PETER ACKROYD IS A MAN ATTRACTED to energy. As the visionary poet William Blake, one of his biographical subjects and an inspiration, declared in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 'energy is eternal delight' and Ackroyd himself has produced a formidable output. His novels include The Great Fire of London (1982), The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and Hawksmoor (1985), awarded both the Guardian Fiction award and the Whitbread Prize. He has written biographies of Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot and Thomas More and histories of both London and the Thames. He is also the author of two volumes of poetry and regularly reviews for The Times, Sunday Times and the Spectator.
Ackroyd, therefore, is one of the few people to have a reputation as a novelist, biographer and historian. He has straddled all of these fields with aplomb, producing books that are elegant, scholarly and popular.
Given that so much of his work has been inspired by London it was entirely apt to interview him in the History Today offices in Soho. Born in 1949, Ackroyd comes from a working-class background. He grew up in Acton--his father was a truck driver and his mother a secretary--where he won a scholarship to the Catholic school St Benedicts. From there he went on to Cambridge and Yale. After university he worked for the Spectator as literary editor and managing editor before giving this up to become a full-time writer.
From the beginning one of the interview's themes was Ackroyd's resistance to overarching theories. So in terms of becoming a writer there was no grand plan. There was no carefully plotted career. 'It just happened', he said with a studied vagueness sipping a glass of wine.
In terms of the historical novel he sees himself as a pioneer. When he published Hawksmoor, a darkly romantic book that combines elements of psychic thriller with historical detection and psychological analysis, to great acclaim in 1985 this, he feels, was breaking new ground. Of course there were John Fowles and Robert Graves but, those authors apart, serious historical fiction was a completely unknown endeavour. Now it is everywhere; every second book seems to be set in the past. Yet, back in the mid-1980s the challenge was to recreate history in a fictional form which had not been done before.
As far as writing goes, Ackroyd is inspired by Blake and Dickens, both of whom he calls 'Cockney visionaries'. This is the tradition, not recognized by universities or the literary establishment, that he places himself within because they 'see in London the outlines of Eternity or at least see London as a symbol of human hopes and expectations whether it is in the mystic form of Blake or in the more romantic from of Dickens. And I feel instinctively part of that tradition. I am not saying that I am as good as they are, that would be absurd. I am saying that this is the tradition that most appeals to me.'
Why? Because, in Ackroyd's opinion, both are strident, spectacular, theatrical, and colourful. Both too have great drive and purpose. He is drawn to Blake who, with the exception of T.S. Eliot, he feels is the last great religious poet in England. A great survivor and a great democrat, Blake saw the spiritual world in the delineation of London. As for Dickens, Ackroyd admires his extraordinary intellectual and imaginative range; his piercing depiction of popular urban life in Victorian Britain.
First and foremost, Ackroyd sees himself as a writer and on this count he has no secret formula. He writes so many words a day, working every morning and every afternoon. Nor does he say 'this is history' or 'that is biography'. Like a composer approaching a symphony or an opera all writing is part of the same process. It is the same act of creation with a central character and a beginning, middle and end. Thus, even if with biography or history you tend to be more disciplined and more restrained, in all of his writings he draws upon patterning, metaphors and image making. …