London: The (Magnificent) Biography

I've just finished Peter Ackroyd's magnificent London: The Biography, an 800-page history of London spanning 2,000 years of history. I read it mostly on the tube, in London, while travelling to one place or another, on airplanes, while flying into or out of the city. The book is a triumph in that it manages to convey the unknowable vastness of London's environs and dwellers and history without ever having the hubris to imply that is has captured it or contained it.

The prose is glorious and even drunken in places: clearly this is a labour of love, years-long opus penned by someone who loves and is intimate with London — even if the city is, as he says, so large that no person could hope to walk its every street in a lifetime. I can't remember the last time I smiled so much while reading a book, nor when I made so many notes of things to look up and do later.

The thing I liked best about Ackroyd's vision is the idea of continuity, which speaks directly to an idea I've been having lately: that books are a practice, not a product. Here's what I mean: the Bible was a book even before it was bound between covers; the fact that it was scroll-shaped didn't make it any less bookish. By the same token, one of my novels, represented as a text-file, is also a book — even if it doesn't look anything like a bound volume — even if it doesn't look like anything, period. A scroll, a bound volume, a CD of audio, a text-file: they're all "books" even if they're all different.

What a book is, is a collection of literary, manufacturing, commercial, and technological practices. And what all these different kinds of books have in common with one another is that their practices are continuous with one another. A Torah in scroll is related to a bound edition because the latter couldn't exist without the former: the latter rises up from the former, perhaps inevitably. The "book" is the continuous practice of writing, reading, marketing, distributing and publishing that dates back thousands of years.

We're continuous, too. The "me" who wrote my most recent novel — which I'm very happy with, indeed! — is not the "me" who wrote the one before that. The new one is informed with the lessons from the last one, and the intervening living. The me who wrote the last book could not have written the next one — but the me I became could. And those two mes are continuous with one another: one gave rise to the next.

London is continuous. It's not a place — its borders have shifted and shifted again over thousands of years. It's not a race of people — its inhabitants have changed in individual identity and culture so many times that the culture and ethnicity of London 2004 is nearly completely different from London 0000. It's not a collection of architecture, or a map of roads, or a political system, for all of these have changed and changed and changed. London isn't even its name: London's had many names over the years.

London is a practice: London is what Londoners are doing right now, which is informed by, midwifed by, descended from what Londoners were doing yesterday. London is what Londoners do.

I'd suspected this, and Ackroyd nailed it up and down for me. He shows how the currents of London are fraught with eddies, whirlpools of continuity, so the 1960s movement to wipe London clean of its Victorian fooforaw and build modern high-rises echoes the 1860s destruction of 14 churches under the Union of Benefices Act, which, in turn, echoes the 1760s demolition of the gates to the city walls because they "obstructed the free current of air."

I've been buttonholing Londoners all month with intelligences gleaned from Ackroyd's book — a triumph nearly on the scale of Trafalgar Square or the discovery of the physics of the arch or the rebuilding after the Fire. I'll be chewing it over for years.

Peter's Hill and Upper Thames Street were laid out in the twelfth century. Other street-surfaces and frontages have a similar history, with property divisions remaining intact for many hundreds of years. Even the devastation of the Great Fire could not erase the ancient lanes and boundaries. In a similar pattern of continuity those streets which were newly laid out after the Fire showed tenacity of purpose. Ironmonger Lane, for instance, ahs had the same width for almost 355 years. That width was and is 14 feet, originally sufficient to allow two carts to pass each other without hindrance or blockage. It is another aspect of this continuous London history that its structure can accommodate itself to quite different modes of transport.