November 2011

Jaya Chatterjee

nonfiction

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets by Peter Ackroyd

In "Night in Hell," the mainstay of Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, the speaker burnishes his talents as an infernal tour guide: "I intend to unveil all mysteries: religious mysteries or those of nature, death, birth, the future, the past, cosmogony, the void. I am a master of phantasmagoria. Listen!" he hails the reader. English novelist and historian Peter Ackroyd, in London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, is as skilled a raconteur. Revered for his literary and cosmopolitan biographies (of T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake, Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare, Venice, and the Thames), Ackroyd traditionally hems adroit observations and piquant historical detail into his narratives with panache. 

London Under is Ackroyd's alluring invocation of centuries past, the depths he explores indeed places of "fantasy" and "romance, where the childhood impulse to hide can be indulged to the wildest extent. The idea of secret passages, of mysterious entrances and exits, of retreat and concealment, possesses an incurable charm. Yet if we are not found, in the game of hide-and-seek, what then? "What if we were left alone in the darkness, our companions gone into the light?... You are suspended in eternal night. But no night is as black as subterranean blackness. It can be a vision of hell itself." With this, he unmasks chthonic London, revealing the geological strata of chalk, compressed clay, gravel, and sand that subtend the city streets; prisons beneath the Tower of London and Clerkenwell Green, whose lowest extremities were reserved for the most depraved; the vaults beneath the Adelphi arches by the Strand, once gathering places for beggars; the Anglo-Saxon graves and mammoth bones excavated from the ruins of Old St. Paul's, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666; a baptistery from the Roman rule of "Londinium," found beneath Oxford Street; the head of a statue of the emperor Hadrian, disinterred from the Thames after 1,700 years, the Carmelite monastery underneath Fleet Street, home to today's press; the nexus of pipes, tunnels, and sewers below the city streets, and the construction of the first London Underground tube stations at Euston and Paddington, still major hubs for today's commuters. Astonishingly, many of these areas were untouched until the turn of the twentieth century, when archaeologists and antiquarians actively unearthed treasures for the Guildhall Museum. Ackroyd now looks to these objects and places, especially the Underground, with awe and affection: "the Underground is... a deep pool of individual solitudes... a symbol of collective will. It is both solitary and communal, representing the paradox embedded in any society or culture." His meditation evokes Charles Baudelaire's prose poem "Crowds": "Multitude, solitude: two equal and interchangeable terms for the active and prolific poet," he wrote. 

Pagan theology and paranormal activity form a particularly lively sustain, too, luring readers to and through the Stygian depths catalogued herein. "There may be monsters," Ackroyd warns; "the lower depths have been the object of superstition and of legend as long as there have been men and women to wonder." A well in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was likely used for pagan worship, he notes, while ghosts frequented buried tributaries and rivers. Graves designated for suicide victims are set apart from hallowed places of Christian burial, for taking one's own life was once considered an ungodly act. 

Ackroyd's anecdotally enticing, small-format guide is not, however, a Baedeker for the uninitiated reader or the tourist seeking geomancy for a mere day of sightseeing in The Big Smoke. Recent urban narratives clearly demarcate sections of their tales: Eric Hazan's The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps neatly hews The City of Light into historic and contemporary, using Baron Haussmann's 1850s modernization. Graham Robb's masterful Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris subdivides through windows onto historical figures like Marie Antoinette or architectural heroes such as Charles-Axel Guillaumot, whose construction of the Parisian Catacombs, an underground ossuary and tunnel system, literally restored parts of the city that were beginning to sink below ground level. London Under, however, stridently defies any such organizational frame or rhetoric. 

Like a retrospective too eager to amalgamate every aspect of an artist's life, its detail is overwhelming and entropic, beset by the underworld's having "developed organically with its own laws of growth and change." Immiscible objects and creatures -- human bones, Roman artifacts, waterways, and subterranean rodents -- vie for the reader's attention, as do neighborhoods and houses of worship, their stories strewn across the ages without the aid of a chronology of even the seminal events that shaped today's metropolis, such as the construction of City of Westminster and the Abbey between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Great Fire of 1666, or the 1708 completion and consecration of St. Paul's Cathedral, the better to tie subterranean events to those above ground. The epigrammatic chapter titles ("Darkness Visible," "The Heart of Darkness," "Buried Secrets," "Deep Fantasies") mystify. The absence of maps completes the sense of disorientation, a curious oversight indeed in an otherwise stunningly visual book, replete with deckled edges, sepia-tone illustrations, burnt sienna text, ornamental chapter titles and openers that, in their artful setting of only the first sentence of each chapter against the greyed-out backdrop of a cupola on each new recto, tease the reader to turn the page. 

Neophytes and informed readers alike may fare better with Ackroyd's London: The Biography, an exhilarating, eminently readable romp through two millennia of the city's history, rendered more beautiful by color galleries and hand-drawn maps of London before and after 1800. By contrast, London Under, its complement, is difficult even for the cognoscenti to chart. 

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets by Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 978-0385531504
240 pages