I enjoyed listening to Peter Ackroyd read and be interviewed last night. He is a neighbour psycho-geographically speaking and an undoubtedly impressive personage, The event was to mark the publication of the first volume of his “History of England”. An eccentric workaholic loner, a legendary storyteller, a lover of London and England’s cultural heritage, he is a bulky man and is starting to remind me somewhat of Winston Churchill. He is very funny in a dry sort of way and whilst a popular (and populist) writer remains seemingly indifferent to the great affection in which he is held. In contract to his slim and enthusiastic interviewer, his demeanour oscillated between that of an impatient headmaster and a cornered badger about to bolt. Throughout, he appeared keen to leave and get back to his writing – as well he might, having another FIVE volumes of the history to get through before its putative completion in 2024.
He generally responded to questions with an economy bordering on irascibility. One audience member asked one of those long, self important questions which was really a lengthy assertion of their own cleverness followed by the preposterous enquiry “Of the tens of thousands of facts in your book, how many would you stand up for in court and attest were definately true?”
“None.” barked Peter and turned to the next questioner.
The interviewer had a bit more luck teasing information out and asked what we were all dying to know: “How on earth do you manage it?”. (His output is prodigious and beginning to rival that of his literary hero Dickens: novels; biographies; the histories; poems; essays – he just keeps pouring them out). His response managed to be both simultaneously indignant and poignant:
“I haven’t got anything else to do.” he said and left it that.
He evidently has a taste for the macabre. His reading had all been about the gruesome crimes and punishments of the mediaeval period and he left us with some very entertaining and insightful thoughts on the recent London riots, slavery and celebrity TV historians. I thought at one point he almost came out as a potential cross-dresser.
A final question from the floor asked what sort of person London would be like if it had a being of its own – as seems to be implied by the title of his seminal work “London: a Biography”. Whilst he was mulling this over, I looked around and guessed that a few of audience were probably thinking what I was thinking.
It would be like Peter Ackroyd.