Book Review: London Under by Peter Ackroyd

Books like can often be just what the Doctor ordered for a Friday night when I’m in the mood for edutainment. It comes under a new breed of non-fiction books that look to inform and reach out to a wide audience. At just 176 pages (paperback edition), it is not a daunting length being just long enough to give a decent overview.

Peter Ackroyd wants to tell us a story about a London few of us get to see. With 2000 years of history, who knows what secrets sit beneath the streets? This book is a compilation of researched notes, reports and snippets from those who have seen the tunnels beneath the streets (artificial and natural), the hidden rivers, plague pits, sewers and disused underground stations – everything that has contributed to building one of the greatest cities in the world and remain extant beneath the modern streets.

On the plus side, this gives some fascinating insights into hidden London – the sort of things you would never think about on a visit walking the streets and seeing the sites. For a history nerd, an archaeologist and map geek like me, this book should be one to devour and keep on the shelf. Whether you’re a Londoner or just want to get an understanding of the rich history of the city, this will probably appeal.

Which brings me to the negative points. At just 182 pages, it’s too short. I kept wanting the writer to go into more detail about some of the fascinating aspects of London Under. What’s worse is that this short book feels overwritten at the same time. The text is bloated, sentences are repetitive and over-long and it is often missing finer details. In a nutshell, this book is both too long and too short. The writing style is all wrong; it is clearly aiming for as broad a readership as possible but at times the text style dips to below GCSE level education. So not only is there not enough information, what is there is spread very thinly and it talks down to its audience. Oh and it’s padded with illustrations.

What is there is good, but there is not enough of it and the length feels like serious padding, making the overall effect incredibly superficial. I immediately felt the need to look up some of the ideas presented here for something a bit more substantial – and I rarely need to do that with non-fiction that satisfactorily summarises the information inside. This could have been so much better.

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