Monday, April 16, 2007

Peter Ackroyd on London

Continuing my light blogging week focused on London, we now get to what is doubtless the most ambitious book on London in recent years, Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography (2000), an 800-page stew, in typical Ackroyd magpie style, of seemingly every anecdote, legend, and fascinating fact about the history and life of the city. He's plumbed the histories, novels, diaries, letters, and newspapers of centuries and collected them all in a breathless, headlong history that you can't help but read aloud to friends. Here he is on silence--a quality not usually associated with London, but one that is familiar to anyone who has wandered its streets early on a Sunday morning, when one's only company is church bells, or through the glass towers of the City on a winter weekend:
Yet, on Sundays and public holidays, Lombard Street falls quiet. Throughout the old City, silence returns.

The history of silence is one of London's secrets. It has been said of the city that its most glorious aspects are concealed, and that observation is wonderfully well fitted to account for the nature of silence in London. It comes upon the pedestrian, or traveller, suddenly and unexpectedly it momentarily bathes the senses, as if going from bright light into a darkened room. Yet if London sound is that of energy and animation, silence must therefore be an ambiguous presence within city life. It may offer peace and tranquility, but it may also suggest absence of being. It may be a negative force. The city's history is striated with moments of silence: the silence of the surrounding country when the anonymous poet of London Lickpenny leaves Cheapside in 1390, the silence of the civic assembly when Richard III was first proposed as king in 1483, the silence of desolation after the fire of 1666.

There was the silence of sixteenth-century London, after the day's last cry at the stroke of midnight:
Looke well to your lock,
Your fier and your light,
And so good-night.

Of course the London night was not wholly quiet. What London night is, or ever will be? It is the contrast that is significant, in an almost theatrical sense, because it marks an interdiction upon the natural ardour of the citizens. In that sense the silence of London is indeed unnatural. There is a mid-seventeenth-century poem by Abraham Cowley which intimates that, on the departure of all the wicked and the foolish, the city would become "a solitude almost," the implied silence suggesting her that noise and bustle are indistinguishable from sinfulness or folly. In that sense London could never be a silent city.

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