Has anyone else been following the BBC 2 series The Tube? I saw the first three episodes and found it fascinating, if something of a PR job. My interest in what goes on underground started years ago when I saw a Look at Life film about ‘People who work when we’re asleep’. The tube, sewers, tunnels carrying cables, all caught my imagination. Later, I read Peter Laurie’s classic Beneath the City Streets and learned about the secret underground places. All this explains why I grabbed Peter Ackroyd’s London Under when I saw it at the library. Compared with his mighty tomes, London, the Biography and Thames, Sacred River, this book is novella-length at 182 pages but boy, is it dense.
There are a lot of facts in London Under but, this being Ackroyd, all are subject to imaginative interpretation. It’s always thrilled me to think of the thousands of years of history under your feet as you pace the streets of London. Each stratum below has a secret to reveal, with many more still to come. If you believe Ackroyd, most secrets are dark ones. The ground below us is described frequently as ‘the underworld’ and there are references throughout the book to Hades, the Styx, Pluto. Tunnel entrances are seldom called doors; rather, they are portals, immediately summoning up the image of moving into another world. Below ground it is literally dark, ‘pitched past pitch of black.’ as Ackroyd writes, channelling G M Hopkins. Dark also in its history of fear and death.
The dead, of course, are buried below ground and so in a sense always with us. Ackroyd quotes a passage from Night Walks in which Dickens imagined ‘how, if they were raised while the living slept … the vast armies of the dead would overflow the hills and valleys beyond the city, and would stretch away all round it, God knows how far.’ There are records of Roman deaths, plague pits (more fear and horror), bodies mutilated in apparent human sacrifice. The deeper you dig, the hotter it gets; no wonder so many writers have described these dark regions as ‘hellish’. Not just bodies but whole streets have been uncovered wherever excavation has taken place. When the Jubilee line was built, the architect said, ‘It’s chaotic down there, you just can’t believe what’s going on.’
The gods of the underworld seem very demanding types, always requiring sacrifice and propitiation. The places where now-hidden waters run may be sacred sites, or they may be destroyers, drowning the innocent and engulfing the streets imposed above them. Counters Creek passes the cemeteries of Kensal Green, Hammersmith, Brompton and Fulham, ‘perhaps out of atavistic attraction to the buried dead.’ Marc Isambard Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames is described as one of several attempts ‘to stay or undermine the deity of the river.’ The Thames exacted its toll of dead workmen as did the sewers when they were built, and the underground railway. The early locomotives had names, one of which was Pluto. This is the kind of thing Ackroyd finds significant, just as he sees connections which wouldn’t be obvious to other people. For example, a mausoleum and a temple were found underground at Southwark. ‘The buildings had been painted with red ochre, pre-dating the ox-blood tiles of the London Underground stations.’ Referring later to these tiles, Ackroyd says, ‘The association between the underworld and animal sacrifice has been maintained.’
My admiration for Peter Ackroyd should be well known but goodness, what a dark mind. He’s a man you somehow can’t imagine sitting peacefully in a garden but, like Dickens, endlessly tramping the streets of London and feeding off them. He ends here with ‘London is built on darkness.’ And by the way, don’t read this remarkable book if you suffer from coprophobia.