Peter Ackroyd assembled some fine materials in the first part of his history of London – but they were all assembled in a rather haphazard fashion. It’s a shame the muddled format hindered the obvious knowledge and love the author has for the city of his birth, because when London is good, it’s very good.
Although loosely chronological, beginning with the Roman occupation and the destruction of Londinium by Boudicca, Ackroyd dipped in piecemeal fashion into disasters such as the Great Fire or the Blitz, losing any sense of historical momentum his passionate commentary had built up.
And the illustration of the antiquated catastrophes was also a weakness. Although lavishly narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, as Roman historian Tacitus, the account of the sacking of Londinium was also accompanied by an incongruent high-speed camera flight through modern London streets that actually detracted from the interesting history.
Occasionally, some of Ackroyd’s interpretations also felt too forced. When using a subjective analogy that “fire has always been conceived in a theatrical sense” by the populace, he links this to “it is perhaps appropriate that London’s theatres go up in flames” based on the fact that 37 were destroyed in conflagrations from 1789-1919.
And while fascinating, it seemed a little too convenient for Ackroyd to observe that red is indelibly associated with London through the layer of iron caused by Boudicca’s razing of Londinium, the numerous fires and the “blood and violence in a bloody and violent city”. Such is the capital’s long history, evidence could surely be found to support the claim of any colour to be London’s standard.
The strongest account of London’s destruction was that of the Blitz. The typical footage of air wardens fighting huge blazes was given immense potency by the observations of novelist Virginia Woolf, who noted that a single bombed house in a terrace had been
“knocked out like a tooth”.
And towards the end of the programme, Ackroyd gave his own impressions of how London is changing today. He showed how ugly, inappropriate glass and concrete edifices, hurriedly constructed after the end of World War Two, were now being knocked down and their replacements were being built along the same ancient roadways that have criss-crossed the capital since Roman times as though the city were an entity shaping its own structural destiny.
It seems a pity that only the poor structural quality of Peter Ackroyd’s London should prevent it from becoming the definitive history that his depth of research perhaps deserves it to be.