Book Review: ‘London: The Biography’ by Peter Ackroyd

'London: The Biography' by Peter Ackroyd.

‘London: The Biography’ by Peter Ackroyd.

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. London: Vintage, 2001.

[London] contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.

Ackroyd, 2001; p779.

At a grand total of 822 pages, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is not a read to be taken on lightly. But when you accept that the book is a comprehensive social, cultural, political and economic history of one of the oldest and most powerful capital cities still functioning in the world today, 800 pages suddenly doesn’t seem like so much any more. The book is epic, but so is London.

London: The Biography is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which I think was a wise decision. You still get a sense of the drastic changes over the last 2000 years, but rather than one huge description, it feels like Ackroyd is trying to get at some of those essential characteristics that make London London, that give the city its unique London-ness. For Ackroyd, this comes down to commerce; he believes that the city’s insatiable progress from the Roman to the modern era has been fuelled by an unquenchable desire for profit.

It is in fact the very universality of London that establishes these contrasts and separations, it contains every aspect of human life within itself, and is thus perpetually renewed. Yet do the rich and poor inhabit the same city? It may be that each citizen has created a London in his or own head, so that the same moment there may exist seven million different cities.

Ackroyd, 2001; p772.

This rather uncomplimentary take on a city for which many, myself included, hold in high regard can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable, but Ackroyd is just being frank. His London is ruthless, uncontrollable and indifferent to suffering, its people aggressive, loud, violent and prone to being over-dramatic. Perhaps it makes me uncomfortable because I do not disagree.

The book is aimed at a popular rather than an academic audience. Ackroyd does not reference his sources in the text, although there is “An Essay on Sources” at the back of the book. This can be frustrating if you are using the book as a starting point for conducting your own research on the city’s history. As the quotes above demonstrate, Ackroyd’s writing style can be poetic, and although most of the time it works well he does tend to personify London, giving the city a will and an autonomy that it cannot possibly have. Although I will admit that it can feel like London has a personality and a consciousness of it’s own, it isn’t actually true.

Attempting to tell the entire story of London is no mean feat, and Peter Ackroyd has made a valiant effort. As he himself admits, London is an incredibly diverse and complicated city, with a history stretching back over 2000 years. It would be impossible to fit it all into several books, let alone one. Ackroyd does a good job of making you feel like you know the unknowable city  just that bit better.

London’s Protest Stickers

Stickers are a ubiquitous part of the urban environment, like this sign in Cable Street.

Stickers are a ubiquitous part of the urban environment, like this sign in Cable Street.

Stickers are a ubiquitous part of the urban environment, often more common than graffiti in city centres. They are quick, easy and cheap to produce and put up, so they are an effective way of getting a message across. They are employed for a variety of purposes, such as advertising, art and dissent. The meaning of many is not obvious, they remain indecipherable to all but the author and those with the right knowledge to decode them. They also come in many shapes and sizes, with many different techniques used to produce them. Like graffiti they are meant to be ephemeral, gradually disintegrating under the weight of the weather, idle hands and cleaners. As I move around London I photograph many of the protest stickers that I see, gradually building up a map of dissent in our capital. Below are some of the stickers I have seen.

A free education sticker outside of the University of London Union building in Malet Street on  17/02/15.

A free education sticker outside of the University of London Union building in Malet Street on 17/02/15.

Occupy Parliament Square Sticker seen on the 2/2/15 at King's Cross Station.

Occupy Parliament Square Sticker seen on the 02/02/15 at King’s Cross Station. This sticker has been weathered, picked, and written on- demonstrating how protest stickers can spark political debate.

Some stickers are printed, whilst others look more handmade, like this one seen in Brick Lane on 5/6/14.

Some stickers are printed, whilst others look more handmade, like this one seen in Brick Lane on 05/06/14.

Some stickers advertise a particular protest, like this one in Malet Street, seen on 17/02/15.

Some stickers advertise a particular protest, like this one in Malet Street, seen on 17/02/15.

Not all protest stickers are left-wing, like this one seen at Euston Station on 14/11/14.

Not all protest stickers are left-wing, like this one seen at Euston Station on 14/11/14.

Something as simple as speech bubbles can drastically alter meaning, as with this government advert, seen on 4/2/15 in Elephant and Castle

Something as simple as speech bubbles can drastically alter meaning, as with this government advert, seen on 04/02/15 in Elephant and Castle. These stickers allow a sort of audience participation, so others can add more tax dodging companies.

This sticker has creatively recycled a page from a book to oppose Israel. Seen in Soho on 31/12/14.

This sticker has creatively recycled a page from a book to oppose Israel. Seen in Soho on 31/12/14.

Protest stickers are particularly common in some areas, such Malet Street in Bloomsbury, where the University of London Union building is. This photo was taken there on 17/02/15.

Protest stickers are particularly common in some areas of the city, such Malet Street in Bloomsbury, where the University of London Union building is. This photo was taken there on 17/02/15.

Som stickers can be seen in multiple locations across the capital. This photo was taken outside the Inner London Crown Court in Southwark, but it has also been seen at Euston Station.

Some stickers can be seen in multiple locations across the capital. This photo was taken outside the Inner London Crown Court in Southwark, but it has also been seen at Euston Station.

Book Review: ‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley

'March, Women, March' by Lucinda Hawksley.

‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley.

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March. London: André Deutsch, 2013.

Lucinda Hawksley’s March, Women, March, recently released in paperback, serves as a fantastic introduction to the history of the women’s movement in the UK, introducing the reader to all the key players from Mary Wollstoncraft through to Christabel Pankhurst, including quite a few who are not so well known nowadays. The book traces the struggle for women’s rights and female suffrage from the end of the eighteenth century to the late 1920s, using extensive quotes from those directly involved to help tell the story.

Hawksley uses numerous extracts from the diaries, letters and publications from those directly involved in the events she describes, so much of the story is told in the words of those who were there and took part. Not only does this act as proof of the huge amount of research that must have gone into the book, it also gives it a personal feel; you can almost feel the determination and strength of the women emanating from the pages.

One of the great strengths of this book is the fact that it tells the whole story of the women’s movement, putting the well-known suffragettes into the context of their predecessors and contemporaries. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the suffragettes did not spring up out of nowhere- they were inspired by, and worked alongside, vast numbers of other women such as Caroline Norton, Clementina Black and Charlotte Despard. March, Women, March acknowledges and celebrates the whole of this history, not just the bits that have successfully made their way into the collective consciousness.

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that I would have liked more detail about the early pioneers of the women’s movement. Women such as Caroline Norton, who railed against the way that she was treated by both her husband and the law after her marriage, and campaigned tireless for the rights of married women to see their children and control their own income, are much less familiar to me than the Pankhursts, and I would have liked to hear more about them.

March, Women, March also puts the campaign for suffrage into the context of other campaigns that aimed to benefit women, such as attempts to raise awareness about sexual health and contraception, and the ‘rational dress’ movement, which sought to free women from the physical constraints of tight corsets, high heels and excess frills and bows. These campaigns made social pariahs of their champions, appalling mainstream society with their frank and radical opinions. Many of the campaigners, such as Clementina Black who worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of working women, believed that the situation would not truly improve until women were granted the vote, for why should politicians listen to them when they could not influence the outcome of elections? Everything came back to suffrage.

If you are acquainted with the events and figures of the women’s suffrage campaign after 1900, much of this book will feel familiar, although you will probably still learn something new. If you are not familiar with the activities of the WSPU and others, then this book is an ideal introduction to the topic. Either way, March, Women, March is a very enjoyable read, and I would highly recommend it.

Rebellious New York: A Radical Guide to NYC

Last week I went on a second year undergraduate field trip in New York as a member of staff. I was running a project group on protests and riots in the city, so I spent the week immersing myself in the radical past and present of the big apple. There are loads of things you can do to learn about New York’s radical side, and I had a great week getting to know them all.

New York's iconic skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Centre.

New York’s iconic skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Centre.

With my group of students, I visited the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Centre in Washington Heights. The Centre aims to honour Malcolm X and his wife by continuing their legacy, supporting campaigns that fight for social justice and human rights. It is in the building in which Malcolm X was assassinated; the very spot where it happened is sectioned off, and some of the original floorboards remain. It is a very interesting space, and I think it is a much better memorial than a statue or mural (although the centre does have both of these) because it continues their campaign work rather than just passively existing as a reminder.

My students with a statue of Malcolm X at the Shabazz Centre.

My students with a statue of Malcolm X at the Shabazz Centre.

We also went on an Occupy Wall St. walking tour with founding member of Occupy and qualified tour guide, Michael Pellagatti. Pellagatti uses his extensive knowledge of the history of New York to put the Occupy movement into the context of other protests in the city, and his experience as one of the original members of Occupy Wall St. to give fascinating details about exactly what happened where in Zucotti Park and the surrounding areas.

Michael Pellagatti, the Radikal Tour Guide.

Michael Pellagatti, the Radikal Tour Guide.

The Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition Activist New York is another way to learn about the radical side of the city. It details various protest movements, from resistance to religious intolerance in New Amsterdam to the recent controversy over plans to build a mosque at 51 Park Street near Ground Zero. It is a fantastic introduction to the city’s radical history, particularly if, like me, you have little prior knowledge. Unfortunately it is not a permanent exhibition, so won’t be around forever. The Museum also has a 20 minute video about the history of New York, which is a brilliant introduction to how the city developed.

The Activist New York Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

The Activist New York Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

If you are interested in doing your own research about protest in New York, then the Interference Archive in Brooklyn is an ideal place to go. The archive’s collection houses ephemera (leaflets, posters, t-shirts, badges, banners, zines etc.) from a wide variety of protests across the world. The aim of the archive is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements, and it does this through a whole range of events and exhibitions, as well as its collections.

The Interference Archive.

The Interference Archive.

As with other cities, there are also sign of contention and controversy all over the streets of New York. Graffiti is common, as are protest stickers, although I did not spot as many stickers in New York as I have done in London. Some of my students witnessed a Black Lives Matter protest in a clothes store whilst they were out shopping. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and shows how protest can occur in every aspect of urban life.

A protest sticker referring to the recent controversy over the police treatment of black people.

A protest sticker referring to the recent controversy over the police treatment of black people.

Although not as old as London, New York still has a vibrant and fascinating history, and protest and contentious politics are a big part of that history. Obviously there is any number of things to see and do in New York, but if you do go, perhaps consider getting to know its radical side, as it is such an integral part of the city.