Peter Ackroyd: Prickly Peter

Peter Ackroyd is one of Britain's great writers, and Deborah Ross is one of his greatest fans. She's read every book he's ever written and she loved them all. You'd have thought they'd get on like a house on fire ... wouldn't you?
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The Independent Online

I am keen to meet Peter Ackroyd as I may well be his biggest fan. I have read everything of his over the years, and when I say everything I mean everything: the first novels (Hawksmoor, Chatterton); the fat biographies (Blake, Dickens, TS Eliot, London); and the latest novel, Lambs of London, which is yet another joy. Indeed, I worship him so much that I am hoping to overcome the temptation to kiss his feet, which may prove most embarrassing all round. I pray that I don't bore the arse off him, which is always a strong possibility. I pray, too, that he'll be so struck by my insightful and masterly interviewing technique that ... he'll what? Dedicate his next book to me? Oh, goody. It's "Deborah" with an "h", Pete, the biblical way ...

I am keen to meet Peter Ackroyd as I may well be his biggest fan. I have read everything of his over the years, and when I say everything I mean everything: the first novels (Hawksmoor, Chatterton); the fat biographies (Blake, Dickens, TS Eliot, London); and the latest novel, Lambs of London, which is yet another joy. Indeed, I worship him so much that I am hoping to overcome the temptation to kiss his feet, which may prove most embarrassing all round. I pray that I don't bore the arse off him, which is always a strong possibility. I pray, too, that he'll be so struck by my insightful and masterly interviewing technique that ... he'll what? Dedicate his next book to me? Oh, goody. It's "Deborah" with an "h", Pete, the biblical way ...

He lives alone in central London and requests we meet in the bar at the Basil Street Hotel in Knightsbridge, which turns out to be up for sale and shabbily grand, with elderly waiters in cheap waistcoats who look as if they've been imported from some faded British seaside hotel. Mr Ackroyd, now 55, arrives promptly, wearing shoes shaped like Cornish pasties. "Your shoes are shaped like Cornish pasties," I say. "As are my feet," he replies.

From photographs, I have always thought that, suitably enough, he looks rather Bill Sykesian, as if, somewhere, he must have a nasty pitbull terrier called Bullseye. But, in the flesh, he looks more like a freakishly big, smooth-skinned baby with a sergeant's-mess moustache for an upper lip. I tell him, straight out, that I may well be his biggest fan, which I think will not only please him but also, of course, go some way to buttering him up. But Mr Ackroyd has, it turns out, no wish to be buttered, up, down, or in any direction whatsoever. Instead, he gives me a look of some horror, as if I were Kathy Bates from Misery and would shortly be camping in his living room, or jumping out from his shower, or - ahem - kissing his feet.

Noting his dismay, I tell him I am not Kathy Bates from Misery and will not be camping in his living room, or jumping out of his shower, or even kissing his feet, especially if they are as Cornish-pasty-shaped as he says. "Thank God for that," he notes. However, I contend, considering what I have spent on his books over the years, the next time he goes to Armani for a suit - and he is said to be fond of Armani suits - he should reflect that I've probably paid for it. He replies that I've obviously got no idea about the cost of Armani suits. "You won't have bought me an inch of cuff," he adds. But listen, I say, I've also bought truckloads of your books as presents for others. "Oh well," he concedes, grudgingly, "that may be a button." Ouch.

I sort of expected Mr Ackroyd to be heavy and literary. I did not expect him to be quite so waspish. "You are very waspish," I tell him at some point. "Am I?" he replies, waspishly. Indeed, he can be so insulting it's actually rather thrilling. When, later, it is time for the photographs, I say, "Take a deep breath, it will be over soon." He replies, "I bet you have to say that to all the men," and shrieks with laughter. Of course, I should be hurt, but, on the other hand, when it comes to shagging, I suppose, one can't run from the truth forever. I even add that a strictly lights-off policy helps immeasurably in this department, too. He says: "I bet it does, dear." Mr Ackroyd, I thought you would be heavy and literary, but you're just such a bitchy old queen! "I am only teasing," he says. As was I, about the lights-off, I quickly add.

I offer him a drink, naturally. Peter is known to be a big drinker - a four-bottles-of-wine-at-lunch man - and a big faller-over. His body-crashing inebriations are famed and, of course, I want to witness the floorshow. f So, a drink, Peter? He asks for a sparkling water. Sparkling water? He says he has given up the booze, hasn't had a drink for a month. Oh dear. Damn. I mean, good on you, Mr Ackroyd! Do you miss it? "Not at all." But why stop? "I just got bored of drinking. It was a habit. So much of life is just habit." In 1999, he had a massive heart attack followed by a bypass operation, and I wonder if his doctors advised him to lay off. "No," he says. Has abstinence affected your writing? "Not at all." He is, after all, satanically prolific, and seems unable to not work. He works on his birthday. He works on Christmas Day. He worked in hospital after his bypass. "I worked in bed and wrote a long essay on Blake but, then, what else is one to do? I don't like playing snakes and ladders." His brush with death hasn't, he says, changed him in the least. "It was like getting on and off a bus." I ask what he is currently working on. "The next book out, Deborah, may well be the life of Shakespeare, or it might be a new novel, or it might be a book on Isaac Newton, or it might be a book for children on the Aztecs or Egyptians ..." I say Isaac Newton was a firm believer in alchemy, wasn't he? "Oh, yes. He was a convinced alchemist all his life and took it very seriously." Now, aren't you impressed that I know that? "Deborah, dear, even my cleaner knows that." Ouch.

I know that he is keen to deflect questions about himself, having once said that the work is the important thing, never the life, which is no more than a passing show. I say this is a bit rich coming from someone like him. I mean, the life has to give birth to the work, and if you weren't deeply interested in that you wouldn't be the biographer you are. True enough, he accepts, "but I wouldn't be interested in the life without the work, let's put it that way". The trouble with his life, he continues, is that it's just so uninteresting. "I always envy people who have a life outside their work. It makes them much more fun. I always admired the writers of the Thirties and Forties who all seemed to lead very exciting, heroic lives. The Fitzgeralds and the people who went off to Spain and fought in the civil war and even people who fought in the last two great wars. I'm in awe of generations who survived and experienced all that, whereas my generation seems to have done fuck all."

I try to get at "the life", but he is having none of it. He was born and brought up on an Acton council estate, and I ask if he could describe himself as a child. "I can't." As a teenager? "Just as difficult." What is your earliest memory of anything? "Oh, goodness me, I don't know." He was a frighteningly bright boy, reading the newspaper at five, writing a play about Guy Fawkes at nine, winning a scholarship to St Benedict's in Ealing, west London, and then, ultimately, another to Cambridge where he read English and got a double first. "No, I was never intimidated by Cambridge. I was bored by it, but never intimidated."

His mother, Audrey, worked in the personnel department of an engineering firm and I ask if his capacity for learning ever astonished her. "No. I don't think so." His father, Graham, who has been variously described as an artist and office worker, left home when Peter was a baby and he hasn't seen him since. Are you curious about him? "No, not particularly. It's odd. I suppose I ought to feel curiosity of some kind but I don't. I suppose because in a large part I have created my life, it doesn't seem important to me." A Freudian might say that his life is awash with the history of others, and that he is so remarkably capable of historical empathy precisely because he is unable or unwilling to deal with his own particular roots; that it is some kind of projection. I say this not necessarily because I think it is true but more, frankly, to annoy him, because he despises psychoanalysis. "It doesn't help. It's all complete nonsense. Freud was just a novelist." So you never wanted to sleep with your mother? "Not as far as I'm aware, but if you say that, then it's, 'Aha! You are in denial.' And if you say you didn't even think about it, then it's, 'Aha! It's in the unconscious.' You can't win." Have you ever had any kind of therapy? "I have nothing to be therapised about."

Anyway, realising we're pretty much going nowhere fast, at this point I believe I panic and, I'm afraid, lose the plot rather. I blame nerves. In fact, I tell him he has lovely skin, so wrinkle-free. Do you, I ask, have a skin-care regime? "No. Ha!" I spend a fortune on expensive creams, I continue. "They don't do any good, obviously." Ouch. Can you cook at all? "No." What did you have for breakfast? "Tomatoes on toast." That's cooking, isn't it? "I don't think so. I microwave the tomatoes. How your mind goes from one thing to another. It's like talking to someone at a bus-stop. Do I have bunions? No. But I do get hard skin. I go to Scholl. I would recommend Scholl." Double ouch.

I'm guessing I've yet to impress him with my insightful and masterly interview technique. I'm guessing I'm being savagely mocked. I'm guessing right. "So, Deborah, what did you have for breakfast?" Bran flakes. "I thought as much. Do you have HP or ketchup on chips?" I don't like HP. "But it's the daddy of all sauces! Remind me, what publication is this for?" Um ... Condiment's Weekly? It's very big in the condiments world. "I know. I've heard of it. You get a photo and have to put an X where you think the condiment might be." Don't snigger, I say. Martin Amis has done it, as has Salman Rushdie, Seamus Heaney ... "Don't tell me J K Rowling has done it? She is my idol in every respect."

I ask if he's read Harry Potter, which sends him off on a right one. "Please. I can't read books with children in. I just want to smash them. That and nuns. I can't bear nuns. I just want to hit them." I'm assuming you've never felt the paternal urge. "God, no. I've never understood why babies cry so much. They have nothing to cry about. It's weird. And small children cry a great deal even though they have everything done for them. Why do they cry? And why don't the mothers give them something like brandy?" My mother always put gin in my last bottle at night. "I can tell." I ask, in my bus-stop way, if he happens f to have any favourite words. "I'm attracted to certain words." Like? "The word 'cunt' is a favourite." That told me. I think it also told the elderly waiter, who retires to the kitchens, possibly for a stroke.

I do attempt to get back on some kind of track. We talk about the latest book, which brilliantly weaves together two stories - those of the 19th-century writer Charles Lamb (plus his sister, Mary) and William Ireland, an antiquarian bookseller - into a Shakespearian literary mystery. The Lambs' Tales From Shakespeare, in which Charles and Mary retold the Bard's plays for children, remains in print today, and was written after Mary had murdered her own mother with a carving knife. "It was a great idea they had. And they portioned the plays out so that Mary didn't have to do the tragic ones because they might upset her." I say that I've since been put on to Charles Lamb's essays, which are rather wonderful. "Aren't they. They're very good. He's completely unknown these days but in his lifetime was a great writer. Why some writers persist is a mystery." Will you, do you think? "I've no idea." Do you regard what you have as a gift? "I didn't use to but as I get older I probably do. I suppose the sheer persistence is now surprising me." His books are now studied in schools, which doesn't please him a jot. "Studying books is a complete waste of time. If children should learn anything it's spelling and grammar and syntax. And as for creative-writing courses, what a crock of shit. It's not something you can teach, that's for sure." That's a shame, I say, because I've booked you into one for the summer. "How lovely," he replies.

He seems a bit of a removed character, so I wonder if anything ever jolts him emotionally. "Not so much anymore. I don't think anything jolts me emotionally, actually." Have you cried recently? "I think I did cry when, after the bypass, I was told I had to stay in hospital for another week because I caught one of those terrible hospital bugs. I didn't cry very much. It was just a lonely tear of frustration more than anything else, which I wiped away." Are you happy? "I am without anxiety." Do you ever get depressed? "I have been in the past, when Brian was dying." Brian Kuhn, an actor and model, lived with Peter for 25 years until he died of Aids in 1994. Did you love him? "I'm very reluctant to use that word. I would hate to use a cliché." How did you feel after he died? "Relieved." He lives a rigorously disciplined life. It's scribble, scribble, scribble all day, then a walk, then supper at a restaurant. He says he likes to live alone "because I can do what I want to do for longer". And when did you first realise you were gay? "At seven." And then he goes off on one again. "Now, Deborah, ask me if I like Shirley Bassey?" Do you like Shirley Bassey? "Of course. I'm gay. Do you think she uses too much highlighter. You do? That's something we agree on. I also like Barbra Streisand. Shame about the nose. And scatter cushions." Pot pourri? "Swimming in it. Got tubs of it. Can I go now?"

I tell him he can't. We have the photographs to do. The photographer has him posing this way and that and he does get a little fed-up. "Oh, I'm like a limp rag now. I'm like a doll that's been tossed from hand to hand." He then says, tormentingly, that he knows I'd hoped to get him drunk. "You think: get the old bag drunk, and she'll say anything. I used to do that a lot but don't anymore. I did an interview with one journalist and ended up on my back in a courtyard telling him to rape me." That's the sort of thing we hope for, I say. "I'm hardly likely to rape you, dear," he replies. I clarify: it's bad drunken behaviour that we hope for. It helps the copy flow. Crying is good, too. One always hopes for tears. "You almost did that to me, dear, but out of boredom. Ha. Can I go now?" Yes, I say. "Good," he adds, ecstatically. And off he goes, on the feet which I'm now glad I didn't kiss, what with the hard skin and everything. Has it been something of a hoot, or did I bore the arse off him? I'm really not sure. I just know that he never asked how to spell my name.

'The Lambs of London' by Peter Ackroyd is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £15.99