Peter Ackroyd: Captain of the time machine

Why has Peter Ackroyd, acclaimed biographer and novelist, started to write children's history books? Dina Rabinovitch talked to him about Aztecs, space and semicolons
Click to follow

The game of guessing the least likely celebrity to write a children's story has been hotting up; in the past month alone we have had picture books from Madonna and Jeanette Winterson. But then just as it started getting fun, it's over, and all bets are off. For the least likely personage of them all, the one name you would never associate with children's writing no matter how often you've played, has just launched not just one, but the first of ten, books written entirely for children.

This week Dorling Kindersley, publishers of such favourite illustrated toddlers' titles as My First Book of Trucks (chunky board books for children heavy on pictures and short sentences), ventures into bookshops with their newest project for children. It's a ten-volume history of the world, written by Peter Ackroyd: that most prolific novelist, biographer (of William Blake, Charles Dickens, Thomas More and T S Eliot) and chronicler of London, a writer not previously best known for breaking up his dense, allusive texts with pictures and brightly coloured diagrams.

This is an odd pairing: Ackroyd and a children's ten-part encyclopedia called Voyages through Time, which opens with The Beginning and Escape from the Earth (Dorling Kindersley, £14.99 each). Ackroyd is a writer who takes a single subject, and widens it out by the depth of his investigation. For example, when we meet he has just finished four days piecing together all the facts about Shakespeare's neighbours in the street where the Bard was born - "about as narrow a focus as you can get", as he puts it. The painstaking work has revealed that they were all inter-related somehow. "Nothing that would interest anybody," he says, "but two of them had sons who were renegade Catholic priests, and the street had only glovers and haberdashers. It's just contextualising details which will help me understand his childhood. Not the sort of thing you can use; well, you can put it in a biography but you've got to sort of dramatise it somehow, you need to make it significant." Despite thinking he won't be able to use it, his pleasure in the discovery is patent.

And yet here is Ackroyd taking on a limitless brief: the story of the world. It runs counter to everything one knows of him as a writer. Also, while Winterson, say, famously wrote about her own childhood in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Ackroyd was first a very precocious child himself - he was reading by the age of two - and secondly, as he tells me, he knows no children.

"It came about because Dorling Kindersley asked me to do it," Ackroyd says. "At first I was surprised, and then I thought it was a good idea." He finishes the sentence abruptly, a defiant stare away into the distance, bit like a toddler actually - take it or leave it. Well, there is something of the child about Ackroyd: he has never lost that toddler skill of working and working away at something, a hundred times if necessary, to uncover whatever is there to find out.

You get a sense of what an odd, if inspired publishing idea this historical encyclopedia is when Ackroyd comes into the lounge of the hotel at which he has decided to meet. Though he does many interviews in this old-fashioned Knightsbridge haunt, the bar staff don't recognise his name. When he turns up, absolutely punctual, he arrives silently up the deeply carpeted stairs and moves into the room swiftly, ready for the allotted business. He's quite taken aback by the sight of my baby with me, whom I am just handing over to my husband to take.

A while later, he's still puzzling over it, and it's something he finds surprising enough to ask about - probably the only question he asks me. "Was that your baby?" he asks. "Whatever was it doing here?" He sounds as if the conjunction of a baby and this hotel is the most bizarre circumstance. But at their point of contact, he and the baby shared the exact same very direct gaze followed by self-absorption as they looked off into middle distance.

It was Miriam Farbey, the very precisely-titled "Director of Publishing, Eight Plus" at Dorling Kindersley who dreamt up the Ackroyd - History of the World match. "I wanted to do a really unusual commission," she told me. "I was standing in Waterstone's looking at the children's history titles, and thinking 'nothing very interesting there', and then I wandered over to adult history and thought, 'Well, who's my favourite author here?'"

Ackroyd was given free rein to choose the topics he wanted to cover, and he feels he has made no concessions in his style. "I think DK shortened the sentences. Long sentences, apparently, might be an impediment to smaller readers, so where I put semi-colons they probably put full stops. I also think some of the harder words had to go, but again, that's fine with me."

Semi-colons, and the balance they give a sentence, do matter to writers though; it's a measure of his involvement in this project that he is taking this amount of interference with his prose. The encyclopedia is his contribution to countering today's dire educational scene. "It's my only way of helping," he nods. "I have a sense of the importance of history in the minds of the young. The little I can do, is the best I can do. It's just a book, but if you can help just one child learn, or be interested in reading, then it's worth it."

He starts working at about eight each morning, and finishes at nine in the evening, breaking for lunch, and the mandatory visit to the health club forced upon him since his heart attack a few years back. He writes 1500 words a day, on more than one project at a time. Right now, he's doing Shakespeare and Turner, and in the evenings he reads round the subjects. "I'm not at all prolific compared to 19th-century writers, you know. Dickens didn't think anything of writing three or four thousand words a day, Shakespeare wrote three plays a year. But they worked much more intensively than I do." He writes non-fiction straight onto computer, fiction in long-hand first.

How did he tackle the breadth of reading required to write the world's history? "There are only a certain number of books you need to read on each subject," he says. To do the beginnings of American civilisation, he read 10 books on the Aztecs, 10 on the Incas, ten on the Mayas: "Ten will usually do it." He has made a discovery during his researches on the early Americans (one of the forthcoming volumes for Dorling Kindersley): "some natural progress, some association between the various cultures", which has not been seen before.

The Aztecs have also fine-tuned his (already sharp) view of London. "The Aztecs believed a city was a kind of death machine. It doesn't alter one's impressions of London, but it does give a slightly different shift; maybe London could also be seen as an artefact of death. Smithfield: I can see the resemblance to the Aztec city. The sense of death: it's where animals are slaughtered, also there was a huge plague pit there, and it's also where martyrs were burned at the stake - the confluence of these three images of death. There's something Aztec about London."

The hefty intellectual work and productivity beg an obvious question. For every time there's a profile of Ackroyd, as sure as children will not appear in the narrative, so you can be certain that the words alcohol and drunk will. A man with unforced good manners, Ackroyd yet becomes quite testy when I mention his alcoholic reputation in passing. "It's a lot of tosh," he says. "I drink in the evenings, when I'm eating. But all this rubbish about me; it all began years ago when I was drinking, and it just gets recycled every time a book appears. How could I possibly drink so much, be such a fool, and do all this?" Precisely.

The heart attack didn't affect his work either, he says:"I was breathless, I went to the doctor and I was put in an ambulance. Next thing I knew, I woke up one week later."Resolutely unsentimental, he laughs when he says how it's supposed to be a life-changing experience, "and all that". He was close to death: 50-50 whether he'd live or die. "People ask you, what did you see? And the thing is I do remember exactly what I saw; it was Arab women dancing. I thought, what a peculiar thing for a death vision."

This makes him laugh, but has no meaning at all, he says. "It's just one of these random visions which people get. Which suggests that near-death experiences are probably as insignificant, as casual, as any other experience."

And shortly after that (well, we do discuss Hendon, because as he says Londoners always come up to talk about their neighbourhoods), he swoops out of the hotel as swiftly as he came, away from the casual and back to the deeply serious. "That was really interesting," I say to him before he slips away. "Was it?" he chuckles, quizzically, though perfectly friendly. And then he leaves, a small and very likeable man of letters, but not one to be pinned down.


Peter Ackroyd was born in London on 5 October 1949. A student at Clare College, Cambridge, he was awarded a double first in English and became a Mellon fellow at Yale University. He worked for the Spectator from 1973 to 1982, and became chief book reviewer for The Times in 1986. His novels include Hawksmoor (1985), the Booker-shortlisted Chatterton (1987), The House of Dr Dee (1993), Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) and, this year, The Clerkenwell Tales (Chatto & Windus). As a biographer, his subjects have been Pound, Eliot, Dickens, Blake and Thomas More. He has also published an acclaimed "biography" of London and, in 2002, his survey of English culture, Albion. The first volumes of his Voyages through Time series for children, The Beginning (on prehistory) and Escape from Earth (on space exploration), are now published by Dorling Kindersley.