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London, the biography.

One awaits, expects, the revelation that Peter Ackroyd is the collective appellation of more than one person "likely a good many persons, so vast is the erudition, so all-encompassing the research, so prolific the output. And so varied. Ackroyd has produced works of fiction, poetry, criticism, and biography. London is another biography if one accepts the assertion of the title. And why not?

Ackroyd, among many other themes in this banquet of a book, makes a compelling case for the notion of this City/social phenomenon as a discrete, identifiable organism, and outlines its character with the same cam, accuracy and sense of journalistic immediacy one finds in his true biographies.

Ackroyd is, by turns purveyor of supple, sumptuous prose, meticulous scholar, learned and astute social observer, wry cultural archaeologist. Bard he is a master of atmospherics, transporting the reader to eras long past "virtually dropping the reader in mid-High Street armed with the full lexicon of contemporary social context." London captures the roaring, seething, irrepressible nature of a city unparalleled in its grandeur and squalor and brilliance and brutishness.

Matters of law and law enforcement ostensibly take up only 8 of the 79 chapters but they are recurring themes throughout the book, although not uncommonly in the context of efforts to govern the ungovernable--it is estimated that in the latter half of the 18th century, one Londoner in seven, man, woman and child alike, pursued crime as a primary occupation. The narrative resonates with the flexible morality engendered in supposedly reputable commerce by a social milieu frequently unregulated by anything other than mob-rule.

London has long personified the essence of social and commercial Darwinism and this study is a fascinating exposition of how a society "even a riotous, fluid one, by trial and error, innately develops the internal means of self-regulation essential to prevent it from disintegrating.

The development of the rule of law in London is the history of the tooth and claw interaction of oppressor and oppressed, seething social ferment bubbling over, progressing from insurrection to mob rule to uneasy truce, establishing a new status quo in the social order. The historical proclivity of London for calamity and ebullience and frequently an unholy amalgam of the two provide an ever-changing stage for the recurring spectacle to play out.

Ackroyd reminds us of the Roman origins of the medieval English law, London's re-establishment as a great city, and consequently a centre of law, under Alfred the Great, and the relatively early development of its citizens as a politically influential force. Citizens' armies, citizens' uprisings, citizens' vigilante groups have all had their prominent turn in directing the City's history. When desperate, doomed Newgate prisoners escaped en masse to the roof of the abomination in which they were confined, it was mobs of common citizens, not police, who fought them in pitched battle, eventually subduing them. Thus the power of the mob generating, at least to a degree, social equality (certainly not egalitarianism--this is England after all).

In London, as a pure function of demographics, a poor man or woman could by dint of cunning, ferocity, enterprise, and grassroots populism rise to wealth and a measure of social distinction.

London has always had a tendency to celebrate its rogues, especially those with derring-do verve. The same notoriety was accorded their executioners, some of whom elevated their craft to a science--the cargo-handling derrick derived its name from the early 17th century hangman who originally devised it "... as an ingenious structure, like a crane, upon which twenty-three condemned could be hanged together". Derrick was outdone in the 1670s by Jack Ketch whose triple tree gallows could simultaneously dispatch a full two dozen.

In the tale of Jack Ketch, one has cause to reflect on the ambiguity the great mass of the London population has always felt about its criminals. Some of this no doubt derived from the harshness of an English law, ever more preoccupied with the protection of the propertied classes, which eventually numbered in the range of 350 capital offences. But does this fully explain the Kray Brothers being truly bigger than the Beatles in 1960s East London? As Ackroyd observes in the coda of a chapter entitled Horrible Murder ... in London mythology, the greatest heroes are often the greatest criminals. And so it was with Ketch. Tracts, pamphlets, allegories, street ballads--a creativity so vast as to constitute a cottage industry in itself--all broadcast in the grimy streets, all devoted to the vilification of Ketch, whose prolificity at dispatching unlucky folk heroes to eternity made him universally despised, and generated a public appetite for accounts of his misfortunes, real or imagined (apparently a long-held precept of a certain strain of London journalism--never let the facts get in the way of a good story).

As usual, it appears Ackroyd analyzes the social phenomenon correctly, and one can conclude no better than with one final quotation: "There was always the hope or expectation that something might go wrong--that the condemned man might fight for his liberty or the engine of death might not function satisfactorily. Charles White, condemned for arson in 1832, sprang forward at the exact moment the trap was opened and balanced on its edge while 'the crowd roared their encouragement as he struggled furiously with the executioner and his assistants. He was eventually thrown down the drop with the hangman clinging to his legs. In these instances, the sympathy of the London crowd flooded instinctively to the condemned, as if they were watching their own selves in the act of being dispatched by the authorities of the state."

Brian Lannan is a lawyer practising in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
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Title Annotation:Law And literature
Author:Lannan, Brian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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