“London Under is a 2012 book by British biographer, novelist, and critic Peter Ackroyd about the history of underground London.
The book ‘…is an introduction to everything that goes on under London’. It profiles underground constructions and natural features such as rivers, Roman amphitheaters, Victorian sewers and gang hideouts; these are written up in Ackroyd’s psychogeographical style, where the landmarks themselves are described less as factual objects and more as reference points for the author’s literary, figurative imagination.
In The Independent Christopher Hirst wrote ‘Ackroyd’s stylistic brilliance explains why the book remains a rattling good read despite its pervasive psycho-geographical angst.’ In Londonist Matt Brown writes ‘the author is also skilled at connecting past, present and future. He notes, for example, that our modern Underground system was initiated by a man born when Marie Antoinette still possessed a head’ however he also notes
‘Oddly, the book begins by stating that ‘there is little interest in this vast underworld’. The bibliography, listing 40 similar volumes, begs to differ. Given the popularity of the Kingsway and Thames tunnels, and the disused Aldwych station, which all briefly opened to visitors recently, it seems a bizarre assertion’
while in the London Evening Standard Stephen Smith wrote ‘Sure enough, 11 years after he produced London: The Biography, he now examines the hidden organs of the capital, its “nerves” and guts and bowels’ and ‘We owe Ackroyd a great debt, all the same. He has memorialised London so well, it’s time London returned the compliment’. The book was also reviewed in The New York Times.”
Andrew Dickson reported for The Guardian on 20 May 2017:
“In his flat in Knightsbridge, central London, Peter Ackroyd ushers me into his study. It is a tight, faintly anonymous space crowded with books and prints, and with a discouraging view on to the back of a building. Now in his late 60s, Ackroyd is famous for his Stakhanovite appetite for work: his books could fill a decent-sized bookcase, though such is their girth, you would probably need to reinforce it (his gargantuan 1990 biography of Dickens weighed in at 1,195 pages). As far as I can calculate, there are now 18 works of fiction and more than 30 biographies and histories. Ackroyd does nothing by half measures, as the legendary tales of his drinking testify.
Much to the teeth-gnashing of academics, Ackroyd is no respecter of specialism, gliding serenely across such topics as Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Allan Poe, Turner’s watercolour technique, the origins of Englishness and the history of Venice. His abiding love is, of course, London – the city where he was born and has almost always lived, and which has infiltrated everything he has done. So deep does the obsession run that even Ackroyd seems at a loss trying to explain it: “How can I put it? London has always been a refuge.” It’s not clear whether he means geopolitically or personally. Perhaps it is both.
The new book, a history of gay London entitled Queer City, returns to familiar territory, so much so that it’s surprising Ackroyd hasn’t already written it: in fact, it turns out that, after a manner of speaking, he has. The very first work in the bibliography is by “Ackroyd, P”, a little‑known 1979 work on transvestism and drag. More famously, a 1983 novel is written as a fictional diary by Oscar Wilde, a photograph of whom decorates his study, sandwiched between Thomas More and the Elizabethan magus John Dee.
Yet the new work goes far deeper, travelling from the barely visible remains of Celtic London and the arrival of Christianity in the AD300s to the great sex scandals of the 19th century – Wilde included – and on to recent fights for gay rights. As ever, the book is rambunctiously inclusive, practically Rabelaisian. One sentence quotes Julius Caesar on the flamboyantly long-haired, moustachioed Celts, who honoured what Aristotle called “passionate friendship between men”. In the next sentence, Ackroyd drily remarks: “You can still see them walking in the streets of London.”…
…Growing up on a council estate in East Acton in the 1950s, Ackroyd knew he was gay. His father left when he was a baby and never returned (the two were later in contact, but only briefly); his mother, Audrey, was strongly Catholic, and religion infused his upbringing. He was an only child. Just as his father’s disappearance was never discussed, sexuality was not a topic that could be raised. His mother died only a few years ago; he never discussed it with her, even much later? There is a curt shake of the head. “No.” Were they close? “Not particularly.”…
…His psychogeographical interest in continuity and coincidence is partly a matter of temperament, but it is also, more baldly, a product of the way he works. “When you’re bringing stuff together, you can make connections and patterns which are not normally available.”…
…Because of a leg injury that has been slow to heal, walking is a challenge; he can still get out, but it’s a struggle. The years of pounding London’s streets and rousting out its ghosts are gone. He still enjoys a drink, but only in the evening, and much less (not doctor’s orders, he chuckles mirthlessly, just self-preservation). He still dines out most evenings, but often finds himself flopping in front of the TV. “I’ll watch anything,” he murmurs. “Really anything.”
When I ask whether he could contemplate a life without writing, I’m expecting him to deliver a line he’s delivered before, and say no, he’d rather have his arms chopped off. But he wavers. “I think that’s still true, but I can’t be sure any more. There comes a point where you’ve said all you want to say or do, then you stop.” For a moment, he sounds almost querulous. “A lot of people stop.”
I say I find it hard to imagine him pottering around in his slippers, reading for his own amusement. His tone hardens again. “Not necessarily. I’d just get on and do it.” “.