Peter Ackroyd: 'Rioting has been a London tradition for centuries'

The Monday Interview: The capital's greatest chronicler tells Andy McSmith why upsurges of violence are part of the city's texture

Andy McSmith
Tuesday 01 November 2011 18:02

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. The author of mighty studies of both London and of the River Thames has a watching-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, within walking distance of where the rioting began, Mr Ackroyd resolutely refused to see a new epoch dawning. "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 – 'London will never be the same again, London has lost its innocence' – 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. There's hardly a spate of years that goes by without violent rioting of one kind or another. They happen so frequently that they are almost part of London's texture. The difference is that in the past the violence was more ferocious, and the penalties were more ferocious – in most cases, death."

I ask, then, 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. I paraphrase Starkey's now infamous remarks about young whites becoming black, and am cut short by a snort.

"Oh well, that's often been the complaint, that immigrants ..." Here he interrupted himself. "They're not even immigrants, are they? They're born English!" Another snort. "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 – which he has described as a "harsh city, a dark city based upon money and upon power, and upon the sacrifice of its citizens in the cause of capitalism" – is the impending mayoral contest between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. "They don't interest me at all", was all he had to say.

Ackroyd seems to have been writing forever. He was a bright boy off a working-class estate in east London, raised by his mother and grandmother after his father disappeared from the family home. He read English at Clare College Cambridge, did a postgraduate course at Yale, and became literary editor of The Spectator at the age of 22. In the mid-1980s, he left to take up full-time writing, buttressed by the success of his novel Hawksmoor and his biography of TS Eliot.

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. Picture Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army with receding snow-white hair and you have an approximate representation of one of our most renowned contemporary authors. 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 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 that in his long career, both as journalist and writer, 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 – 447 pages that carry the reader from the mists of pre-history to the death of Henry VII – is about to be published. The last, which will cover the post-Victorian era, is several years away. "I may not even include the fall of Gordon Brown. It's not a matter of huge significance," he said, grouchily. "Better to trace the more salient and fundamental features of the 20th and 21st centuries. I just don't know yet."

The charm of his approach to history is that he finds great significance in the way fields were laid before the arrival of the Romans, but the Battle of Bosworth Field, which finished off the Plantagenet dynasty and started the Tudor period, is treated as a little event that might have had a different outcome, and Henry Tudor, grandfather of Good Queen Bess, is portrayed as an insecure 28-year-old who tumbled by accident into a position of power in a country where he could barely speak the language. He said: "There is a sort of Whig version of history which used to be fashionable 18 years ago – everything was leading in the right direction, gently prompted by various suitable people in various suitable poses, but I think history is much more chaos and confusion, unintended consequences and so forth – although underlying the surface consternation and confusion there are very deep continuities in national and social life which persisted over centuries. I tried to contrast the endless process of stuff with the almost geological calm of the nation beneath all this."

This life he leads, immersed in lives led long ago, is not without its excitement. On the day we met, he was thrilled by a new discovery which may shed light on Charlie Chaplin's mother's mental state. She was interned in a lunatic asylum for giving coal to children in the streets. Ackroyd has discovered that "coal" is old gypsy slang for "money", and surmised that in her distress, Mrs Chaplin was reverting to her gypsy roots.

"The marvellous thing about research of that nature is that you can come upon luminous and illuminating details which tend to be neglected by more academic historians, or more professional historians," he said, getting as near to being "excited" as outwardly placid man is ever likely to be. So, a warning to television producers everywhere: if you are looking for a historian/novelist to give a breathless analysis of the significance of whatever is top of the news, don't call Ackroyd. His mind is deep in some other century.

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

A life in brief

* 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.

* Studied at Clare College, Cambridge, and gained a double first in English. Undertook a scholarship at Yale University, in 1972.

* Worked for the Spectator magazine, as Literary Editor, from 1973-1977 before becoming a prolific writer, critic, biographer and historian.

* His novel Hawksmoor, written in 1985, won the Whitbread Award. His 1,200-page biography of Charles Dickens, published in 1990, was subject to a rumoured £650,000 advance as part of a two-book deal.

* Having been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1984, he was given a CBE for services to literature in 2003 and made a foreign honourary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments