The last Romantic

Prolific and reclusive, Peter Ackroyd is the master of England’s myths
February 22, 2012

The most extraordinary thing about Wilkie Collins, the latest addition to Peter Ackroyd’s series of Brief Lives, is the groaning “By the same author” column that adjoins its title page. Here, in a space measuring six inches by four, using one of the smallest typefaces known to print, some compositor has managed to squeeze no fewer than 31 items. Most varieties of the modern literary experience are represented: a heap of novels; fat biographies; buxom historical travelogues; selected journalism winched up from the vault. Yet the mark of this altogether heroic effort in bibliography is its incompleteness. No sign of Ackroyd’s four volumes of poetry, his scarifying theoretical primer Notes for a New Culture or even the Voyages Through Time series conceived for the younger reader. A trawl through the British Council “Writers and their works” website rectifies some of these omissions, but even the 40-odd volumes collected there can look like a serious underestimate.

To nigh-on 50 books, large and small (Wilkie Collins is a bare 200 pages; last autumn’s Foundation, the first tranche of a projected six-volume history of England, has nearly 500) can be added a trackless waste of literary journalism extending into five decades. Ten million words, let us say, in a 40-year career: enough pages to carpet the average town centre. In the context of modern English literature, this kind of fertility is more or less unprecedented, for if anything characterises the spangled literary generation of which Ackroyd (born 1949) is a part—the generation of Barnes, Rushdie, Amis minor and Ishiguro—it is a deep-seated reluctance to put words on paper. No equivalent body of English writers, it could be said, has found it quite so much of an effort to write.

Ian McEwan, its figurehead, dishes up a novel every two or three years. And irked by the seven-year gap that separated The Light of Day (2003) from Last Orders (1996), an exasperated critic in the Times Literary Supplement once calculated that the fatally misnamed Graham Swift worked at the rate of 40 words a day. Set against this school of niggling, Flaubertian revisers, Ackroyd looks like a figure from a vanished age: a pale descendant of the clutch of driven Grub Street titans who populate John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), a spiritual heir of the prolific Henry Morley, author of First Sketch of English Literature (1873), who christened his house “Inky Villa,” or Wilkie Collins himself, of whom Walter de la Mare once remarked that he was “lapped in the condition of the worm in the cocoon spun out of his own entrails; ink is his nectar, solitude his paradise, the most exhausting earthly work at once his joy, his despair, his anodyne and his incentive.”


If several of the heroes of Gross’s book were journalists lost to academe, versatile literary freelancers seduced by the lure of newly-founded university English departments, then Ackroyd was a don lost to journalism. A precociously bright child, Ackroyd was raised in a devoutly Catholic one-parent household in a poor part of west London. He won a scholarship to St Benedict’s School, Ealing, took a double first at Clare College, Cambridge and then stepped westward—to borrow the title of Malcolm Bradbury’s novel about literary Englishmen abroad—for a two-year fellowship at Yale. According to Ackroyd, the launch pad for this socio-intellectual flight path can be located in a few well-chosen abstract nouns (“Luck. Energy. Ambition. That’s it.”) Back in England in 1973 with the manuscript of Notes for a New Culture—an incendiary polemic on the “secret history of Modernism”—in his trunk, he could have found a job merely by consulting the appointments page of the Times Higher Educational Supplement. Instead he took the career-confounding step of sending in his CV for the literary editorship of the Spectator.

At this point in its history, the magazine was in lowish water: owned by an abrasive Scottish businessman named Harry Creighton, operating on the Conservative party’s marginalised guerrilla flank, haemorrhaging readers and, as Richard Ingrams once put it, sometimes seeming to consist of a half-dozen pages secured by a single staple. Ackroyd’s interview was conducted by the paper’s editor, the legendary Fleet Street figure George Gale. “Are you a homosexual?” Gale demanded. Ackroyd conceded that he was. “Well, the proprietor won’t like that” Gale remarked. “You’d better make sure that you dress properly.” Ackroyd said that he would do this. Gale’s next question was: “Is there anything unknown to me that might affect your suitability for the job?” Ackroyd volunteered that he had “a bit of a drink problem.” He was hired on the spot.

In the event, Ackroyd’s association with the magazine lasted nearly a decade and a half. With an exiguous staff of six full-time employees, there was a certain amount of multitasking. As well as commissioning reviews, Ackroyd acted at various times as production editor, managing editor, social secretary, occasional foreign correspondent (Gale sent him to the Middle East in 1973 to cover the Egyptian-Israeli war) and film critic. He claimed that the final post had so numbed his sensibilities that he never wanted to see a film again and declared, in a valedictory review, that his greatest achievement was never to have been quoted in a cinema advert. As an aspiring writer he relished the milieu in which he found himself (“I don’t think I would have been able to encompass so wide a range in a university. I was much happier to be introduced to the principles of journalism”) and was sensitive to its routines.

Most Yale-trained 23 year olds given a free hand on the books pages of a magazine would have taken pains to crank up the intellectual thermostat. Ackroyd’s pages, as a later editor Alexander Chancellor recalled, “weren’t at all highbrow… He got Elaine Strich in to review, people like that.” But if they were not highbrow, they were deliberately adversarial—especially when Ackroyd was conducting one of his fiction master-classes—and defiantly anti-academic. “Literary criticism… is now all but paralysed,” he wrote crossly in 1976. “I am referring to those critics in universities, who publish long articles in specialised journals, who write books about Henry James or Samuel Johnson… There has been nothing original from them in ten years.”

To an exacting editorial eye, Ackroyd added a high degree of practical nous. When tasked with the unglamorous task of subediting copy, Chancellor remembered, “he could look at the pages and not seem even to read them,” before cutting out superfluous lines. As the organiser of the magazine’s weekly lunches, he was also responsible for a memorable encounter between the former US Vice-President Spiro Agnew and the Australian entertainer Barry Humphries. At Agnew’s suggestion, Humphries at one point vanished into Ackroyd’s office to reappear in the costume of his alter ego, Dame Edna Everage. Subsequently he insisted that he and Agnew should “take a glass of ouzo together,” and behaved with such flamboyance that Agnew, told that an Evening Standard photographer was on the premises, eventually fled from the building in terror.

Yet Ackroyd was an unlikely recruit to this nursery of hard-drinking, self-confident, mischief-making Toryism, for there was a vulnerable and vaguely distressed side to his nature that had pursued him since childhood. A schoolfriend remembered him “literally running” from social contact with anyone he did not know. A Cambridge contemporary recalled that he seemed to carry around with him an “enormous amount of unhappiness.” Undoubtedly some of this was the result of what Anthony Powell might have called a question of upbringing. Ackroyd once arrived in Chancellor’s office to confide that he had received a letter from his estranged father, now living in Liverpool and wanting help with his own efforts to write. What should he do? Chancellor urged him not to reply. Ackroyd accepted this advice, but now adds the caveat “I’d already decided I wouldn’t.”

Meanwhile, there was a career to forge. In the early 1980s, with three volumes of poetry and one or two miscellaneous trifles behind him—see in particular, Dressing Up, a brief but scholarly history of tranvestitism—he made a conscious decision to start writing novels. The first of these, The Great Fire of London (1982), which turns on a filmmaker’s attempt to construct a modern version of Little Dorrit, is a prophetic work, full of odd little hints of things to come. “History is interesting when you live in the area, isn’t it?” one of the characters observes of the Southwark backdrops, whose “red brick houses” are said to resemble “medieval ovens.” Elsewhere Spenser Spender, director of the film, sits on the upper deck of a bus noting that “the image of a time capsule was one which returned to him in such situations.”

Despite a well-received life of TS Eliot, in which he contrived ingenious ways of getting round the proscriptions forced on him by the Eliot estate, Ackroyd’s early reputation was largely that of a novelist. There were four more outings in the next seven years, all examples of what a fascinated Malcolm Bradbury, writing in The Modern English Novel (1993), called “fragmentation, strange collisions between the past and the uncomfortable and apocalyptic present.” Diagnosing a form of “late-modern literary archaeology,” based on a structuralist absorption with layers, levels and concealment, Bradbury also noted the existence of an aesthetic approach based not so much on felt life as the literature in which that life is reflected. As he points out, Ackroyd’s themes, unlike those of the conventional historical novelist, are less to do with the relationships between individual people and the history in which they fetch up than with the relationship between the writer and whichever bygone text he happens to be borrowing from. The filter through which the novelist sees existence is always the book.

Thus The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) is a ventriloquist’s apologia pro vita sua. Hawksmoor (1985) finds Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor refashioned as Nicholas Dyer, an 18th-century architect who builds human sacrifices into the plans of his neoclassical churches, while a 20th-century detective—also named Hawksmoor—investigates a series of murders taking place on the sites a couple of hundred years later. Chatterton (1987) extends the pattern by examining the life of the celebrated forger-poet in three layers rather than two, while First Light (1989)—a rare excursion outside London to Dorset—further refines it with a Hardy-drenched account of the excavation of a neothilic barrow. Allusive, procedurally adept, bristling with sophisticated literary tricks, all four were substantial critical and commercial successes, while never quite disguising a suspicion that the imagination which sets them afloat is entirely vicarious, a matter not of any genuine internal stimulus but simply a relish of whichever intertextual game happens to be on offer. “Not a natural novelist” Francis King declared, who had perhaps not read the opening section of Notes, with its line about language emerging as the content of literature as well as its form.

Come the early 1990s the novels lose something of their sheen, turn staider, more antiquarian, more didactic. “We read Peter Ackroyd’s fiction in the same way that the Victorian critic George Saintsbury read Anatole France: to find out what Peter Ackroyd has been reading,” the New Statesman’s critic (myself) pronounced of English Music (1992). By this time, in any case, Ackroyd was launched on the second phase of his literary project: the writing of massive, and massively successful, biographies. The £650,000 advance which his agent Giles Gordon secured for Dickens (1990) and Blake (1995) is thought to have virtually bankrupted the publisher Sinclair-Stevenson. Each book carried the Ackroyd thumbprint: Dickens seen as the literary equivalent of a symbolist painter, obsessed with images of birds in flight, open windows and sealed rooms; Blake in danger of being overshadowed by descriptions of the teeming London streets in which he wandered.

Each, too, pointed the way to the productions of what might be called Ackroyd’s third phase, in which character and personality give way to a fanatic absorption in scene, environment, history and myth. “London has always provided the landscape for my imagination,” Ackroyd has remarked. This was true of his early poetry collection, London Lickpenny (1971), and it was even more apparent in London: The Biography (2000) and Thames: Sacred River (2007). These are bravura exercises in psychogeography, in which the worlds surveyed have their own consciousness that extends through time, and history becomes a tangle of criss-crossing ley lines, secret harmonies, a series of barely perceptible twitches on an invisible thread. Tracking the radical intransigence of the people of Kent in Foundation, for example, Ackroyd leapfrogs from the first “Germanic settlers” (4th century) by way of the Peasants’ Revolt (14th century) and Jack Cade (died 1450) to the striking miners of the Thatcher era in a couple of sentences: “The old history still manifests itself.”


Perhaps it does. Or perhaps it is merely being manipulated into doing so. In strict historiographical terms, all this is so old-fashioned as to acquire a kind of novelty by default. It is not just that Foundation peddles a view of the past from which most modern historians would run a mile (his preview of volume two invokes “the poetry of history,” which has a well-nigh Churchillian gloss). For lurking behind it is the idea, first dealt out as long ago as Notes From a New Culture, that there are two kinds of historical self-consciousness: the self-consciousness of the postmodernist, Ashbery-marinated poet of the kind Ackroyd used to be himself, and the authentic self-consciousness of the 18th century Enlightenment, which is a mark not of sophistication but of straightforward “wonder.” The past, to Ackroyd, does not “develop” so much as continue according to mystical patterns that have always been there. JR Green, whose multi-volume Victorian history Ackroyd’s project seems to shadow, held to the Whig ideal of “progress.” Ackroyd believes only in resonance. There are, of course, several drawbacks to this approach: on the one hand, a suspicion that the whole of history is being subsumed into a solitary idea; on the other the thought that everything, ultimately, will be inundated by a kind of Sargasso Sea of extraneous detail. “You see,” Private Eye’s anonymous critic once remarked, having negotiated a clotted account of a London street through which Blake may have passed in 1789, “Peter’s read a book about that.” Even at 200 pages, Wilkie Collins comes crammed with gratuitous add-ons about Victorian omnibuses and medical treatments, put there for no other reason that Ackroyd is fascinated by them.

Meanwhile, the books keep coming, creeping through the publishers’ catalogues like soldier ants, at the rate of three or four a year, so many of them that sometimes Ackroyd can’t quite locate them in his private publication schedule. There is a new novel due in 2015, or perhaps, Ackroyd hazards, as early as 2013. It is already finished, naturally, as is volume two of the History of England (out this autumn) and volume three (the autumn after that.) Another brief life, of Charlie Chaplin, waits in the wings. This kind of routine takes its toll. On the day he finished London: The Biography, Ackroyd suffered a heart attack and underwent a coronary bypass. Drinking days long behind him, he appears to do nothing but sit in his Bloomsbury flat, work eight hours a day, chivvy his assistants and decline invitations. Is he, as old friends insist, a recluse? Ackroyd demurs. “I just don’t like going out in the evenings, and I get very tired.” His emotional life supposedly ended with the death of his long-term partner Brian Kuhn from an Aids-related illness in 1994.

Here, clearly, are the makings of a literary legend: one that the memory of Ackroyd’s pre-retirement public appearances is calculated to bolster. This, after all, is a man famous for making whimsical exhibitions of himself at book-trade dinners and remembered, in the salad days of the mid-1970s, for indulging in arm-wrestling bouts with his New Statesman books page rival Martin Amis. The last time I saw him was several years ago at the Spectator’s annual party. We met in the corner of a room occupied by half-a-dozen lofty Conservatives, whose average height must have been six feet three. Ackroyd beckoned conspiratorially. “Isn’t everyone tall?” he demanded. There was no reason to contest this. “If you and I had been alive in Victorian times, we’d have been giants,” he added. There was nothing incongruous about this encounter, I realised. It was simply Ackroyd imposing his own private narrative on the peculiar universe in which he had fetched up.

It has been said, à la Gross, that he is “the last of the man of letters,” but it would be more accurate to call him the last of the independent scholars: at once a free spirit capering on the margins of a profession that sometimes seems as institutionalised as the civil service, and a complete anachronism; a historian who sits not in a provincial university library but in a Bloomsbury study, who deals not in fact, theme and tendency, but in vision, echo and myth. In the end, the Ackroyd generation was a sad disappointment to those of us who discovered it around the time of the 1983 Granta “Best of Young British Novelists” list. Its books were too restrictive; its sensibilities too constricted; its topcoat of procedural varnish invariably the same. The drawback of the modern English novel, after all, is that it is like so many other modern English novels. In a world of winded ambitions, of proud sixtysomethings still shoring up reputations made 30 years ago, not the least of Ackroyd’s achievements is his remorselessness, his determination to do everything that he possibly can. It goes without saying that this, at heart, is a kind of Romanticism. As Morrissey once put it; “There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.”