Peter Ackroyd: 'Retire? Only if my arms are chopped off first'
The novelist, biographer and chronicler of London is that rarest of creatures – an author who doesn't like talking about his own books and who shuns the party circuit. Katy Guest meets Peter Ackroyd
Sunday 12 July 2009
Early in our interview Peter Ackroyd, he of the immense brain, the prodigious output and the legendary lack of patience with dumb-ass newspaper interviewers, assures me that he has never met a person he found boring. "People are much more interesting than people realise." He chuckles. "There's a word for that construction... But no, I don't think people are boring at all. I strike up conversations all the time and it is very interesting, finding out about things I know nothing about."
Much of this is hard to believe. For instance, how often does the author of 17 non-fiction books, on subjects from London to transvestism to Shakespeare and back again to London (he doesn't know the number; but he does sit down now and count them), find out something that interests him that he doesn't already know? Does he really have the time or the inclination to strike up conversations with people when he admits he is just about always writing. ("I'm working on Saturday and Sunday," he says. "Well, what else would I do?") But, more than this, can he really expect anyone to believe that he doesn't find his intellectual inferiors to be almost unbearably trying? After all, he seems to find me pretty tedious, and it can't just be because I am trying to talk to him about him.
Approaching an audience with Ackroyd is a daunting experience, because one never knows which Ackroyd one is going to get. The gossip columns have portrayed him as a not-so-amiable drunk, falling over at literary parties or getting his companion headbutted by talking and heckling through a first night at the theatre. Trepidatious young men are usually dispatched to interview him, and return full of tales of waspish gossip and drunken carousing that continued for many hours after their tape recorders gave up and switched themselves off. But others are sent away with nothing more than a flea in their ear.
We meet mid-afternoon, in the Bloomsbury office from which he walks home from work every day of the week. He wouldn't prefer to be taken out to lunch or drinks, he says – he doesn't really like going out. We are here to talk about his latest book, a prose retelling of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and about his appearance tomorrow at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre. But it turns out that he doesn't like to discuss his finished books ("for all intents and purposes, they're gone") and that he hates literary festivals. "I would never go to them," he says. "I just find them wearisome and wearying and completely without purpose. But I didn't realise that this one was a literature festival until just this week."
From the moment he opens his door and offers me a glass of water, until he says goodbye and thanks me for a very pleasant interview, Ackroyd is the very epitome of politeness. He answers my questions succinctly, and also a little quizzically, with questions.
"It sounds very pretentious but I have a vocation. And I'm just following my vocation," he says.
"Well, other people don't always have that."
Ackroyd frequently stresses that he doesn't like talking about himself, and doesn't think that his personal life is relevant to his work. And he is rare among authors in that he is successful enough to be able to turn down that wearisome and wearying festival circuit. But I do, I tell him, want to talk about his place on The Independent on Sunday's Pink List. "Yes!" he says, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief. So he's aware of our annual list of the 101 most influential gay people in Britain? "Well, I don't know." He sighs deeply. "Is it some sort of gay thing?"
There are those who say that the list is irrelevant, an anachronism, even that it is patronising to gay people. But there are many more, I tell him, who find it empowering, celebratory, even fun.
"Fun?" he interjects, baffled. "Oh how pathetic. But I'm not even gay." Oh dear. "I'm nothing," he clarifies. "Well, I don't have any sex life. I mean I'm a sort of neutral. Not neutral. There is a word for it ... Chaste!"
In other – for whatever reason more loquacious – interviews, Ackroyd has explained that he first knew he was gay when he was seven, in between starting to read newspapers aged five and writing his first play at nine. He has confessed to being ashamed after he called the printers to change the "he" to a "she" in his first collection of love poems – because he had just accepted a job as the literary editor of The Spectator, "which was well known then for its anti-homosexual, anti-anything attitude". He has spoken with great and moving honesty about his long-term relationship with Brian Kuhn, which saw him leave his beloved London for the first time and move to a cottage in the West Country – before Kuhn died there of Aids. Now, all he will say, quietly and moving swiftly on, is that he will never live outside London again. He will grow old here, neutrally. He will never use the Underground – a "hateful and unnecessary" experience. And he will walk, and look around him, as much as he can. Then, he is quickly back to quizzical again. What do I mean, London can be hard work? People are what? Cross? "They are? Why? Oh that's not my experience at all! Are they really?"
London, of course, has been good to Ackroyd. He was born here, on a council estate in East Acton, and was educated in a nearby Catholic school before going on to read English at Cambridge. He has written about it in most of his 15 novels (from The Great Fire of London in 1982 to last year's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein) and it is a major character in his biographies (of Eliot, Dickens, Blake, Shakespeare, Newton ...). But he is perhaps most famous, justly, for his magnificent, enormous, joyous love letters to the capital – London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River. At 822 and 490 pages respectively, immaculately written and coruscating with the sort of gems of information that only years of painstaking research can unearth, they are accepted to be the definitive biographies of the capital city. But Ackroyd says he is not yet done. There is plenty of mileage left in London yet.
London and Thames have led to a very comfortable life for Ackroyd. He has moved from Acton to Shepherd's Bush to Notting Hill to Chelsea and now lives in Knightsbridge – though he wouldn't say he has become posher with success but rather "more refined". He always takes a taxi to work. But writing the books – which he churns out at a rate of about two a year – also nearly killed him. Just as he finished writing London: The Biography, he suffered a heart attack and spent a week in a coma. "I don't believe in these bolts of illumination after serious illness," he says, frankly. "Mine was a near-death experience, but the only vision I had was of Arab women dancing. Yeah. Weird. It had no effect on me whatsoever."
Nothing would persuade Ackroyd to retire from writing, he says – "unless I had my arms chopped off, then I would have to think again". And whereas most people do not have the mental capacity to read more than one book at a time, he generally writes two or three at once. "It's important for my sanity," he says. "If I did only one thing at a time I'd think I was wasting my time. If, for example, I only wrote novels I would feel like a charlatan and a fraud... I think [writing fiction] is possibly a rather ignoble profession." He pooh-poohs his legendary output. "It's not that much compared, say, to the output of someone like Balzac or Dickens. Not that I'm comparing myself to them..." Not comparing himself to great writers from history is something Ackroyd does quite a lot.
"I don't in any sense think of myself as a celebrity, which of course I'm not," he explains. But he has left all his papers to Yale, to be plundered and truffled through after his death. As with his books, he says, he doesn't care what becomes of this loot once it is all in the past. "I'd be quite happy for people to do [with it] whatever they wished."
Nevertheless, I like to think of Ackroyd's ghost troubling his future biographer, haunting the streets of London after he has gone, perhaps turning up at weekends to make surreptitious corrections to the manuscript of his as-yet-unwritten life. His would-be successor "will have to have a strong stomach", Ackroyd jokes. Whoever gets his hands on that mysterious Yale archive might well be judgemental about its subject. They might be kind. But at least they will never be bored.
Life and times: Journey of a man of letters
5 October 1949 Born in East Acton, London. He begins reading newspapers aged five and writes a play about Guy Fawkes at the age of nine.
1970s Graduates from Clare College, Cambridge, with a double first in English, and later studies at Yale University as a Mellon Fellow.
1973-77 Works for The Spectator magazine as its literary editor.
1982 Publishes his first novel, The Great Fire of London, which is a reworking of Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit.
1984 Becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
1998 Wins the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Life of Thomas More.
2000 His play The Mystery of Charles Dickens is performed by Simon Callow. Also releases London: The Biography, one of his best-known works. It is awarded the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature.
2003 Is created a CBE.
2003-2005 He writes a six-book non-fiction series, Voyages Through Time, for children. The series – his first for children – is critically acclaimed.
2007 Publishes Thames: Sacred River.
2008 In his most recent novel, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, he imagines that the scientist and Mary Shelley meet in Italy.
2009 His new book, Venice: Pure City, will be published in September.
Peter Ackroyd will be appearing at the London Literature Festival to discuss his retelling of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales tomorrow, at 7.30pm ( londonlitfest.com)
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