There’s a programme on Radio 4 called I’ve Never Seen Star Wars, the idea being that guests confess to not having done something commonplace, such as travelled on a plane or owned a mobile phone. So, as a London historian, my equivalent was that I’d never read a book by Peter Ackroyd. That was until today when I finished his latest, London Under.
This book is not the first to cover the topic of what exists under the city’s surface, not by a long chalk. But when you consider that there is a whole equivalent city under the ground which is in many ways a mirror image of what is above, there surely is plenty of room for another title. In addition, Ackroyd’s comparative high profile should undoubtedly help introduce more lovers of London to this fascinating topic.
London Under is physically small, and at 182 pages, short. It is also generously illustrated. So you should easily be able to complete it in a matter of hours. One suspects, therefore, that the author may have knocked it out, to keep his hand in, so to speak. This is not a criticism, because it is a very good read.
The sub-terranean landscape covered is astonishing. We are shown not just the living parts: sewers, tunnels, the tube system, vaults, gas lines, cabling, bunkers etc. We are also reminded that Central London (in particular) sits up to 40 feet higher than the city of our ancient forebears. Layer upon layer of accumulated history, the treasures of which are unearthed faster than teams of hundreds of archaeologists and researchers can process them.
As you would expect, the Underground system takes up a fair chunk of the narrative, several chapters being brought to bear. The historical aspect of the Tube’s story is more or less satisfactory, although there are two glaring omissions: Frank Pick and Charles Holden. Yet Gropius, Foster and obscure poster artists are name-checked. Tunnelling engineer James Greathead could have done with a mention too. This is my only specific criticism of the book.
As my first Ackroyd read, I cannot comment whether this is typical of his style, but I suspect that it is style that will separate London Under from other books on the topic. It is very erudite and literary and clearly carries his stamp. The text is peppered with literary references – classical, biblical, contemporary and all points between. He uses these to good effect and mostly to support the sheer grimness, danger and unpleasantness that over the years welcomed the unwary or the unlucky.
More personal still, the author occasionally takes off on flights of fancy, particularly on pages devoted to the Underground. I found myself nodding in agreement with these and certainly they will strike a chord too with most readers who have used the system regularly. I liked the way he explains how each Tube line has a personality and character traits. I also rather enjoyed the GK Chesterton quote:
The Tube system is devoted to finding the shortest route possible between two destinations. It is not really a place at all.
So, on balance, London Under succeeds in the comprehensiveness of the territory it manages to cover in relatively few pages. It successfully conveys the darkness, the gloom, the danger. It is a very personal journey and a solid introduction to the topic for anyone remotely interested in our city.
London Under is published by Chatto & Windus, 2011, and has a cover price of £12.99 but is available for less.
And, by the way, I’ve never seen Star Wars.