table.

Thankfully, London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets leans on Ackroyd's strengths, without feeling perfunctory or habitual. Conceived as a companion to his widely lauded London: The Biography (2000), London Under looks below the surface at the subterranean spaces of the city, variously describing their functions as catacombs, shelters, places for transit, and as hotbeds of vice. Ackroyd wisely places emphasis on the Janus-faced quality of London's bedrock. Some of what he details is borderline horrific: "The suicides of the city were, until 1823, buried at a particular crossroads that exists still at the junction of Grosvenor Place and Hobart Place; it may therefore be deemed to be an unlucky spot" (30). The dead get extensive treatment throughout the text, haunting the ground just below some of the busiest parts of the city. Ackroyd displays an interested not just in the remnants of the long interred past (the scattered traces of Roman Britain, snatches of which still surface every few years), but also in the more immediate discoveries from recent decades. One constant is the fact that what lies beneath London often lies dormant, but disaster (the Great Fire of London of the 17th century) and innovation (the construction of the London Underground subway) are equally likely to bring the dead to bear on the living.

London Under manages to avoid coding these subterranean spaces as purely bad, despite the popular mythologies around their spookiness. The most remarkable story remains that of the Blitz, where the subway became both a place of potential death—Balham Station was directly hit, killing over 60 people—and a place to escape the madness above (194). While cultural memory generally praises London's resilience, Ackroyd reminds that the terms of such fortitude remained biased along geographical and class lines. "Mickey's Shelter" held 10,000 from London's East End, doing so because of government inaction, while Tilbury Shelter smelled of urine and feces thanks to severe overcrowding (195-196).

The book does not just recapitulate history, instead imbuing it with living cultural texts. Sci-fi authors H.G. Wells and Michael Moorcock appear alongside films like Anthony Asquith's Underground (1927), Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and, most memorably, Raw Meat (1972), a movie about a buried (and now monstrous) railway worker who attacks youth in the tunnels beneath the city. Since cultural representations inevitably leave their mark on the historical stories that we tell, these artifacts are not superfluous. They are testament to the importance of the underworld's place in our imaginations.

I should note that Ackroyd's book certainly is not the first to treat the subject. I came to it already familiar with Richard Trench (what a name!) and Ellis Hillman's thoroughly illustrated London Under London: A Subterranean Guide (1993), and am familiar with David Pike's academic work on the subject. Also, Ackroyd is not necessarily the most exhaustive, but he probably is the most readable. London Under will delight budding psychogeographers as much as first-time urban explorers. It can be consumed in an afternoon, but its claims will last much longer.

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