Having written several books on London already, both real and imaginary, Peter Ackroyd is the perfect Virgil to follow down into the subterranean depths of “London Under,” his newest work on the great city. Focusing on the London beneath the streets, “Under” explores the rich and evocative realms of subway platforms, sewer tunnels, prison cells and more. London, we learn, is built upon a soft base of sand, clay and chalk; and throughout the book there is the recurrent theme of London absorbing and being absorbed. History sinks into the earth only to be pushed back toward the sky, a suitable metaphor to describe the nature of the city.
Composed primarily as a sort of narrative catalog, each chapter focuses on a specific constructional theme. While this gets a little repetitive in some spots—three chapters in a row on underground sources of water began to wear thin—it also allows for some amazing convergences of anecdotal history. For instance, the chapter detailing the city’s sewer and the men who root through the muck for fallen coins and risen treasure is as fascinating as it is disgusting. There are otherworldly descriptions of flora and fauna living and evolving beneath the sidewalk: rats the size of cats, rumored albino crabs, mushrooms the size of bread loaves. Ackroyd describes the sunken homes of times past, where front doors descend into the ground to become cellar entryways.
Throughout all of it, Ackroyd maintains a conversational tone, as though telling you all of this from the next barstool over. Although full of historical details, the book never goes over the reader’s head, staying accessible to even the most casual reader.
The book is illustrated with an assortment of photographs and etchings. Sadly, it’s a small book in terms of scale, and the image of Londoners sleeping on a deactivated subway escalator during the Blitz really deserves a bit more. Still, a small complaint, and the imagery of the book brought up from the past by Ackroyd’s skilled prose more than makes up for it. (Greg Baldino)
“London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets”
By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese, 240 pages, $25