Under London

February 7, 2012 § 5 Comments

I originally wrote this review for Current Intelligence, before I left the publication in the autumn of 2011, so it never saw the light of day there.  I am publishing it here as a means of starting a discussion, or thread, concerning the underside of cities.  And by that, I don’t mean the criminal underside or something like that, I mean the literal underground of the city.  Peter Ackroyd here has written an history of the London underground (and no, not the Tube), an idea I wish other historians and writers would seize upon for other cities.  There is an entire world located under our cities, not quite lost Atlantises, but at the very least, the ruins of previous civilisations.  But wait! There’s more!  The urban infrastructure is also below ground: the telecommunications and electrical wiring, sewers, subways, roadway tunnels and more.  The underside is a topic of fascination and revulsion and something I am interested in as an urban historian. In short, I’ll be returning to this theme in coming weeks.

Peter Ackroyd.  London UnderLondon: Chatto & Windus, 2011. 202pp. ISBN: 9780701169916 £12.99

Peter Ackroyd is one of the most prolific authors writing in the English language today, having churned out exactly fifty works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction in the past forty years, to say nothing of another half-dozen TV shows.  While his subjects have been diverse, a constant throughout his oeuvre has been London.  Many of his novels have been set there and a decade years ago, he published London: The Biography, followed in 2003 by The Illustrated London and in 2007 by the biography of the great river that flows through the city, The Thames.  His latest book, London Under is a product of these three books, as well as his 2009 book, Venice: Pure City.  However, London Under reads as leftovers from London and Thames.  It’s the story of what’s under London, from natural springs, to the ancient Roman settlement, raunchy sewers, and, of course, the Tube. Certainly a fascinating little book, whether or not London Under is successful is another matter.

What lies beneath the surface is a topic that has transfixed humans since we first evolved away from apes.  For the Greeks, the dead went to the great Hades Hall under the world. Grave yards and the undead were a staple of Victorian ghost stories. What lies beneath the sea is still a topic that makes my skin crawl.  But there is also an entire underworld that lies beneath our cities. In Roman times, the city’s catacombs provided shelter for the Christians. The Catacombs of Paris have held an eery hold over pop culture since the days of Edgar Allen Poe. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has his characters running through the old Byzantine city underneath Istanbul in his novel, The Black Book.  And London’s myriad underground tunnels were said to be the home of thieves, street urchins, mobsters, and slavers.

More than just the terror, though, there is a duality to the underground, which Ackroyd acknowledges; it can be both a site of safety and a site of evil and terror.  On the bright side, he cites the protection afforded the Christians under ancient Rome. On the dark side, he points to the medieval prison, which was oftentimes a pit in the ground, or the depths of the Tower of London. Indeed, under London are some nasty little places, such as the House of Detention, which was a dank, terrifying prison. But it was during the nineteenth century that the underground began to take on its truly nefarious tone in London, as it was seen as the den of criminals and smugglers who only came out at night.  Then there’s what creeps and crawls through the underground: rats, eels, snakes, and other such creepy creatures. Rats, in particular, spark fear in humans, no doubt due to their role in causing the Great Plague in the fourteenth century (to be fair, it wasn’t the rats, it was their fleas, but who’s counting?).

After a general introduction, we are transported back to the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666 and the discovery of what lay beneath the ruins of the torched city.  Ackroyd introduces us to Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect, and his excavations of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the fire.  He was surprised to discover, amongst other things, Anglo-Saxon graves, on top of Saxons, on top of Britons, on top of Romans. Along with the Roman remains, he found pavement from Londonium (as it was called during the Roman era) and below that, sand and seashells.  London had once lay under the ocean.  As for the bodies, Ludgate Hill, the site of St. Paul’s, had long been a sacred burial ground, and was the site of a temple to Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt. After a catalogue of all the neat and not-quite-so-neat things that have bubbled up to the surface of London over the past five or so centuries, we move onto more conceptual and sequential chapters.

From Chapter 3 “Holy Water,” onwards, it’s a whirlwind tour of what lies beneath London.  Water, not surprisingly, is the focus of much of the book, a total of five chapters are devoted to water in some form or another, including sewers, pipes, and the buried River Fleet, “the most powerful of all London’s buried rivers.” [p. 52].  Powerful, maybe, but the Fleet was more of an open sewer when it still flowed above ground. Thus, after the Great Fire, Wren sought to re-create the Fleet as a majestic, Venetian-type river that flowed through the City down to the Thames.  To this end, he constructed a canal.  But this did not turn out so well; by the 1720s, Alexander Pope was using the Fleet as the backdrop to the corruption of Britain in The Dunciad.  As commercial activity closed in on the Fleet, it became silted up, and was eventually built over and that’s how we get Fleet street today.

The chapters leading up to that on pipes (Ch. 8), however, read like they were picked up off the cutting room floor from when Ackroyd was writing London and Thames.  Perhaps it’s a testament to Ackroyd’s skill as a writer, but these chapters feel effortless, and not in a good way, as if he just rather sneezed them out.  They contain a lot of interesting information, but not much more in terms of analysis and organisation.

It is only when we get to the eighth of thirteen chapters that London Under hits its stride. “The Mole Men” tells the story of the men who built the tunnels that lie under the city.  The Thames Tunnel is the star of the chapter.  Its construction is a fascinating study in engineering, ingenuity, and the sheer terror induced by water. Having grown up in cities that have made great hullaballoo about tunnels under great rivers for transportation purposes, perhaps the story of the Thames Tunnel resonates with me more than most. While the harrowing stories of the gasses under the ground that burst into flame are enough, it is the horror conveyed in the voices of the long-dead workmen on the tunnel when the river broke through: “The Thames is in! The Thames is in!” When it was finally complete in the 1840s, the Thames Tunnel was a financial disaster, costing nearly £500,000 to construct. It was eventually absorbed into the nascent railway system before becoming part of the Underground and, today, the London Overground.

The next several chapters are dominated by the Tube.  In particular, I was taken by the chapter on the disused Underground stations that dot the system.  The London Underground is enough to boggle the mind at the best of times, servicing some 270 stations (though this is a far site fewer than the 468 served by the New York Subway).  In addition to the disused Tube stations, there are “dead tunnels”, empty, abandoned tunnels that run to nowhere off the main lines. (There is a website dedicated to the abandoned Tube stations, entitled, appropriately enough, London’s Abandoned Tube Stations).  Being fascinated by underground subway systems and the abandoned and empty tunnels we can see out the windows of the train as we hurtle below the city, I found this chapter to be the most entertaining and rewarding.

On the whole, London Under reads as though it is the B-side to London and Thames double A-Side single.  It is breezily written, one can easily sit down to read it in the morning with coffee and finish it by the point it’s time to put dinner on.  This has both its virtues and its vices. At its best, London Under is a rollicking tour through subterranean London, well worth the read.  At its worst, though, it is as if Ackroyd sneezed it out, with little thought to narrative or analysis, or to even tying it all together, it’s a long recitation of fact. At all times, though, Ackroyd is informative and interesting.

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§ 5 Responses to Under London

  • When I was a kid, like many kids out there, I wanted to dig in the ground in the field across from my house to find out what had come before. I lived in an urban area so I was sure I’d find all manner of goodies. Of course, I never did, but I never really knew what I was looking for to begin with and it was still a lot of fun.

    History Television has a show called “Cities of the Underworld” (http://www.history.ca/ontv/titledetails.aspx?titleid=114725) which explores what lies underneath current city streets. Not particularly academic, but rather entertaining and often informative, the show is fun to watch and see what lies beneath since most of us will never get the chance to see these places first hand.

    Throughout time, nature (humanity is, of course, included here) has shaped the surface of our planet as a result of the conditions at the time. Going back and taking a look gives great insight and hopefully keeps things in perspective.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I did the same thing when I was a kid, wherever I lived (we moved around a lot), I do remember digging once, I can’t for the life of me remember where this was, or even what province, though it was probably BC (as opposed to Ontario or Québec), my best guess it was Victoria, but my friend and I found a bunch of old 19th century bottles, brown and clear glass and various fragments. I cut the palm of my right hand on one of the glass fragments, but this was too cool to pay much attention to something as unimportant as a cut.

      I saw an episode of “Cities of the Underworld,” again, I can’t remember the city, but it was some place I didn’t even ponder as having anything under it but sewers and the like, it was kinda neat, but it was a dud city, really.

      As for academic, it’s kinda the point, innit, to get away from the academy with some of this stuff? Things can be fun and interesting for their own sakes, not for academic study.

      I am also interested in the engineering of the landscape for human use, not just building structures, but actual engineering, like Frederick the Great filling in the coast line of Prussia to expand his land mass, or the aboriginals out west carefully constructing Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (easily my favourite place name, next to Walla Walla, Washington).

  • E A M Harris says:

    Thank you for this post. As an ex-Londoner I found it fascinating. I also had a look at the site about London’s abandoned tube stations and found several surprises.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Yeah, the abandoned Tube stations site was really interesting when I found it, I don’t know London, never even been there, but the idea of under-the-city archaeology and whatnot fascinates me due to a museum here in Montréal at Pointe-à-Callière, which was the site of the first European settlement here in the 1640s. Thanks for reading!

  • […] episode of this series.  I’ve touched on this subject before on this blog in relation to London.  And I was fascinated by Peter Ackroyd’s book, London Under.  One of my favourite blogs is […]

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