London: The Biography
by Peter Ackroyd
Nan. A. Talese/Doubleday, 801 pp., $45.00
Speaking of places that have remained “objects of London fear,” Peter Ackroyd tells us, “It is believed the cries of drowned Jews, murdered in the great expulsion of 1290, can still be heard at low tide near Gravesend.” Excuse me. Who “still” believes this? And if they do indeed believe it, in what way does that belief affect them? Do they come staggering back to London, their hair turned white, their whole bodies shaking, and do they grasp our forearms with their bony fingers and say, “I too have heard it, the cries of the drowned Jews at Gravesend! It is without doubt the most horrifying sound in the world, and I shall take that terror with me to the grave!”
Or do they rather, settling into deep leathern armchairs by the fireside, and lighting a sturdy briar pipe from the fire with a spill, in their embroidered smoking jackets and tasseled caps and velvet slippers, and over a glass or two of the finest burgundy, as the flames leap in the grate, and the sweet smell of old sea-coal mingles with the tang of freshly buffed beeswax on fine mahogany furniture, as the peasouper swirls down Wardour Street outside, do they swirl the garnet-rich liquor in their goblets of finest crystal, as the cut glass glistens in the tantalus, and the cook lets herself out, shuddering, into the night, and a lone hansom (“driving as fast as the hansomeer thought consistent with public safety”—OED) comes clopping by—do they, these fatuous old bachelors of the 1890s, yarning and yawning away until the early hours, do they regale each other with tales of drowned Jews, in much the same spirit as they might chat about Flying Dutchmen? Are they, in other words, not entirely serious?
I think the latter, and I think that Ackroyd often has a twinkle in his eye, as when he tells us that “it is almost as if [London] were itself a spectral city, so filled with intimations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants.” He finds something in one of the hundreds of ropy old books that he has consulted, and it makes him laugh, and he bangs it in: the first wooden idol, he informs us, was carved in Dagenham in 2200 BC. I beg leave to doubt this. “The dust of London was believed to clog the breathing and dull the senses of the omnipresent spiders”—people noticed, he would have us believe, that the London spiders had duller senses than their country cousins, and they attributed this fact to the effects of dust. In Roman London there were of course public baths, “and one lay in North Audley Street…. When workmen of the late nineteenth century discovered it in an underground arched chamber, it was still half-filled with water.” The implication, that they found Roman bathwater still in the bath, evaporates on closer inspection, but it lasts long enough to cause a smile.
The herb “spoonwart” makes an appearance …