Monday 6 September 2021

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, Tom Chivers

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Penguin and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In this fascinating book, Chivers take us on an exploration of London, looking beyond the modern city to the forgotten past that has left subtle marks, if you know where to look. Written in a relaxed manner, Chivers takes us with him as he walks familiar streets, enlists the help of enthusiasts to aid his search for ancient rivers and geological features, and gives us a glimpse into his own life and his relationship with the places he visits. This is a book that will make you look at the city with fresh eyes and wonder what lies beneath your feet. 

At the start of each section is a map showing the make-up of the ground covered, helping readers visually understand the journey they’re about to go on. A sinkhole near his home on Petticoat Lane is the jumping board for the first section which will take you from Chaucer to the London riots of 2011 and bombings of 2005 with breathtaking speed, and with an emotional punch for those whose memories of the more recent events still haunt them. His broad sweep approach allows patterns to emerge from history, reminding us that although the scenery might have changed, the struggles and ambitions of humankind are recognisable across the centuries.

Clutching his modified map of London, Chivers covers huge swathes of the city, remarking on feats of engineering and the layers of history that are at times disturbed or discovered in building works. We learn about rivers that have been bricked over, Bazalgette’s famous sewerage system, and the fact Westminster Palace once sat on an island. We learn about a storm in 1928 that returned it briefly to this, filled the moat of the Tower of London, and sadly took the lives of ten locals.

This is a reflective, emotive book, a love letter to London both past and present. It feels very much of its time with references to Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and terrorist attacks. Contemporary readers will be familiar with these topics, which are mentioned only briefly, but I wonder if future generations of readers will have the same understanding, the same visceral response. Similarly, his laying out which streets he is walking along may bore those who can’t visualise the locations, or perhaps will help direct them to pinpoint the locations on their own maps. Made up of personal memoir, history, and geology, this is an interesting read that gives you a glimpse of the city through its inhabitants' eyes both past and present. A great read for London lovers and history enthusiasts alike.

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