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Tuesday, 13 September 2005




Peter Ackroyd


Photo: © Roderick Field


Novelist, biographer and poet Peter Ackroyd was born in London on 5 October 1949. He graduated from Clare College, Cambridge, and studied at Yale University as a Mellon Fellow, where he completed Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism, published in 1976. On his return from Yale, he worked for The Spectator magazine in London as literary editor (1973-7), then as joint managing editor (1978-82) and film critic. He is chief book reviewer for The Times newspaper, and a regular broadcaster on radio. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1984.

Equally acclaimed for both his inventive biographies and his formally diverse fiction, Peter Ackroyd blends past and present, fact and fiction in his writing, much of which revolves around the city of London, evoked as both a powerful physical presence and as a sinister brooding metaphor, haunted and animated by its past and its characters, both real and imaginary.

He also displays a genius for literary impersonation, both in his biography and fiction, notably in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), written as Wilde's autobiography and winner of a Somerset Maugham Award. Similarly, Ackroyd was forced to employ new methods of writing biography in T. S. Eliot (1984), winner of the Whitbread Biography Award and the Heinemann Award, when he was prevented from quoting extensively from Eliot's poetry and unpublished correspondence. His mammoth and controversial biography of Charles Dickens was published in 1990, while his biography of William Blake, published in 1995, avoided the two traditional views of Blake as either a madman or enlightened visionary. His biography of Henry VIII's friend and chancellor, Thomas More, whose refusal to ratify Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn led to his own execution, was published in 1998.

Ackroyd's first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), is a reworking of Dickens' Little Dorrit. The book set a formal pattern for many of his later novels, including Hawksmoor (1985) and The House of Doctor Dee (1993), by interpolating historical segments with present-day narratives. Hawksmoor, winner of both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, was inspired in part by Iain Sinclair's poem 'Lud Heat', written in 1975, which inferred a mystical power from the positioning of the six churches which the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor built in the East End of London during the reign of Queen Anne. The novel gives Hawksmoor a diabolical motive in the siting of his buildings, and creates a modern namesake, a policeman investigating a series of child murders, a seeming consequence of Hawksmoor's work. Chatterton (1987), is a complex, layered novel which explores plagiarism and forgery.

His other novels include First Light (1989), an original distillation of English landscape and history; English Music (1992), which shifts dramatically in time to focus on events in English history seen through its myths and traditions; The House of Doctor Dee (1993), which epitomises Ackroyd's fascination for the sense of history and place which lurk in the hidden corners of London, in this case Clerkenwell in the east of the old city. The book repeats the dual narrative form, narrated in turns by Matthew Palmer, a contemporary researcher, and John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, both inhabitants of the same house in Clerkenwell, separated and connected through several centuries; Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) brings together a series of grisly East End murders and the world of Victorian music hall, with a cast of real and imagined characters, from music hall performer Dan Leno to Karl Marx and George Gissing; and in Milton in America (1996), Ackroyd creates an imaginary life for the poet, who travels to New England and founds a Puritan community ('New Milton'), which he rules.

The Plato Papers (1999) is set 2000 years in the future where the citizens of London look back on the Mouldwarp era, a dismal time in history which spanned 1500 to 2300 A.D.. The Clerkenwell Tales, a story of adventure and suspense set in the late medieval world, was published in 2003, followed by The Lambs of London, in 2004.

Peter Ackroyd's published poetry consists of three collections, and he is also the author of works of literary criticism, as well as a book about the history of transvestism. London: The Biography (2000), is a history of the city that has exerted a powerful influence on his writing, and was awarded the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature. The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (2001), brings together essays on literature and film. His television series on London for the BBC was screened in autumn 2003, accompanied by the tie-in book, Illustrated London (2003), which was shortlisted for the 2003 British Book Awards Illustrated Book of the Year.

Peter Ackroyd's first play, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, was first performed in London in 2000 by the actor Simon Callow, in a production directed by Patrick Garland, and Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion, was published in spring 2002 to accompany a three-part BBC TV series.

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, a cultural history of England from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, was published in September 2002. Peter Ackroyd is currently working on a biography of Shakespeare, and a series of biographies for Chatto & Windus entitled Brief Lives, the first of which - Chaucer - was published in 2004. He is also writing a series of non-fiction children's books for Dorling Kindersley entitled Voyages through Time.

Peter Ackroyd lives in London. He was awarded a CBE in 2003.

Genres (in alphabetical order)

Biography, Criticism, Drama, Essays, Fiction, Literary criticism, Non-fiction, Poetry, Short stories


Ouch The Curiously Strong: Volume 4, No. 2, 1971

London Lickpenny Ferry Press, 1973

Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism Vision Press, 1976

Country Life Ferry Press, 1978

Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag, the History of an Obsession Thames & Hudson, 1979

Ezra Pound and His World Thames & Hudson, 1980

The Great Fire of London Hamish Hamilton, 1982

The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde Hamish Hamilton, 1983

T. S. Eliot Hamish Hamilton, 1984

Hawksmoor Hamish Hamilton, 1985

Chatterton Hamish Hamilton, 1987

The Diversions of Purley and Other Poems Hamish Hamilton, 1987

First Light Hamish Hamilton, 1989

Dickens Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990

Introduction to Dickens Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991

English Music Hamish Hamilton, 1992

The House of Doctor Dee Hamish Hamilton, 1993

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994

Blake Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995

Milton in America Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996

The Life of Thomas More Chatto & Windus, 1998

The Plato Papers Chatto & Windus, 1999

London: The Biography Chatto & Windus, 2000

The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures Chatto & Windus, 2001

Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion BBC Books, 2002

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination Chatto & Windus, 2002

The Haunted House, by Charles Dickens and Others (foreword) Hesperus, 2003

The Clerkenwell Tales Chatto & Windus, 2003

Voyages through Time: Escape from Earth Dorling Kindersley, 2003

Voyages through Time: The Beginning Dorling Kindersley, 2003

Illustrated London Chatto & Windus, 2003

Chaucer Chatto & Windus, 2004

Shakespeare: A Biography (provisional title) Chatto & Windus, 2004

Voyages Through Time: Ancient Egypt Dorling Kindersley, 2004

The Lambs of London Chatto & Windus, 2004

Turner Chatto & Windus, 2005

Prizes and awards

1984 Heinemann Award (joint winner) T. S. Eliot

1984 Somerset Maugham Award The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde

1984 Whitbread Biography Award T. S. Eliot

1985 Guardian Fiction Prize Hawksmoor

1985 Whitbread Novel Award Hawksmoor

1988 Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist) Chatterton

1998 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography) The Life of Thomas More

2001 South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature London: The Biography

2003 British Book Awards Illustrated Book of the Year (shortlist) Illustrated London

2003 CBE

Critical Perspective

The prolific Peter Ackroyd combines in his work two qualities generally assumed to be mutually exclusive: mannerism and versatility. His style, or better still, his styles, are so distinct, and yet so diverse, as even to suggest a whole community of writers: he should be known, perhaps, as Peter Ackroyd Associates. The range and prodigality of his writing challenge the reader to enter a vast body of works, following myriad connections, continuities, and recurrent concerns. Acclaimed today as a 'master of English fiction', and also considered (alongside Michael Holroyd) as one of Britain's leading literary biographers, Ackroyd is also a prolific reviewer, poet and critical theorist, having to date authored over twenty published volumes of verse, criticism and drama. The abundant corpus of book, film, music and theatre reviews, lectures, introductions, short prose and miscellaneous writings (almost a million words of text), speaks in itself of the varied nature of his achievements. To do justice to Ackroyd, therefore, one must address the dialogue across these variegated forms of writing. Central to his work is the notion of cultural inheritance as an active and evolving tradition, in the sense advocated by T.S. Eliot (the subject of one of Ackroyd's acclaimed biographies), in the essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'. Again like Eliot, Ackroyd is peculiarly conscious of his own position in relation to this Tradition, and his writing thus characteristically provides a rich, ambitious and suggestive intertext for vast areas of anglophone literary and cultural history.

The young Ackroyd interested himself primarily in the writing of poetry, but as an undergraduate, at Cambridge in the early 1970s, also cultivated the essayistic and pamphleteering habit of the future professional reviewer. Although single-minded about embracing the form of verse, Ackroyd gave in to his insatiable appetite for analytical knowledge and experimentation with prose, which he described as 'the intellectual equivalent of bulimia.' (Peter Ackroyd, Notes for a New Culture (London: Alkin Books, 1976), rpt. 1993, 7.). As the critic John Walsh commented, 'At Cambridge, his study technique was to immerse in every word written by or about an author who interested him, then distil from his reading a single essay of such nitric brilliance that his tutors and examiners could merely swallow hard and wonder about the safety of their tenure.' (John Walsh, 'Confessions of a Monipolyloguist' in the Sunday Times, Section 6, 17 May 1992, 4-5.). Ackroyd's views on the parochialism and insularity of contemporary English literature and literary studies were trenchantly articulated in his first volume of criticism, Notes for a New Culture (1976).

Collected in four volumes, beginning with Ouch (1971), Ackroyd's poetry is often compared to that of John Ashberry and John Ash in its use of seamless juxtaposition, but above all to T.S. Eliot in its blending of voices and registers, and its profound consciousness of literary convention and tradition. In their composite structure and mixing of broken speech patterns and narrative fragments, Ackroyd's poems, particularly those in The Diversions of Purley (1987), also evidence his most distinctive trait, the blurring, even explosion, of genre distinctions - a trait which receives its most powerful expression in his works of biography.

Rooted in Ackroyd's favourite operation, that of reconstructing the past, his work as biographer is in many ways indistinguishable from his novelistic endeavours. Changing tone and diction according to the author in question, Ackroyd creates his own Pound, Eliot, Dickens, Blake and More. He disrupts the linear sequence of cause and effect and lays bare the narrative impulses of literary history, effectively 'fictionalising' biography. The technique parallels his re-writing of a series of works of the Anglo-American canon in novels such as The Great Fire of London (1982) his first fictional piece and First Light (1989), or pseudo-biographies in the manner of The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and Chatterton (1987). Moving between 'past and present, presence and absence, construction and destruction,' (Alison Lee, Realism and Power. Postmodern British Fiction (London: Routledge, 1990), 70.). Ackroyd reinvents and re-appropriates Dickens's Little Dorrit, Hardy's Two on a Tower, and Wordsworth's image of 'that marvellous boy...who perished in his prime' in search of his own voice, as though in direct response to the principles enunciated by Eliot in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'.

Hawksmoor (1985), winner of the duplex Whitbread Novel Prize and of the Guardian Fiction Prize (and shortlisted for the Booker prize), is anything but the archetypal 'early' novel. This history-spanning dual narrative prefigures the writer's pet themes, 'history-mystery' and the expression of a dialectic relationship between past and present. Coming together by way of the most unlikely mixture of the comical and the macabre, the lofty and the sordid, the book offers two historical perspectives: the early eighteenth century of London architect Nicholas Dyer, and the present day city of detective Nicholas Hawksmoor. In the novel, Dyer is based on the historical figure of Nicholas Hawksmoor, assistant to Christopher Wren and himself the architect of several London churches, while Hawksmoor is a late twentieth-century detective, investigating a series of East End murders at the churches designed by the real-life architect. Although told in alternating sequences, the two story lines collapse into each other and intertwine ambivalently, the novel offering a sample of the complex architectonic structure of Ackroyd's fictions.

'Gamesomeness', the continuous obliteration of the boundaries between fiction and reality, is also at the heart of Chatterton, the novel most responsible for Ackroyd's reputation as an inveterate postmodernist. A meditation on plagiarism, forgery, faking and impersonation, taking its cue from the tragic career of the eponymous eighteenth century poet, Chatterton traces the interconnected destinies of a circle of writers caught up in the repercussions of the young man's death. A compendium of reference and self-reference, loan and copy, it is Ackroyd's subtlest exploration of writing as a form of palimpsest, though the bravura technical performance is repeated in a series of subsequent works of the 1990s, such as The House of Doctor Dee (1993), and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994). These pieces also serve further to develop Ackroyd's other key theme, the city itself, which receives its own tribute in the extraordinary London (2000).

Providing the setting for all of his novels except First Light, Ackroyd's London is simultaneously a realm of the supernatural, featuring sorcerers, golems and black magic, and the text at the origin of all English texts. The cradle of a 'lost', pre-restoration 'civilisation' that he sets out to revive, the city is for Ackroyd a site of perennial inspiration, a mystical source of empowerment, constantly fostering creativity, self-awareness and reflexivity. Catholic and Londoner, Ackroyd has celebrated the Unreal City, throughout his career, representing its heterogeneity, complexity and energy in what have been in turn termed 'neo-Gothic', (post)-modern epic, metaphysical-detective, and historiographic metafictional modes.

Ackroyd's journalistic activity has been continuous with his other writing in its idiosyncrasy and distaste for convention. As literary editor for The Spectator (1973-87), and a regular reviewer for the Sunday Times and The Times, he has considered an overwhelming variety of topics, ranging from the novels of Mishima and Castaneda to the cinematic technique of Tarkovsky and Fellini. In more recent critical work, Ackroyd has moved towards a more self-oriented discourse. Slightly less caustic in tone and dialogic in nature, his reviewing is now marked by a considerable tendency to regard the editorial space as a forum for sharing his outlooks on his own literary practice within the contemporary scene of writing. 'The Englishness of English Literature', delivered at Cambridge University as the Leslie Stephen Lecture for 1993, is thus as much an exercise in self-definition as it is an attempt to grasp, individuate and exemplify the qualities that epitomize the English spirit. Not a product of a 'Great Tradition,' suffused with Anglo-Saxon positivism, Ackroyd's 'Cockney visionary' embodies the most profound 'and innately English' transcendental values, 'living for ever in a state of eternity called Albion.' (Peter Ackroyd, English Music (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992), 358.).

It is but one of the paradoxes of Peter Ackroyd that he is most inimitable when he is most imitative. His originality and strength lie in this capacity for empathic engagement with the past, rendering literary and historical material immediate and vivid. It is equally surprising that his popularity seems to increase almost in inverse proportion to the erudition and complexity of his work. As with that other great and capacious London writer, Charles Dickens, the achievement of Peter Ackroyd is in this ability to frame polemical, innovative and challenging writing in the most entertaining and dynamic forms.

© Adriana Neagu and Sean Matthews

For an in-depth critical overview see Peter Ackroyd by Susanna Onega (Northcote House, 1998: Writers and their Work Series).

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