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Some time after returning from Carlisle to live in SE London, I started to venture further afield, going up to the centre of London and to Greenwich and elsewhere. These trips were generally during the lulls we had from air raids. During one of the evening raids we were in the shelter, as were most people.
Many people had, it appeared, developed a sense which told them when they must go into a shelter and on other occasions perhaps they would decide not to — take a chance was sometimes their thoughts; of course some did make the wrong decision! A particularly nasty raid with a great deal of noise was around us, much louder than most of the previous raids; it seemed much closer which kept us inside the shelter which was not our usual routine.
We would watch the follow up of our ground ack-ack guns when a German bomber or any of their aircraft were caught in their beams of light and when we saw the shells exploding in the sky, we had high expectations of seeing a Nazi aircraft hit — and when it was, we always gave a cheer and our thanks to our defenders!
RM Sotheby's - Land Rover Defender 90 Autobiography | London
This raid was very traumatic and there certainly was a stronger sense of fear. After an hour or so my brother, Alex, began to show signs that his asthma was being troublesome.
Gradually it became worse and he tried to tell us in a very shaky voice that he wanted his tablets; but he had already taken some and now needed medical attention. Without giving the matter deep thought, I slipped out of the shelter, giving the impression, I believed, of going to stand not very far outside the entrance of the shelter. On impulse, I ran as fast as I could up the rear path to our gardens, which brought me out into Sunnydene Street at a point where it joined the main road. I ran into an area where there was an anti-aircraft gun lorry which was firing into the searchlight beams at a target the lights had caught.
Get into a shelter, son. I could hear very clearly the noise of things hitting the pavement and the occasional crack of something striking a roof. I kept saying to myself not to panic and to get the doctor.
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I was on his doorstep and gave several quick knocks on the large door. It was opened and a surprised lady beckoned me to quickly enter.
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Within seconds I had explained about Alex. The doctor took me back in his car and within minutes Alex was given an injection.
Shortly after, he was much improved. The doctor gave us some advice and made his excuses to return to his wife; they were both of upper middle-aged years. There is nothing to be done, beyond listing and cataloguing, breaking open dead files. It is an echoic city, filled with shadows. Unpersuaded by the "fantasies of latter-day psychogeographers", Ackroyd acknowledges London as a crucible of myth; King Lud gazes out on the mystagogue EO Gordon's sacred mounds. From vaporous Celtic origins, druids and shamen, his narrative drifts in leisurely paragraphs across a heritage recovered from dusty files.
Above everything, there is this infernal acoustic babble, an unmediated chaos of competing church bells, street vendors, "roaring boy" apprentices, from which he sifts meaning. It is as if, in treating London as a glorious fiction, he is remembering, rather than uncovering and disclosing. Passages of social discourse are spliced by reveries, by post-traumatic dreams, recalling and reviving things that made London the only place in which the author would choose to live.
Looking back, summarising, quoting from earlier witnesses - from Orwell and Virginia Woolf, De Quincey and the anonymous author of the medieval poem London Lickpenny , which becomes the title of his own first pamphlet of verse - Ackroyd reveals what so much research, so many years of wandering the city, have granted him. His book becomes a lecture, a performance. He digresses, offers swift rhapsodies on food, drink, clubs, weather, graffiti: monologues of pleasure, sensual fugues. There are whispers of a secret self, previously unconfessed, unrevealed in any of the novels.
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Playing Boswell to London's Johnson, Ackroyd is liberated; by oblique strokes, he can reactivate the dangerous fantasies of his published fiction. An impresario of smoky effects, Ackroyd pulls back the curtain to show us the treasures in his personal cabinet of curiosities: the great and the good, the infamous, the freakish, the criminal. Editing an impossibly plural landscape, he decides, like his mentor Dickens, to service a cult of celebrity. This is London as a picaresque exhibition, a freak show of the notable and the notorious; pearly incidents of sentiment set against the encroaching darkness.
His judgments are characteristically generous: "greatness" is bestowed as lightly as the trinkets in Harold Wilson's honours list. There are great fires, plagues, storms. London is built on a genealogy of greatness. William Blake is the "great London mythographer".
John Stow, the "great 16th-century historian". This is a trans-historical module, looking at the development of autobiography from the late 18th to the midth centuries. Though most of the texts were written in English, it has a comparative literature dimension, and includes works in English translation by French and German writers. It begins with the Romantic writers Rousseau and Wordsworth, often considered the founding figures of modern autobiography, and Thomas De Quincey. It puts the philosophical autobiographies by John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Nietzsche alongside the aesthetic autobiographies of the leading Victorian art critic John Ruskin and the American novelist Henry James.
In the Modernist period it juxtaposes two experimental autobiographical works by James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, to consider the changing relations between autobiography and fiction.