London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd

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The Independent Culture

Few books so epic in scale are so consistently enthralling as Ackroyd's evocation of the capital. Though astonishing in its scope and hallucinatory in its detail, the title is a misnomer. It is not so much a biography as a pointillist portrait, composed of scores of small themes, from stinks to silences, from suicides to sex. Nor is it a celebration of the city's glories. Ackroyd's London is the city as perceived by Doré and Hogarth, rather than Monet or Canaletto. "It is not a civilised or graceful city," he insists. "It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive." He notes that the proliferation of Gothic revival buildings was singularly inappropriate to this "city of savages".

There is "always a sense of strangeness in London" and every paragraph underlines this sensation. Did you know that in 1946 a medieval cat was found entombed in the church where Sir Richard Whittington was buried? Or that a parrot extracted 100 corks in the Cheshire Cheese pub on Armistice Night 1918? Or that Fleet St, Park Lane and Oxford St lack a No 13? Or that the plane tree standing at the corner of Wood St and Cheapside inspired a Wordsworth poem? Packed with wonders and weirdness, this book is Ackroyd's masterpiece.

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