Walking the streets of Ye Olde London Towne: When a big book satisfies

My current streaming devotion is Netflix’s “The Frankenstein Chronicles” (2 seasons, 2015-17), a mystery and horror drama set in early 19th century London. The series features Sean Bean as Inspector John Marlott, lead investigator of a string of violent crimes possibly associated with a scientist who is intent on bringing the dead back to life. It’s a clever build on Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

“The Frankenstein Chronicles” depicts the London of the poor and downtrodden, drawing upon real-life historical figures to make for an entertaining mix of fact and fiction. This grim and gritty side of 19th century London has long held a fascination for me.

In fact, this current binge view caused me to reach for one of my favorite books of popular history, Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2001).  Here’s a snippet from the Publisher’s Weekly starred review of the book:

Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling “biography” of the city of London. . . . Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. . . . Anglophiles and others will rejoice.

London: The Biography is less a chronological history and more a thematic narrative, drawing generously on contemporary accounts from Londoners known and not-so-well known. Its greatest success is an array of especially vivid depictions of everyday life during the Elizabethan through Victorian eras.

Reading this book, you can practically smell the cooked food from street carts and cheap eateries, and the stinking slop of unsanitary streets. You can picture yourself walking into smoky coffee houses and seeing Londoners of all types conducting their business over “dishes” of the hearty brew. You can imagine the awful living conditions of the working poor and the destitute.  And you quickly grasp that stealing a bit of food or an item of clothing, even out of pure desperation, may lead to harsh and humiliating punishments meted out by an unforgiving justice system.

This is a big book — some 800 pages — but fortunately it can be read selectively and completely out of order, dipping and choosing based on one’s specific curiosities. If you decide to take a look at it, do remember that you’re not reading about a city celebrated for its beauty, such as Paris or Venice. Rather, as Patrick McGrath put it in a review titled “A City Much Like Hell” for the New York Times, this is:

…a loving portrait of a rambunctious monster, warts and all. Of the modern city Ackroyd says it ”can hold, or encompass, anything; in that sense it must remain fundamentally unknowable.” His own great accomplishment in this hugely entertaining volume is to make unknowable London to a large extent knowable — by the inspired selection and deft organization of extraordinary materials, and his spirited prose. He succeeds in animating on the page the lived life of one of the oldest and greatest — if dampest and grayest — cities in the world.


Revisiting a classic: “The Civil War” by Ken Burns

I’ve been thinking a lot about the relevance of the American Civil War (1861-65) to our current political and social milieu here in the U.S. I have been fascinated by the Civil War since my boyhood days and long understood its ongoing significance in defining our civic life. Events of the past five years, in particular, have underscored the war’s continuing hold on this country.

Starting last week, I opted to re-watch Ken Burns’s 1990 award-winning documentary mini-series “The Civil War.” The debut of “The Civil War” was quite the television event in the fall of 1990, captivating millions of viewers who tuned into their Public Broadcasting Service stations over five consecutive nights. I was among them, and I have watched the full series on multiple occasions over the past 30 years.

In terms of production values, Burns set a new standard for historical documentaries. He recruited renowned historian David McCullough to narrate the series. He used well-known actors and other public figures to be the voices of historical figures. He utilized innovative camera work to bring contemporary still photos to life. He interspersed interview segments with leading historians and public intellectuals to provide authoritative commentary on the war. And he wove in popular music of the day to evoke the era, while brilliantly opting for an exquisitely haunting, modern folk instrumental, “The Ashokan Farewell,” to serve as the series theme music. (Listen to it here.)

Although “The Civil War” won dozens of awards and the hearts of reviewers, it also attracted its share of critics. Some claimed it was too sympathetic to the Northern, anti-slavery point of view. But others asserted that it was too soft on the slave-owning Southern side and critical questions of race and racism, feeding into the mythology of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Especially in light of events in the U.S. during the past 15 months, I was curious to gauge my own reaction to this re-watch. How does “The Civil War” hold up against the backdrop of America of the early 2020s? How do criticisms of the documentary play out against our current situation?

Yup, I understand the criticisms that the series is too easy on the pro-slavery South. Historian Shelby Foote, a masterful storyteller who receives a lot of airtime, uses his aw shucks persona to romanticize the Rebel side. He also claims that the main cause of the Civil War was a failure of America’s remarkable ability to compromise, without explaining whether “compromise” includes permitting slavery to exist.

That said, the opening episode of the series devotes considerable time to framing the war in the context of the extraordinary evils of slavery. Also, the series explains how ending slavery increasingly became a central purpose of the Northern cause, in addition to reuniting the nation. Foote’s main counterpart, historian Barbara Fields, helps to take apart the Southern mythology, and her final remarks at the conclusion of the series eerily anticipate our present circumstances.

All in all, I found that “The Civil War” remains a compelling, even epic portrayal of this signature event in American history and a great example of narrative, historical storytelling via film. More than during any previous viewing, it underscored for me the painful reality that, as a nation, we have not resolved the fundamental differences that led to these four years of awful carnage.