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London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 1, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“There’s plenty of marvelous information in the book about what lies beneath London. . . . Ackroyd mines historical anecdotes to great effect. . . . He is not just interested in London’s hidden relics; he’s interested in what they—and the idea of an underground—mean to a culture. London’s underworld is a ‘shadow or replica of the city,’ and it is also a shadow of ourselves and our thoughts, the stuff that’s discovered when we open the trapdoor.”
The Daily Beast

"Eloquent and visceral."
Kirkus Reviews

Praise for London: The Biography

“Magnificent. . . . Succeeds in animating on the page the life of one of the oldest and greatest . . . cities in the world.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A wonderful book, a treasure of information and anecdote … a book to be taken up again and again for the pleasures that lie within.”
The Chicago Tribune
“Ackroyd writes in a wonderfully graphic style that carries the reader through historical byways effortlessly.”
The Denver Post
“A tour de force by a writer of immense skill. . . . A treasure of information and anecdote about one of the world’s great cities, a book to be taken up again and again for the pleasures that lie within.”
The Seattle Times
“Packed with strange delights and bizarre occurrences. . . . Ackroyd is a writer of memorable, eccentrically rhythmic sentences that one wants to quote at length.”

About the Author

PETER ACKROYD is the author of London: The Biography, Shakespeare: The Biography, Thames: The Biography, and Venice: Pure City; acclaimed biographies of T. S. Eliot, Dickens, Blake, and Sir Thomas More; and several successful novels. He has won the Whitbread Book Award for Biography, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award, among others.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; Reprint edition (November 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385531508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385531504
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 7.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #695,475 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
There is plenty to see in London, and the prolific Peter Ackroyd has written about the city itself, the river that runs through it, its Great Fire, and much more. In his most recent work, however, he takes us down to underground parts that we don't get to see (except for the famous Underground itself). _London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets_ (Nan A. Talese) is an appreciation of the wonderful and the appalling that supports or slithers within the foundation of the great city. There is throughout a dual emphasis here. We think of the ground beneath us as the realm of the devil, for instance, but also it is where there is buried treasure, if we only knew where to dig. It is the region of sewers, and also of sacred wells. Historian Ackroyd obviously loves the subterranean theme, though, because, as he repeatedly shows, each age is built on the one before, and so the levels of history are written within the soil. This is a beautiful little book, brightly organized into chapters, each of which has a vital story full of intriguing detail. Ackroyd writes with his usual enthusiastic flair, and entertains us with the chthonic demons and treasures.

Workmen in 1865 were digging beneath Oxford Street, and found a flight of steps. They descended, and found an arched brick structure, probably a Roman baptistery with the spring bubbling up in it still. Was it rescued and renovated and put on the long list of London's important sights for visitors? No, it was obliterated to make a foundation for a new building. The new constantly covers up the old. Plenty of springs and wells and streams have been buried. There still are streams, but they no longer run down the hills and meander through the fields.
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By SMT on December 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
How can a book by Peter Ackroyd be disappointing? He is among the most erudite of contemporary historians. His works are the perfect balance of historical fact and engaging writing. He is a gifted writer of fiction and non-fiction. Any reader familiar with his work would expect 'London Under' to be another example of his considerable skill.

Instead, as other reviewers agree, this little book is a disappointment. Perhaps readers should be grateful that it is so short, because it is a clumsy collection of facts hastily flung together and coupled with vague gestures towards historical analysis. Here and there a few shining sentences show Ackroyd's brilliant touch. The rest of the book reads as if a junior researcher had arranged a series of notecards for the author to glance at in his spare time. Chronological hiccups and non sequiturs litter the pages. Glaring omissions will disturb readers with even the slightest interest in the subject; how is it possible, for example, for a study of underground London to make no mention of Churchill and the Cabinet War Rooms, other than in a caption for a photograph? Dull lists of dreary facts bore even the most avid reader; compare Chapter 12: The War Below with the Wikipedia page 'Air-raid shelter'.

Only die-hard Ackroyd fans need read this and prepare, my friends, to be disappointed.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I learned about this book via an NPR radio interview with the author. It sounded fascinating, and Mr. Ackroyd sounded like he could elaborate well and tell a good story, in addition to listing facts about the historical and rare glimpse into the subterranean world under this great city.

Unfortunately, this book read like a long list of facts. Facts, facts, facts. Under this building is x. Beneath that grate is y. Etc, etc etc. A single paragraph could tell you about a dozen different underground "things," yet apart from rattling them off, one or two per sentence, there was usually very little or no context, interesting tidbits about the fact, or story to make it truly an interesting read. The content of this book could have been formatted as a very long bulleted list of all the underground places of interest and it would have been no less interesting. Where the author does once in a while depart into a story or anecdote, it's short, too infrequent, and fails to hold enough of my interest.

Not to mention, on my Kindle, the book abruptly ended with a short chapter about aliens forcing our future human generations into the sewers, at just 61% of the way through! (the remaining 39% was bibliography, glossary, etc.).

This is my first book review, and I read a lot, so this book obviously had enough of an impact on me to go out of my way to write this. I thought the price was a little steep but expected a very interesting read. Yes, some parts were interesting, and I learned a lot of FACTS, such that if I was to go to London and want to explore hidden places I probably couldn't get access to, I'd make a list from this book, but it wasn't fascinating, nor did I feel it was a good value.
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My mind is boggled by the immensity of the research that must have gone into creating this book. It is a collection of facts that is almost unbelievable in scope. For a person who is doing a scholarly study of the topic, this book will be an invaluable resource.

However, I was hoping for a little entertainment. Okay, I admit that I silently mouthed, "Wow!" two or three times. There are a couple of fascinating tidbits scattered here and there. However, here is a typical example of the writing:

"From Marylebone Lane the Tyburn follows a southward course across Oxford Street, where it then turns southeast into South Moulton Lane. Brook Street is named after it. It then pursues a circuitous course through Mayfair before finally emerging into Down Street where naturally enough it descends into Picadilly.... The Tyburn then crosses Green Park, flows past..."

You get the idea. Nearly the entire book reads like this, a dry, boring recitation of facts that few people would be interested in. This is too bad, because this book could have been made into a masterpiece with a little more imagination and a touch of drama.

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