NY: Doubleday, 2011.
Ackroyd is a well-known English historian, not of the grand-sweep variety, nor of the academically contentious sort, but a purveyor of absorbing stories, of interesting miscellanea, about which he talks in a quiet, almost poetic style — even when, as here, his subject is sewers, and water mains, and the tunneling of Underground lines.
London: The Biography was a big, heavy book concerned with the city aboveground. This one is much smaller, both physically and in intent, and it concentrates on all the things which have gone on under the houses and fields and streets of London down the centuries which have supported life on the surface. There are chapters on the “lost” rivers which are actually still there, though hidden and canalized, and the catacombs which most Londoners don’t even know exist, and Bazalgette’s enormous sewer-rebuilding project (which included constructing the Embankments), and attempts to tunnel under the Thames, and the excavation of the Cabinet War Rooms under Whitehall which remained secret for years after the end of World War II. And you’ll have to be familiar with a great many place-names to appreciate some of what the author has to say. (Present-day security concerns will also sometimes get in the way of the story, unfortunately.) Ackroyd is not the first to undertake this journey, but he quotes liberally from his predecessors and gives credit where’s it’s due. This is not a major work of history, but it will keep you absorbed for a long afternoon.