Wednesday, 11 July 2012

London Under by Peter Ackroyd

When I got Peter Ackroyd's London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets for my birthday, I didn't know what to think of it. Ackroyd is famous for his ‘biographies’of London and the Thames, but that could mean anything. Maybe this was some weak spin off of his other work or a new thing. I had no idea.

Just to give you an impression of the difference in street levels between now and the Middle Ages: the ruins of the Palace of the bishop of Winchester in Southwark
In the book Ackroyd moves along a series of subjects beneath the top soil of London: first archeology, then wells, rivers and streams. Followed by sewers, tunnels, pipes and of course the Underground. Finally, there's underground storage (eg gold vaults Bank of England) and government agencies. This is extended into the use of the tube for shelters and storage of art treasures during WWII.

It's really well written so it flows past you fast. Ackroyd quickly sketches the history illustrated by many examples and anecdotes. The chapters on the sewers and the construction of underground tunnels are the best, evoking the danger and technological pioneering.

This makes it the kind of book you could take on a trip to have a look at some of the examples of inconspicuous entrances to underground systems, architecture of tube stations and whether you are on top of something special.

However, because it is highly anecdotal it's not all tied together. I have many questions about the underground world as a whole after reading this book. After reading this book one gets the feeling it must be crowded down there.

How do all these underground networks interact, or conflict? Are there maps showing them together or are they separate? Do they operate at different levels to avoid congestion and collision?

Is there a planning or regulation of the underground world, like the surface world, the sea and the skies? Is it allowed to just dig beneath your house? I thought as Ackroyd mentioned people more frequently extending their cellars, sometimes by upto 4 levels.

And the underground world is even more congested with networks Ackroyd doesn't even mention, like TV cables and fibre glass wires.

To Ackroyd, what binds it all together is the dark, the cold, the fear of water, poisonous gasses and fire. Ackroyd paints the underground world as a lonely, scary place, the home of ghosts, monsters and degraded humans. But he doesn't sound very convincing because the stories he tells have the opposite effect.

Because the underground fires the imagination: art, myths and legends, and futurism. It's a terra incognita on which humans project their hopes and fears.

In the respect of art I missed a reference to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, one of the best novels on the underground world, directly linking it to London landmarks.

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