Albion: the origins of the English imagination, by Peter Ackroyd

Full of charming quirks and eccentricities, 'Albion' is an old-fashioned place ripe for rambles and daydreams. So much for an Ackroyd book, says D J Taylor - but what about England?

Sunday 01 December 2013 04:37
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A quarter of a century into an industrious career, the range of Peter Ackroyd's literary interests is pretty well established. Just as Jeanette Winterson is never going to startle her publishers with a study of Victorian prize-fighters or Martin Amis surprise his admirers with a volume of triolets, so Ackroyd, we can safely infer, is probably not itching to write a biography of Arnold Bennett.

Albion, consequently, is a kind of summary or extrapolation of most of his oeuvre to date: like his studies of Dickens, Blake and Eliot and novels about Chatterton, Milton and Dan Leno, only more so; the threads of a shelf-full of bygone erudition gathered up into a voluminous whole. Learned, abstruse and enthusiastic, it is also – again like some of its predecessors – a slightly unsatisfactory book, for reasons to do both with the form in which it is presented and the controlling principle that lurks behind it.

The strongest resemblance, curiously enough, is to Ackroyd's London: the biography (2002): dozen upon dozen of tiny chapterettes, each crammed with interesting information and surmise, yet passing so rapidly before the eye that the effect is oddly fragmentary, a mosaic coherent only to the mind that created it.

Albion produces exactly the same serial and in the end rather random effect, starting in the woods and forest glades (where, according to Ackroyd, the English imagination took root and grew) before moving on to Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon riddles, Bede and the beginnings of English history.

Already the experienced Ackroyd-fancier knows what to expect. Here, halfway through chapter four, it kicks in: culture as continuum, with no progress, only "the endless recapitulation of patterns and the constant interplay of opposing forces", a national psyche that "eschews purity of function for elaboration of form, that strays continually into anecdotes and detail, that distrusts massiveness of conception or intent, that avoids 'depth' of feeling or profundity of argument in favour of artifice and rhetorical display". Some 1,500 years may have passed since Early English, "but in the imagination, there is no distance at all".

Cue a great deal of cultural fast-forwarding and back-tracking, all practised in the name of a "mongrel" culture ceaselessly revivifying itself with transfusions of continental (and other) blood, endlessly renewable, but somehow always more or less the same. That eternal habit of "endless recapitulation" – Ackroyd's preferred term is "interlacing" – links Piers the Ploughman and Dickens. King Lear derives from medieval mummers' plays, which in turn derive from the lives of pre-Conquest saints. For T S Eliot to write a verse drama entitled Murder in the Cathedral was to renew a tradition nearly 1,000 years old.

And so, inexhaustibly, on, through a comic heritage that unites Anglo-Saxon smut and Max Miller to the worlds of cockney visionaries, forgers, wits and dunces, stages and the constant variations on a theme that is "English Music". As ever, where Ackroyd excels is in the patient accumulation of suggestive detail or the sudden descent into a distinctive corner of the English world (see the chapter about ghosts), together with the occasional luminous sentence that conveys a creative talent in two dozen words.

Thus: "Defoe was an instinctive and prolific writer who effortlessly combined all the materials that were closest to hand without any attempt to discriminate between them" followed, inevitably, by some sharp remarks about the metaphor of London as a stage.

Yet the same thing, with certain qualifications, could be said of Ackroyd himself. It would be an odd culture, surely, that didn't reinvent itself, in which the rubble of ancient centuries wasn't used to underpin the shiny tower blocks of the present? At the same time, Ackroyd is less interested in the processes that brought these transformations about: for him it is enough that they happened.

For all the discussion of the "mongrel" culture, there is little about that central cultural reality-cum-metaphor: the border. Fuelled by arresting generalisations and a certain amount of discreet partiality (that disguised, or suppressed, Catholic tradition which always bubbles away to the rear of Ackroyd's work) Albion is – again like the London biography – much more interesting in its incidentals than its agenda.

It could almost be said that the antiquarian strain, never absent from Ackroyd's writing even in his earliest days, is now becoming his dominant trait.

Another question that even an Ackroyd enthusiast might raise is why the enterprise peters to a close sometime in the 19th century – immediately before a period at which national culture becomes susceptible to a whole range of external influences, about which one would quite like to know Ackroyd's opinion. The prose style, meanwhile, has now reached a state of coy fustiness unequalled since the days of Walter Pater. "There is a report this day, 6 June 2001", he writes at one point of a newspaper story. Elsewhere are some marvellous late-Victorian self-interrogations ("What manner of imagination is this?").

As with so much of his recent output, one is continually charmed and instructed, while suspecting that the whole amounts to slightly less than the sum of its parts. The subtitle, too, is woefully inaccurate. This is less a history of the English imagination than a history of Peter Ackroyd's imagination. The two are by no means identical.

D J Taylor's new biography of George Orwell is to be published next year; he will be appearing at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on 16 and 17 October

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