Power of the spoken word

Watching Peter Ackroyd read from his new work on Sir Thomas More is an experience in itself, says Michael Glover
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Indy Lifestyle Online
HOW WAYWARD is the emotional trajectory of any human life! How subject to change and mutability! These ponderous Elizabethan thoughts flashed like a shooting star through my mind in the basement at Waterstone's, Camden Town, last night, as I observed the mood of that cheerleader of the cockney visionaries, Peter Ackroyd, shift from near-Stygian gloom to one of unabashed hilarity within the space of one brief hour of our life on this earth.

Ackroyd was sitting wedged between "Popular Psychology" and "Pregnancy and Child Care" on a precarious-looking, fold-up chair of the kind that a man may choose to sit on when, frankly, there is no serious alternative. Directly in front of him sat a small, yet eager and discerning audience listening to him read from the final pages of his doleful, freshly published life of Sir Thomas More. Among those closest to him was the young Frenchman whose chair would collapse beneath him during question time, throwing him to the ground. He had not read a word by Ackroyd until that point.

It had been a miserable end - Sir Thomas More's, that is - and it was miserably, lispingly told, with Ackroyd dwagging and wenching out the words as if they had the dead weight of so many cannonballs attached to his ankles. It was not so much the death itself as the manner of the dying. Though disembowelment was avoided thanks to More's faithful services to the King, there was still the unpardonably uncomfortable business of having to lay one's head down on that heap of straw, stay perfectly still for a second or two while the executioner stifled a yawn, and, later, suffer the indignity of having others gawp at it, freshly boiled, and stuck up there on a pole as a public warning.

Ackroyd does not much enjoy reading his own words, but he gave his all in the greater interests of bookselling. Curiously enough, he doesn't even have an interest in his books' subjects once they are written. He bids them adieu with a great sigh of relief. The excitement is all in the writing, which he does in longhand, because the touch of pen on paper, and the drooling flow of the ink, give him some sort of kinship with the page, investing the act itself with a rare, imaginative energy that would be wholly lacking if he were communing with some goddamn soulless machine. Fortunately, the words are often worthy of this level of emotional investment.

Then came a period of frank discussion, and it was at this point that Ackroyd, who had throughout the reading from his own deathless prose been staring into the middle distance with a strange look of misty disengagement (was he perhaps ruminating upon some work in progress. Fiction? Biography? That customary, artful mingling of the two? Or something yet bolder still?), was shocked into a true engagement with life by that unfortunate accident.

Yes, when the Frenchman fell off the chair, a great whoop of laughter went up - and Ackroyd's contribution was the most heartfelt, the most vigorous, of us all. When Ackroyd laughs, he heaves his small, bulky body sideways as if wishing to get rid of it altogether. The Frenchman picked himself up. Ackroyd mumbled a few hollowish words of commiseration, slugged at his glass of white wine, lit a fag, crossed his legs, and everything lightened and loosened.

The audience, wishing to be helpful, suggested a few people whom he might wish to write biographies of - such as Bacon. Ackroyd wondered whether that meant the philosopher or the dauber. The dauber. Ackroyd scoffed. There were already four in the making. And anyway, he was heartily sick of biography-making - there were far too many of those great, fat tomes being heaved like so many house bricks across the Atlantic.

No, he wanted to be into something different; he wanted to go in for a bit of mould-breaking - by writing a history of the English imagination, for example. What about JMW Turner then? Someone else chipped in. That pleased him more. In fact, it made him look positively chipper. "I'd never flirt with Turner," he said. "He was far too short. In fact, I don't flirt with people living or dead." Then he gave another of those great, body- jolting laughs, and the cigarette smoke came dragon-snorting down his nostrils.

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