READING Peter Ackroyd, Books Etc, London

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The Independent Culture
There are some things about autumn that never seem to change: the sudden appearance of Keats's "Ode to Autumn" on the classroom walls of fee-paying schools, for example; or a new book by Peter Ackroyd. The only question worth asking with regard to the latter is: is it to be a hefty biography of some neglected visionary or a gargantuan work of visionary fiction? This autumn it's the turn of the work of visionary fiction. The book's marvellously resonant title is Milton in America, and here's the plot: Milton gets transported to the New World, founds the colony of New Milton, and turns monster, persecuting poor Catholic women for drooling over their missals.

One balmy evening this week, Thursday to be precise, Ackroyd found himself in the company of 50-odd Ackroyd devotees at Books Etc on the Charing Cross Road. He'd been transported there to do something that he didn't especially want to do - read a slab from his new book - because, according to himself, he's not very good at it.

"The point is," he said to the poor interviewer who, just moments before, had tossed half a bottle of gaseous mineral water over his list of questions in his nervy over-eagerness to slake Ackroyd's thirst with something other than the bottles that were ranged around him in mock-homage - a bottle of Beck's and a full bottle of plonk. "Yes, the point is..." said Ackroyd, who looked a little unsteady on his feet, and a little puffed-out too - as if his inner tube had just been replaced and then pumped up a little over-zealously by a boy with a bicycle pump - "...the point is..." he went on in that fairly light and tripping voice of his, "whiting is whiting and thpeaking is thpeaking, and I don't usually make the transition." He was wrong, though: the chapter he read out - the shortest one in the book, in order not to overtax himself - was as well delivered as anyone else in that room could have delivered it, and that gorgeous lisp of his served as a kind of emotional intensifier.

And there's no denying it: Ackroyd is something of a literary phenomenon - author of 14 books, and in possession of a cast-iron contract that commits him to writing eight more. "Eight!" spluttered the interviewer, "but that's the work of a lifetime!" Ackroyd himself seemed quite nonchalant at the prospect. "What else would I do with my time?" he said, staring into the middle distance - perhaps he could see some figure (a prophet or a beggar maybe, or some artful mingling of the two) tapping at the window glass that none of us could see. "Most of the time I feel under-employed. I'm hardly tied to my desk. In fact, I spend a good part of my day lying on the rug."