Rioting is a London tradition, says city's leading historian


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The Independent Online

Peter Ackroyd is the greatest living chronicler of London, particularly its seamy, violent underside. In an age when historians and novelists are encouraged to be pundits and personalities, you would think he would be in demand after recent troubles.

But for 24-hour news, Ackroyd is a wash out. He has a kind of "watching the paint dry" view of history. He is struck how slowly and imperceptibly real history unfolds, and intrigued by the aspects of human life that endure for centuries. The rest, by and large, is stuff that happens.

Speaking in a book-lined office near King's Cross, London, Mr Ackroyd resolutely refused to see a new epoch dawning after the recent rioting. "I can't get at all worked up about these most recent phenomena," he said. "They simply show a pattern of activity in the city that will endure as long as the city itself endures.

"I don't like those commentators who keep on saying that London will never be the same again. London is always the same again. I remember those comments were made very loudly after the [July 2005] terrorist attacks – it was all nonsense. London was exactly the same again the following day. Rioting has always been a London tradition. It has been since the early Middle Ages. The difference is that in the past the violence was more ferocious, and the penalties were more ferocious – in most cases, death."

I ask what he makes of the much-quoted comments of his fellow historian, David Starkey, and am met with a blank look. He is not aware that Starkey has spoken out on anything recently. When I paraphrase Starkey's now infamous remarks about young whites becoming black, he says: "I don't really have anything to say to that because it doesn't strike me as particularly relevant."

What does strike him as relevant is what some of the famous Londoners whose lives he has chronicled would have thought of the riots.

"William Blake would have joined them, probably. He loved any occasion for action. Mr Eliot – TS Eliot – would have been rather horrified and had another drink.

"Thomas More would have actively tried to quell them because he was once an undersheriff of London, in fact one of those who had to quell the Evil May Day riots [of 1517], which were set up by the apprentices, which caused much more damage than these ones recently. Dickens would treat it all as a great national epic. Barnaby Rudge of course is based on the [1780] Gordon Riots in London. He turned it into a sort of imbroglio of blood and fire and sentimentality. I don't know what Pepys's reaction would have been: probably wide-eyed wonderment, breathlessly descriptive prose."

Practically the only thing that does not interest him about London is the impending mayoral contest between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. "They don't interest me at all," was all he had to say.

At a personal level, he is about as far from being a television personality in the David Starkey/Will Self mould as you could imagine. He looks very like a man with a nine-to-five office job. And in a sense, he is. He maintains a rigid work discipline, travelling from his Knightsbridge home to start writing in his office at 10am. He is working on three books concurrently. In the morning he writes 1,000 words – 500 on history, 500 on the life of Charlie Chaplin, to be published in spring 2014. The afternoon is for research, rounded off by 200-250 words of his latest novel, Three Brothers. He leaves the office at 6pm. He boasts he has never missed a deadline.

At 61, he shows no sign of easing up. On the contrary, he recently began the most ambitious project of his life – a six-volume history of England from the first traces of human occupation, 900,000 years ago, to the modern day. The first volume is published next Friday.

Peter Ackroyd will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 28 August; the Southbank Centre, London, on 8 September; and the Drill Hall Bookshop, Chepstow, on 10 September. His 'Foundation: A History of England, Volume 1' is published by Macmillan on 2 September.


* Born in East Acton, London in 1949

* Ackroyd was reading newspapers at five and had written a play about Guy Fawkes by the age of nine.

* Gained a double first in English at Clare College, Cambridge, and was a scholar at Yale University in 1972.

* Worked for Spectator magazine from 1973-1977 before becoming a writer, critic, biographer and historian. Subjects have included William Shakespeare and Thomas More.

* His novel Hawksmoor won the Whitbread Award in 1985. His biography of Charles Dickens (1990), was part of a rumoured £650,000 two-book deal advance.