Monday, 19 November 2007


I'm sorry if this blog has started to look like London Buses - no posts for a month and then three come along at once...

I've just spent some time with Peter Ackroyd and London. First, his immense and strange book: 'London - the biography' - and then a videotape of the first programme of his BBC series on London, which a friend made ages ago and I've only just had time to look at.

Ackroyd is less weird than Sinclair but he's definitely on the occult end of the spectrum as far as London historians go. He sees London as a living creature - a threatening organism that can kill, ravage, burn; a creature that is regenerated through fire. He actually begins the programme by mentioning his heart attack - the day after he delivered his book on London to the publisher - a testimony to the city's maleficent powers (though also to its healing ones).

What I particularly like about Ackroyd is his ability to shift from extreme detail to extreme distance - from close up to panorama. His immense depth of research enables him to spin perspectives, to separate or to merge the layers of history. And there's always a feeling of the paradoxical closeness and distance of the past - epitomised in the Saxon brooch that was dropped so long ago, in a bath house where he now stands.

Ackroyd refers to the concept of 'psychogeography' - but unlike Guy Debord who originated the concept of geography's impact on individuals, instead Ackroyd sees the city itself as a living thing, modelled by multiple human experiences.  It's an approach that frees him from purely formal scholarship and sets the mind travelling along the ley lines of history; and that's why the book is a biography, not a history, of the city. Marvellous stuff. I'd love to do the same for Norwich.

I'm not sure about the series.  Quite a lot of it is fine, but the re-enactments of figures such as Tacitus, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Christopher Wren seem rather prosaic and mockumentary besides Ackroyd's own magisterial yet self-deprecating presence. The one thing that is absolutely true in the series, though, is the wonderful precision and zest of his language. And that is something you can experience in the book.

I so wish Ackroyd would now go to live in Rome for a few years. True, he wouldn't have the lifelong experience that makes his work on London so deeply felt; but he is one of few writers these days who I think could bring alive those multiple layers and alarming continuities that make Rome such a bewildering and satisfying city.

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