Up close and personal with Peter Ackroyd, England’s insanely prolific, controversial and eccentric novelist and historian.
BY JODY ROSEN
September 12, 2013
Writers write because they have no choice, the cliché goes, but if you crunch the numbers, it’s clear that certain writers have less choice than others. Peter Ackroyd, the 63-year-old English novelist, biographer, historian and author of more than 50 books, is one of those for whom writing at some point turned the corner from avocation to compulsion, and then from compulsion to continuing Olympian feat.
Ackroyd writes nearly all day, nearly every day. Each morning he takes a taxi from his London home, in tony Knightsbridge, to the office he maintains in Bloomsbury, where he typically divides his workday between three books. He begins by writing and doing research for a history book, turns to a biography sometime in the afternoon and finishes the day reclining on a bed in a room adjacent to his book-lined office, writing a novel, in longhand.
“It’s just the way I work,” Ackroyd says. It was a Saturday in early summer, and he was sitting in his office, a handsome, sun-flooded room with large windows that look out over a genteel square. The walls held shelves, packed with history books, scholarly monographs (“The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III,” “Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England“) and three-ring binders full of photocopied articles from academic journals. On a shelf above a large desk, there was another pile: a stack of DVD’s for one of Ackroyd’s current works-in-progress, a biography of Alfred Hitchcock.
“I think there’s a resistance to the idea that you can be a good biographer and good historian and also a good novelist,” Ackroyd says. “You’re either accused of being a dilettante or of overproducing. But I’ve been doing it nearly all of my working life. I suppose the routine was originally designed to inhibit boredom, and also to earn money. But now it’s just become second nature.”
In Britain, Ackroyd’s way of doing things has made him a literary star, with many of his books becoming best sellers. His portfolio is crammed with rave reviews and prestigious awards. The hallmarks of his work are well known: fluid poetic prose, vast erudition, a flair for eccentric historical connections and an abiding interest in England and Englishness, with a particular emphasis on literature and the history and mythos of London.
The most Ackroydian thing about Ackroyd’s writing, though, is the sheer amount of it. In the past decade alone, he has published some two dozen books. These include four novels; a prose retelling of “The Canterbury Tales“; a magisterial “biography” of the Thames River; “London Under,” about the world beneath London’s streets; “The English Ghost,” about the national obsession with specters and spirits; a cultural history of Venice; a beautifully written series of history books for children; biographies of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Newton, J. M. W. Turner, Edgar Allan Poe and the Victorian literary oddball Wilkie Collins; and a handful of other books. If you add up the page totals of these works, you get, by some rough accounting, 6,492 pages, give or take a few hundred. (By contrast, the Modern Library’s “Complete Works” of Shakespeare comes in at 2,560.) It’s the kind of output you associate with a writer of romance novels, or an army of them, not an acclaimed littérateur. In the annals of graphomania, Ackroyd’s closest spiritual kin may be Charles Dickens, a figure with whom he has some familiarity: his 1,195-page Dickens biography was published in 1990. A reader who develops an Ackroyd habit will find his bookshelves sagging.
Now, Ackroyd has undertaken the grandest project of his career — his doorstop of doorstops. He is at work on the third and fourth books of a six-volume “History of England,” which aims to tell the whole story of the sceptered isle, from prehistory to the present. (The first volume, “Foundation: the History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors,” was published in the United States in 2012; Volume 2, “Tudors: the History of England From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I” is out in Britain and will be published here, by St. Martin’s Press, on Oct. 8.) In the British press, the “History of England” series has been hailed as “monumental,” “the biggest nonfiction project of our times,” drawing comparisons to the tomes of previous ages: the literary-historical masterpieces of Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay. The author himself takes a less bombastic view. “I suppose the project makes a kind of sense,” Ackroyd says, “given my longtime interests.”
Ackroyd grew up on a public housing estate in East Acton, a working-class neighborhood in West London. He was raised in a strict Catholic home by his mother, who worked in the personnel department of an engineering firm, and grandmother; he never met his father. He was a bright, bookish child who took a particular interest in history and classics, earning great marks and, eventually, a place at Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied English. He did graduate work on a fellowship at Yale University, and, at age 23, became literary editor of The Spectator, the venerable conservative magazine. He won his first job with a display of Ackroydian industry: he was given a couple of books to review as a tryout, read both in a day, and turned around the reviews overnight. “They realized I worked fast,” Ackroyd says.
Ackroyd published two books of poetry, and then, in 1976, his first prose work, “Notes for a New Culture: an Essay on Modernism.” A debut novel, “The Great Fire of London,” came a few years later, and he began to churn out books at a prodigious clip. His breakthrough came in the mid-1980s, with the publication of a biography of T. S. Eliot and, a year later, in 1985, a novel, “Hawksmoor,” a macabre detective story about a series of murders in London churches, with twinned narratives set in the present and the 18th century. The Eliot book received the Whitbread Biography Award; “Hawksmoor” won the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, and established the themes that would dominate Ackroyd’s work: an obsession with London’s culture and cityscape, and an occult view of history as a kind of grand ghost story, in which the present is inextricably entangled with — haunted by — the distant past. It’s a strain that is present in all his novels, and most powerfully, in his nonfiction, where Ackroyd’s prodigious research, the thrumming rhythms of his prose and his taste for the mystical can combine to dazzling effect. The first chapter of “London: the Biography,” an 848-page blockbuster that may be Ackroyd’s best book, opens with this paragraph:
“If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled ‘Why Can’t We Have the Sea in London?,’ but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, 50 million years before, was covered by great waters.”
In person, Ackroyd can seem a bit like a statue himself. He sits for an interview, barely stirring, answering questions in a deadpan tone, wearing a jowly frown that conceals occasional flashes of humor. He is a large, round, walrusine man; he has a bad leg and he moves uncomfortably, heaving himself up from chairs with great groans. He has always been a heavy drinker. “I used to drink spirits, but my liver said no,” Ackroyd says. These days, he only drinks wine, but lots of it: a bottle with dinner at a restaurant (he always dines out), and another bottle when he gets home at night.
He is, in other words, a boozer and an eccentric — an old-fashioned, classically English type. He certainly stands apart from his contemporaries. Ackroyd is a member of the vaunted British literary generation that includes Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes; he was born, in October 1949, six months after Christopher Hitchens and six weeks after Martin Amis. But unlike those glamorous globe-trotters, Ackroyd is a provincial and proud of it, with a hermetic lifestyle that supports his writing regimen. He hates to leave London, professing a strong dislike for the countryside (“It’s too noisy, too dangerous, I don’t trust their food”) and no interest in traveling to other cities (“I don’t understand their histories”). He avoids nearly all the rituals of literary celebrity, restricting his promotional efforts to the occasional interview and a single appearance per year at a literary festival. He lives alone, and reserves just two Sundays each month for socializing, taking day trips with a friend to visit historic English towns. Ackroyd is gay, and has been single for almost two decades. (His longtime partner, Brian Kuhn, died in 1994.) He has been celibate for years, too, and he deems his sexless solitary life “a great relief”: “I’m happy not to have to bother with any of that anymore. It gets in the way of your work.” Ackroyd recently wrote a libretto for an opera based on William Hogarth’s engravings — but he never goes to the opera, or to concerts, or the theater. For several years in the 1980s, he was The Spectator’s film critic, but since leaving that post he has been to the movies only once. “I don’t want to go to the cinema,” he says. “Nothing would give me less pleasure.”
“Dickens” and “Hawksmoor”: HarperCollins; “Albion”: Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House LLC; “Foundation” and “Tudors”: St. Martin’s Press; “Ghost”: Vintage Books.
Ackroyd’s tendency to wall himself off from the world has brought criticism. When a reporter asked him to comment on the riots that erupted in August 2011 following the shooting death of a young black man in the north London neighborhood of Tottenham, Ackroyd replied that riots were nothing new in London and that the city would go on, unchanged. It was a historically accurate assessment, perhaps, but one that raised complaints about Ackroyd’s worldview as apolitical and aloof. Hitchens, in a review of Ackroyd’s 2002 opus “Albion: the Origins of the English Imagination,” wrote of the author’s “talent for heroic generalization” — a thumping backhanded swipe — and scorned Ackroyd’s tendency to focus on “the pageant while omitting the elements of tragedy” in English history. Some reviewers of Ackroyd’s “History of England” volumes have jumped on him for being flippant about facts — for instance, for ahistorically construing as “English” the various and sundry peoples who have inhabited the land now called England, reverse-engineering history to create a false narrative of continuity.
For his part, Ackroyd will admit to being little interested in politics, and to taking a sweeping view that elides the fine-grain truths of academic history. His aim, he writes in “Foundation,” is to restore “the poetry of history”: to revive page-turning literary history in the Gibbon and Macaulay tradition. Ackroyd also allows that his sense of historical continuity is quasi-mystical, an article of faith. He states his position plainly in “Foundation”: “From the beginning, we find evidence of a deep continuity that is the legacy of an unimaginably distant past. . . . The nation itself represents the nexus of custom with custom, the shifting patterns of habitual activity. This may not be a particularly exciting philosophy of history but it is important to avoid the myth of some fated or providential movement forward. Below the surface of events lies a deep, and almost geological, calm. . . . We still live deep in the past.”
Reading those words, you can’t help but wonder: Is it England that lives deep in the past? Or just Ackroyd? Ackroyd says that when he walks London’s streets, he will sometimes lapse into a time-travel reverie, toggling backward to envision, with crystal clarity, how a street, an intersection, looked two or three centuries before. It may be the case that the “almost geological calm” abides not below the surface of English history, but in the brilliant, esoteric mind of one Englishman. There may be more astute, precise histories than Ackroyd’s, but it’s doubtful that there are more evocative and entertaining ones.
There’s more to come. In his Bloomsbury office on that sunny Saturday, Ackroyd was settling down to a morning’s work: revising some pages of his third “History of England” volume, and writing about the history of coal mining and steel manufacturing for the fourth volume, which will cover the Industrial Revolution. Those books will appear sometime in the next few years, but in the meantime there are other Ackroyd titles in the pipeline, including a novel called “Three Brothers,” about London in the 1960s, and a short biography of Charlie Chaplin, whom Ackroyd places in a pantheon of “cockney visionaries” alongside Dickens, Blake and Turner.
“I’ve often thought that all my books are really one book,” Ackroyd says. “They’re all just separate chapters in the long book which will be finished when I’m dead.”