Beckon down. Point. Shudder: Carlyle did it. Dickens did it. Wilde, too. And on Tuesday night Peter Ackroyd did it at the V & A. Kevin Jackson, who saw him do it, considers the art of the literary lecture

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The Independent Culture
On Tuesday evening, the novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd lectured an invited audience at the Victoria and Albert Museum on the topic 'London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries'; the proceedings were filmed by LWT, which sponsored the lecture. Ackroyd's talk proposed that the capital city's genius of place had fostered any number of artistic geniuses who lived in the place - Dickens, Blake, Turner, and the music hall star Dan Leno.

Ackroyd also contended that one of the defining qualities of this London sensibility was its debt to the popular theatre. Blake was inspired by the gothic dramas staged at local patent theatres, Turner's 'Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus' by a jaunty song from an entertainment known as Melodrame Mad:

I sing the cave of Polypheme

Ulysses made him cry out

For he eat his mutton, drank his

wine

And then he poked his eye out.

Ackroyd's private motive in giving this lecture, he said, was to outline a London tradition in which he wanted his own writing to be judged - a school of what Dickens called the 'streaky bacon' juxtapositions of tragedy and farce, of folk erudition and pantomime.

It was not until the reception afterwards, however, that Ackroyd conceded that his talk did not merely adumbrate a particular tradition, but exemplified one aspect of it - the genre, that is, of the popular lecture: 'Oh, sure: Carlyle did it, Dickens did it, Oscar Wilde did it. It's always been a London entertainment, at least in an older culture, where there were people who were quite capable of giving lectures to public audiences without being too abstruse. And it's obviously involved with the theatrical element - people standing up in front of a large crowd and projecting themselves.'

The careers of two of the writer- lecturers Ackroyd mentions provide abundant evidence for this last claim, and suggest that the tradition of public lecturing owes far more to the green room than the study. When Oscar Wilde was commissioned by Richard D'Oyly Carte to undertake a lecture tour in America, the aesthete's first response was not to sit down and write the things but to order an appropriately dazzling costume, including 'a befrogged and wonderfully befurred green overcoat'. His second response was to take elocution lessons from his friend Hermann Vezin. 'I want a natural style, with a touch of affectation,' he said.

Charles Dickens, as Ackroyd notes in his recent biography of the novelist, was so keenly aware of the need to dramatise his novel readings that he wrote stage directions for himself in the margins of his text: 'Beckon down. . . Point. . . Shudder. . . Look Round with Terror. . . Murder coming. . . Mystery. . . Terror to the End.' The strain of dramatising his readings in this way was so intense that, one contemporary wrote, 'he would have to be supported to his retiring room and laid on a sofa for fully 10 minutes, before he could speak'. Small wonder that Dickens' family believed that his reading tours were literally the death of him.

Both Dickens and Wilde made a great deal of money from their lectures: in 1869, Dickens received the considerable sum of pounds 8,000 for 100 readings, while by the middle of June 1882 Wilde's American lecture series had taken more than dollars 18,000, of which Wilde pocketed more than dollars 5,000. The American lecture circuit remains a tempting source of income for impecunious writers to this day - W H Auden wrote a comic poem on the subject - though no writer has thus far managed to command the order of fee that ex-President Reagan received from his Japanese hosts: dollars 12m for eight days. But it is not just the lecturer's keen eye to the box-office receipts that can render his text somewhat closer to a script than a scholarly essay.

Unless the lecturer is exceptionally arrogant, dim or giftless, he or she will tailor it for an audience in ways which will determine its rhythm and diction as well as its subject matter. As a tenured fellow of Brasenose College, Walter Pater did not need to draw packed houses; as a thoughtful teacher, he pitched his remarks for the ears of the young. When he published some of these lectures as Plato and Platonism, an early biographer pointed out, 'he did not excise from the printed book many things which had special reference to them, their examinations, their university life'. Nor did he excise his frequent exclamations of 'Well]' - a mannerism which was picked up by Wilde in his American lectures, and which provides lecturers with a useful, appropriately unbuttoned and often fraudulent word of transition to this very day.

Well, not all lecturers think it is their business to charm. The sense of occasion and audience which can be found in some of Ruskin's lectures is profoundly dramatic, but has nothing to do with the reassurances of entertainment. When he was invited by some Yorkshire businessman to come and lecture them about the design for a proposed Exchange building, Ruskin did not so much bite the hand which was feeding him as gnaw it off at the wrist, tearing into his hosts for their lack of scruples.

The text was published in The Crown of Wild Olive, and does not include the shouts, slamming doors and chilly silences which, one supects, must have greeted Ruskin's words. Indeed, reviewers have frequently lamented the incapacity of cold print to convey either the atmosphere of an occasion or the charismatic qualities of the speaker: 'Oh, to be reading greats at B(rasenose) C(ollege),' exclaimed the fin de siecle poet Lionel Johnson in his review of Plato and Platonists, recognising how greatly the writings would have been enriched by Pater's humane presence.

It is one irony of our own fin de siecle that although we have more satisfactory means of recording the tensions, spontaneity and atmospheric cut and thrust of lectures, those same means seem to be killing off the public lecture as a theatrical event and transforming it into a televisual event, of which the modern masters have been A J P Taylor, Sir Kenneth Clark et al.

And if Ackroyd is right in saying that the academy has always tended to ignore or despise the vitality of the popular theatre, it is a further irony that the last refuges and training grounds for a once-thriving popular theatrical form are now to be found in the lecture halls of our universities. Well]

'London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries' will be shown 19 Dec

(Photograph omitted)

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