Peter Ackroyd: 'You've lowered the tone - raise it immediately!'

Prickly Peter Ackroyd can be a difficult man to pin down. But as his latest mammoth book, a biography of Shakespeare, is published, Tim Martin finds him uncharacteristically keen to talk about his life and work
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The second Ackroyd is said to be gossipy, witty, feline, boozy, camp and convivial. Loves company and chat, and is prone to great drunken fits of heroic bad behaviour. Interviewers quite naturally tend to hope for the second, but the chubby, moustachioed chap who sighs heavily as he comes into the bar of the small, genteel Basil Street Hotel in Knightsbridge and orders fizzy water bears a strong resemblance to the first. Happily, it is the second who leaves.

Next month Ackroyd brings out Shakespeare: The Biography, an adventurously titled and compendious work on the Bard that he says will probably be the last biography he writes. Initial attempts to draw him on why he chose such an overcrowded field as Shakespeare are unpromising. It was, he says, "rather like a car coming towards you. I knew I had to do it sometime. And it seemed like a natural progression from the other people I'd done."

So is he happy with the book, now that it's done? "Once they're finished, I ignore them and forget about them," he says, slumped on a green sofa and looking vaguely into space. "It's as though an actor had finished a part. If I hadn't reread the Shakespeare book this morning I wouldn't be able to discuss it with you now. I can't even remember his date of birth. If you asked me a question about Dickens I couldn't answer it. I can't remember when Eliot was born or when he died.

"But the one thing I do think about this book that is new is that it really shows Shakespeare as a professional," he offers. "As probably the first professional writer, he coincided with the rise of the professional actor. He was also very sensitive to the demands of audiences, and he wrote what they wished to see. So I don't think the progress of his work has much to do with inner determination: the promptings for his inventions were exterior. But that was always the case with artists. It's only recently that we've discovered that the artist's inner self is somehow more important than the public world."

One can't help noticing that the Shakespeare he describes is not dissimilar to Peter Ackroyd, whose determination to scotch any suggestion that he might have an opinion gets more pronounced as the interview goes on. Not so? "Well, we live in such a different culture that it's almost impossible to draw parallels," he says. "But I'm much more attuned to his way of working, or say to Titian's way of working, than to Wordsworth's way. I'm happier to create exterior pieces for the world rather than to express something I deeply feel or wish to say. I don't have anything I deeply feel or wish to say anyway."

Surely that can't be true? "It isn't untrue except that what one deeply feels or wishes to say comes out anyway. But it's never the primary object of the exercise. It can't be.

"I think a writer's quality diminishes when he or she insists on writing from what's called their experience," he goes on. "It's a fucking waste of time. Who's interested in their experience?" Doesn't that depend on the experience? "Well, you could put it that way. But I find it distasteful. I tend to the view of writing as a craft, so that you become something like a medieval stonemason, whose personal signature is not required on the wall of the cathedral."

But can't a novel, for example, still be drawn from disguised personal experience? "I don't think mine ever have been. I don't think there's one novel, with the possible exception of the first one, into which my own experiences or sentiments have ever intruded."

Well, we'll tackle that a bit later. Back to biography: "The only way of writing any kind of study, say the Thomas More one, is to so fully enter his sensibility that you become a part of it, and he becomes a part of you," says Ackroyd. "In that process you begin to see the heart of his design. It would be foolish and unproductive to see it as a totally alien system of belief. Far better to enter it in a spirit of communion."

But how do you know you're doing it right? "If the language rings true, then you know you're right," he says. "If there is a false cadence, or a false tone, then you know you're not right, but as long as the language is strong I think you can feel satisfied that you've reached something. But again, with Shakespeare the difficulties were more perplexing. He seems to have been a man above belief."

He orders a glass of wine. A bottle is proposed. "Yes!" he says eagerly.

"I think Shakespeare was above faith," he goes on. "That makes him a peculiarly difficult subject. In the case of the others, you could enter the bubble of their beliefs and swim about in it, it helped you get a grip on them. With Shakespeare there's no such avenue open. It made him peculiarly difficult."

So how did he approach thinking his way in? "I'm not sure I ever did, actually. I suppose critics would say that I didn't. I don't think anyone ever has found the mystery of his loneliness, to quote that line from All's Well that Ends Well. I don't know what insight I have.

"The trick of any half-decent biography," he continues, "is to create the force, the narrative energy. In Shakespeare's life there are so many lacunae, so many things that are misinterpreted, that you've really got to make an effort to make the dots join up. I had to assert what I couldn't prove; if you don't, your book is littered with caveats. If a biographer doesn't have any faith in his own insight, in his own intuitions, then a reader isn't going to either." He pauses. "You've got to give a false impression of confidence. In biography - I've said this before - you can make things up, but in fiction you have to tell the truth.

"And that enshrines what for me is a great truth about writing: in fiction you have to remain very close to the nature of the inspiration, whereas in biographies you're allowed to use various narrative devices. We could have been trained by Elizabethan schoolmasters to write biographies, it's a rhetorical mode, it's a question of skill and conjuring. Much more so than fiction, I think, anyway."

Skill and conjuring are key, some might say, to Ackroyd's method of presenting himself. Born on a council estate in East Acton, with a father he never really knew, he was educated at St Benedict's School, a Catholic day school in Ealing, and then Clare College, Cambridge, where he read English. After two years at Yale on a Mellon Fellowship, he returned to England, where he was astonished to be accepted at just 23 as the youngest literary editor of The Spectator. His childhood, though, is something Ackroyd almost never talks about; by skilful conjuring and simple stonewalling, he has managed to erase it from most public profiles. So why, in the Shakespeare book, does he say that a writer's childhood "cannot be denied or concealed without severe psychic damage to the surface of the writing"? He gives a cool blue stare. "Because I think it's true."

Well? "Well what? I don't think I've ever written about my childhood, or childhood." Is his own writing troubled by psychic disturbance? "If I'd written about childhood then it probably would have been, but I haven't." Denial or misrepresentation, then? "Not if I haven't represented it." Denial? "Yes, but willing denial, not some conscious subterfuge. Oh," - a sigh - "it is subterfuge. What am I talking about? Willing denial. I am avoiding it."

An interesting thing to write, though. "I just think it's true. That's why Shakespeare's children are always very aggressive, alert and ambitious. That, I imagine, was the childhood of Shakespeare himself." But the children in Ackroyd's books are pretty alert, too... "What children, where?" he raps out. Well, there is the child in Chatterton, perhaps his best novel, whose father dies of fever and overexcitement at the book's conclusion. "I can't remember a word of what I wrote," he blocks, "but I'm sure it's true."

Quite reasonably, Ackroyd resents being boiled down to creaky psychiatric banalities - but does he think it's important to have a relationship with one's father? "No. Quite the opposite." But in his books there's a theme of individuals being adopted by mentors, whether it be societies, cities, professions - so is that more important? "Very possibly true," he says. And relents, with a glug of wine, as the second Ackroyd begins to peep out at the corners. "There are also, I believe, absent fathers, lost fathers or dying fathers quite often in the books, which has been pointed out to me. And it would be absurd to deny that there's a connection."

So about this distance between self and writing... "What, I'm breaking my rule, am I? I don't do it deliberately. The personal control over these narratives is very weak. I have never tried to find my own father, though I do know where he is. I think I quote from Coriolanus: 'As if a man were author of himself, and knew no other kin.' I do believe on some levels that I have become the author of myself, at least in that I'm self-generated," - he snorts with laughter - "well, I don't want to sound like Jesus, I mean self-made, although that has other connotations. But I believe it's a great blessing for a young person to have to create his own world."

How does one go about that? "You're forced to do so. I would also say that my... obeisance to the city and to the historical process is probably a way of locating a substitute parenthood. Also my interest in the lineage of writers, what I call the London visionaries, may well be a way of trying to create a lineage to which I can belong, rather than to the ostensible - the conventional - familial one. That is true."

We're a couple of bottles in now, and he is animated. "My own part in this tradition is of course a limited one. I was thinking of Blake, Dickens, Turner and others who have used the urban world as a sort of crucible for their imaginations. Who have seen intimations of the transcendent within the quotidian, the mundane of the city." Transcendent? Earlier Ackroyd was at pains to stall questions about religion: he decried mysticism, he claimed to believe nothing. "I don't know what you'd call it," he goes on now. "Symbols of immensity, to use Blake's phrase. There is something about this city, this place on earth, which encourages, harbours and nurtures that particular sensibility. And I think, without being pompous or pretentious about it, that I've tapped into it to a certain extent in my own work."

Ackroyd 2 leans back on the sofa, lights a cigarette and pours more wine. We talk about Faulkner: "A sort of rancid spirituality, like the piety of hothouse plants"; about the National Book Awards: "I got drunk and got arrested... I was put in a cell for being drunk and disorderly"; and about the time recently when Ackroyd, sloshed at the première of a play about Lucien Freud, apparently made rude remarks so loudly that one actor headbutted the writer's companion afterwards. "Please!" he howls. "That's tittle-tattle. It was completely overblown. I'm surprised at you. Next it'll be 'I hear you drink a lot'. That's the normal one. 'He drinks too much, he's hardly ever sober.' Well if I was hardly ever sober, how would I have written 30 fucking books?"

How indeed? "That's the big deal in 99 per cent of the interviews. It does get tedious. I don't deny I drink a lot, but that's just part of my personality. I work a lot, I drink a lot, I walk a lot. I sleep a lot. I'm a natural prodigal, what do you expect? I'm allowed to be at my age." What's that age? "Fifty-five. You've lowered the tone. Raise it immediately."

Well, then, isn't the biographer with no opinion frightened of having someone write his own biography? After all, he says he has spent years rigorously keeping his personality out of his books and the newspapers. Some years ago he worked out a deal with Yale University, who keep an archive of his manuscripts, letters and diaries: won't a latter-day Ackroyd sift through them and misrepresent him? "I know it's going to happen," he says wearily. "Better that they have all the evidence. But after my death I couldn't give a fuck anyway, could I? It'll all come out.

"You know I was thinking yesterday, walking round Lincoln's Inn Fields, if anyone ever has the patience to go through what I've written, they'll see that half of what I've done is simply the use of other books. My reputation will plummet immediately. It'll be as though I never wrote a word myself. That's how my imagination works."

But isn't it axiomatic now that books are made of other books? "Well in my case it's almost literally true. It is true! Anyway, all this crap is at Yale. Delete that. All this work is at Yale. Oodles of it. Oh, now I think of it it's so depressing. But I was happy when it happened, I thought at long last someone's taking me seriously, after years of being marginalised in England."

Marginalised? Really? "Oh, I was treated with derision and contempt for many years," he says merrily. "If you think about it, my novel Hawksmoor came out in 1985, and - without being pretentious about it - that book started the fashion for timeslip. Novels set in present, past, all that sort of shit which everyone does now. Yet I was completely divorced from the thrust of contemporary writers - Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie - I was not doing the same thing. Even after Hawksmoor it was always considered slightly an oddity, a freak. I wasn't part of the thrusting new generation of British writers. But it didn't bother me, I knew it would come good in the end. If you don't have self-belief, you're fucked as a writer."

Surely he had faith in his own capacity for cogitation, though? "My capacity for cogitation, as you put it, is minimal." But all this reading, this incredible work ethic... The compliment doesn't even make a dent. "That's not cogitation, darling, that's research. Cogitation means reflection, does it not? I hardly ever reflect upon anything."

Is he really trying to paint himself as a magpie novelist? "No, because I'm not," he says. "But I'd rather demystify the process than make great claims. I can't think of many novelists who are modest about their claims. There's a rule of thumb in which the more grandiose their assertions the less accomplished they are. Some of them make me want to throw up. Their vanity, their self-concern, their ignorance. You'd think the world was born the day they were born."

And he seems to be entirely indifferent to praise. "I don't care about reviews," he says. "Now I know everyone says that and no one believes it - well, they get sent to me after three months, I skip through them. I find bad reviews, when I do read them, more energising than good ones, which aren't interesting." I've never heard a writer say that before. So he wants constructive criticism? "No," he says slyly, peering round his wine glass, "that's the worst criticism of all. I like abuse! Abuse is what keeps the world going round. Abuse is great. You need it to keep you up in the air."

So please may we have some abuse, then? He won't be drawn on the Shakespeare opposition - "that's just vulgar, I rise above it" - and claims not to read fiction published after 1940. But since his days at The Spectator he has been reviewing books, now mainly histories and biographies: do none of them make his pen flash from its scabbard with ire? "Actually, I'm very discreet," he replies. "These days, I couldn't be nicer. I never have a word of complaint about any book. I disguise the blandness of my critical judgment by going into great depth about the subject." But in the early days, he admits, things were different: "It's the nature of 22-year-old man to be as ghastly as possible and to hate people like me. I haven't read them again, but I know what they were like. Acidulous. Preening.

"I think what happens with young reviewers is they hate the sort of people they're likely to become, they attack those things which are closest to them," he goes on. "I thought I was going to be a poet, a pure writer, a pure spirit and all that. I adopted that attitude when I became a reviewer. I was a student with a gift for invective."

Ah yes, the poems. None of them remains in print, but the first collection to be published, in the early 1970s, marked the beginning of Ackroyd's continuing self-effacement in his work. Individual love poems published separately referred to the beloved as "he"; when the collection appeared, the he had mysteriously become a she. How did that happen, then?

"How did you know that?" he gasps. "Oh my Gaaawd! That's one of the most shaming episodes of my life. Jesus. Well, I'll tell you the truth. The poems were printed and about to be published. With 'he'. Then I joined The Spectator, which was well known then for its anti-homosexual, anti-anything attitude. I thought, fuck, I'm going to lose my job. Forgetting the fact that they probably knew I was gay anyway - you can't hide these things. So I wrote to the printer asking to change he to she. It was a moment of craven weakness on my part, only to be excused by my need to have a job and my ambition. But I regret it. Actually, fuck it, no, I don't regret it. I'm slightly humiliated by it. I haven't thought about it for 30 years."

But since then he's been fairly strict in removing all mention of the subject, hasn't he? "Well, there's a gay couple in Chatterton," he muses, "oh yes, and in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem the policeman has a gay lover. In First Light there are gays. In fact, there's the only one in the village. He actually says, there's always one in the village! I'd forgotten that. I should sue!"

Another bottle arrives. "The reason is, I was living in Devon at the time," he says. "I'd bought a cottage... that's cottage in the old-fashioned sense... where I lived with my partner, Brian Kuhn. And because we were there quite often, I thought, why not set a book in this sylvan paradise? And then we moved on to a big house outside Bath..." he tails off, staring into space. "Anyway, many years ago."

And the story stops there?

"Well, he died. Of Aids. In Bath. I sold the house, I never moved back to the country again. But First Light, the book I wrote there, is my favourite of all. Everyone else hates it. I loved writing it, I loved the whole thing. I wrote it in the cottage, then I bought this fucking big house, which turned into a bit of a white elephant, with a big outdoor swimming pool, a lake and lots of grounds. And I bought it in June and Brian was diagnosed with Aids in September. So it was one long exequy. He loved the place, and he'd go there. He died there five years later. So for five years it became a sort of mausoleum. I sold it straight away. I'd never go back."

Ackroyd lapses into silence for a minute, then something shifts and he smiles. "And also these country people are vicious. Ghastly types. Very vindictive and small-minded. Also the country is very noisy. The cows, the sheep, the noises, you couldn't sleep in the morning! And very dangerous compared to London. I was so glad to get back to the calm and safety of London." He is joking, now, isn't he? "Yes! Of course! But actually, I do find it calm and safe in London."

We talk about schools and university. We talk about Nicholas Hawksmoor, the London church architect whom Ackroyd cast as the Satanist protagonist of his best-known novel. "I'm afraid the Satanist thing was my responsibility," he says. "Iain Sinclair invented it and I stole it from him. American tourists come now to see the, er, 'sacred alignments' at his churches. I used it for plot, I don't necessarily believe it."

At some point the tape recorder goes off. At another point more wine arrives. Plenty of the promised abuse gets bandied around. But Peter Ackroyd the writer, of course, couldn't possibly comment on that.

'Shakespeare: The Biography' is published by Chatto in September (£25). To order a copy for £22.50 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to them at PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP