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Peter Ackroyd's Englishness: a continental view.

IN recent years it has become fashionable in Britain for politicians and writers to ask what it means to be 'English'. Some of this has been stirred by the effects of Britain becoming part, albeit a questioning part, of the EU and, even more, by the effects of devolution of Scotland and Wales. At the start of this year the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, tried to promote a debate about Britishness and establish a 'British Day' to encourage people to fly the national flag. This to some extent was a Scottish politician's (and one who hopes to become Prime Minister) need to promote Britishness over Englishness. Yet beyond the temporary needs of a politician there is the serious question of what it is to be English, and what it means to be an 'English' writer and imbue an 'indigenously' English imagination. These are questions that resonate throughout the work of Peter Ackroyd, a contemporary Englishman whose polymathic range of achievement elicits superlatives one would have thought only appropriate for the regretfully departed.

An accomplished poet, novelist, and literary critic, and one of England's foremost biographers, Ackroyd is the author of an impressive body of work, ranking as one of the most prolific English writers of all times. Lately he has also become a popular figure on television with a series of his own works; in recent months he has been presenting the political ideas of the great Romantic poets. Having established himself as a distinctive presence in literary history through radical biographical innovation, Ackroyd has in the latter years become indispensable for an informed discussion of English cultural identity. With 35 books to his name, he is one of the most influential and enduring figures in contemporary literature and, as one enthusiastic reviewer of The Life of Thomas More intimated, he is probably among the few contemporary English writers to be read in a hundred years' time. While this may not necessarily be a staple of 'greatness guaranteed', it is clearly a reflection of the manner in which Ackroyd's dense and passionately articulate prose engages notions of national and international appreciation, the English and the continental imagination, acting as an agent provocateur and inviting value judgements along with a timely rethinking of the question of English identity. And whereas it is arguable whether Ackroyd is a 'good' writer, it is beyond dispute that he is an important writer, one whose impact on redefining national culture is yet to come to the fore. The main argument that the present article advances is that in the local-universal, personal-collective, inside-outside dynamics that it forges, Ackroyd's writing of Englishness can be viewed as a catalyst to an integrative examination of English identity in the trans-national context of the new Europe. I would also suggest that whereas in England Ackroyd's vision of national culture may appear utopian, in a European framework of interpretation it confers to his writing a compelling timelessness, that may, in the long run, prove more in tune with the values of the post-secular world.

Stature, expanse and the encyclopaedic formation are not the only respects in which Ackroyd cuts a singular figure in the current scene of writing. A 'man of the books' in the fullest and least contemporary of fashions, Ackroyd interests himself in all the non-voguish, tabooed or contentious subjects, writing with the stamina and authority of someone with little use for relativism, apologia and famous English understatements. A 'litterateur' at home in the contrived recherche style, he is high-spirited and single-minded, driven by something of a tunnel vision, looking unaffected by the harrowing pressures of the publishing industry, public or critical expectations, formulating strong uncompromising statements. Thinking ahead bigger and bigger every time, Ackroyd goes for the most extravagant of projects. His desire for grand design is matched only by his zeal for writing. Ackroyd seems religious about his writing which he practises with the solemn observance and impetuousness of a ritual performer.

In a review of Richard Hayman's biography of Sartre, Ackroyd remarks that the French thinker would embark on 'gargantuan projects', which he would more often than not abandon. While sharing with the French master the unrest of racing against himself, Ackroyd is an admixture of zest, strong will and creative energy, and would probably never drop a project, even if it were to cost him his life--which in fact his London: the Biography (2000) nearly did. Indeed an intellectual dynamo that may be only just coming of age, Ackroyd may yet produce, at least from his point of view, his personal best: 'As far as I'm concerned I am just beginning, I feel that the energy is just now flowing properly, so that I can feel my way forward for the next decade or two. Up until now I haven't been applying myself properly. I'm only just emerging', [1] says Ackroyd, in self-congratulatory style.

While not proposing an assessment of work of such daunting scale, this enquiry will concentrate on the dialectic between Ackroyd's rhetorical construction of English cultural identity, Englishness as a self-concept, and as a trans-national concept, going beyond the 'insular' context. Intent on uncovering the English inheritance and the continuities of the English spirit not just in literature, but in all forms of English culture, Ackroyd produces a text so profuse and dense in recapitulations and interrogations of literacy, literary and cultural history that to do full justice to this multitudinous material, one would have to cover in depth a vast cultural mileage, a few million-pages worth of text. But there is more to Ackroyd than 'an author who can write by the yard' and won't be 'imprisoned by the metre', as Andrew Anthony puts it in a recent Observer Profile [2].

While making no habitual claims to 'analytic distance', this enquiry does aim to contribute a fresh, outsider's eye to 'the paradox of English identity'. It is premised on the commonsensical assumption that insiders to a culture lack the detachment necessary to conduct analytical observation. My additions to this commonplace are that, despite its insularity, English cultural identity is a malleable, discursive entity whose discussion should incorporate contemporary visions from the European mainland; that the non-English Anglophile should be allowed some hermeneutic say within discussions of English cultural identity.

Against the backdrop of the dissolving of 'Britishness' as a national identity category, an increasingly fractured, outward-gazing United Kingdom faced with reassessing its disconnection from Europe, with English as the global lingua franca, yet England's uneasy gesture towards European integration, one can hardly think of a set of more urgent issues for English studies to analyse. Consequently, what is significant to explore in Ackroyd's project is not so much the extent to which it captures the typicality of English culture, his successfulness in pinning down English particularism. Ackroyd's greater importance lies in the dialogue that he orchestrates between individual and collective memory, cultural identity and difference, discovery and invention of tradition, or else constructed and 'received' modes of Englishness. This is a dialogue potentially breathing new life into the debate around Englishness, and inviting reflection on England in the European imagination, combined with continental Europe's idea of Englishness.

It is a dialogue in which the writer's model emerges at the overlap of the structure of feeling and song of himself, poetics and politics. The model is bound to be self-referential, in 'making sense of England' [3], Ackroyd seeking, as he declares, to contextualise his own work, and in the process, provide his alternative to a much exploded Anglocentric canon.

In the double inside-outside perspective that postcolonial readings of culture went to such lengths to legitimise, Ackroyd's celebration of Englishness represents, I will argue here, a necessary form of liberation from an idiosyncratic identity mindset made complicated by culture, politics and by a hyperconscious sense of the perils of nationalism and the illusory nature of national identity. The result of a peculiar commingling of superiority and inferiority complexes, of post-imperial pangs of conscience, the Englishman's apprehensive attitude towards self-identity speaks of a 'difficult liberty', one that the English find only sensible not to take. Among the rare intrepid to lay bare and challenge the insecurities and preconceptions about national culture, Ackroyd embarks upon what reads at times like a quixotic quest, pondering unrelentingly 'what condition this is of being English', [4] what singles Englishness out among other national cultures, and what are its dominant art forms.

There has of course always been controversy over what the 'English' character, temperament and genius may quintessentially be held to be, whether like categories or terms even exist outside the invisible boundaries of popular consciousness. Their legitimacy is all the more questionable today, in the shifty sands and nebulous contexts of a post-devolution U.K., when the subject of national identity is dubbed 'politically incorrect' in whatever description or treatment. Considered in this new inside-outside dynamic, the English identity crisis that Ackroyd's work indirectly draws attention to deserves more than the typically restrained, ironic or apologetic attitudes of the English themselves.

To the extent that he seeks to reconcile the English with themselves and reconnect them with their literary ancestry, Ackroyd is a proactive writer, who takes it upon himself to act as, to use an outmoded phrase, the 'literary-historical conscience of an age'. Of an audacious, unimpressionable nature, Ackroyd defies, especially in his recent work, the literary dominants and stereotypes of the present, resisting its modish interrogations, more inquisitive of its 'anxieties of influence' than of its post-traumatic syndromes. In an age dominated by various modes of 'presentism', Ackroyd displays an assiduous anchorage in the past, the natural habitat of his writing, projecting himself as the 'contemporary other'. He is an engaged writer, possessed of an imagination steeped in the past, looking backwards over continuities of experience and heroically devoted to defining an 'essentially English' spirit. These are already the ingredients of a makeup incongruent with mainstream writing from England at this hour, which is characterised, to risk a generalisation, by the escapist drift toward internationalism. To this continental observer it is ironic that his paradigm of Englishness should be taken for 'official' propaganda culture or writing 'on an agenda'. Ackroyd's take on English cultural difference at this precise juncture and the aplomb with which he goes against the grain of contemporary sensibility make him a literary phenomenon to reckon with. As with no other contemporary writer, Ackroyd is acquiring the venerable aura and cultural weight of a 'classic', almost ceasing to be an individual author and becoming an institution. Simply because his work articulates an insider's vision of myths and narratives of national identity does not make it subservient to or less of a challenge to dominant views. Nor does it make it problematical per se. In fact, Ackroyd's way of not taking 'Englishness' for granted invites particular distillations as it is grounded in the diachronic perspective informed by culture history, Ackroyd's area of predilection in recent years. As will become apparent from the ensuing discussion, the writer's erudite conversation with the past produces a far from elitist model of locating English tradition. Ackroyd's 'Great Tradition' is not a rarefied high culture, even though, quite arguably, it does show absolute eternal values; nor is it a 'purist' space of single, incontrovertible truths about Englishness. On the contrary, the two attributes that he consistently extols are the mixed, 'mongrel' character of the English race and its assimilative nature:
 There is little value in trying to establish the constituent parts of
 some grand national tradition in the Leavisite manner, or in trying to
 construct some enclosed hierarchy of English values and beliefs.
 Certainly I would not like to adopt some literary variant of a Little
 England posture, and there is to me nothing more depressing than the
 English poetry and fiction of the fifties and sixties which opted
 defiantly for the small scale and the domestic in the face of French
 experimentation and American energy. I am, I hope, talking about
 something larger. I am talking about lines of force which eddy through
 the language. I am talking about something which begins, if you like,
 at the beginning. [5]

In the dialectic of the national and the international as illustrated by contemporary English writers, Ackroyd's exuberant celebration of England and the English genius, his fixation on the vernacular offends the contemporary cosmopolitan sensibility because it provokes the impropriety of a deliberate walk in the dangerous territory of English individualism and nationhood. With deconstruction still looming large on the horizon of academic practice and national values either dismissed as archaic or vehemently discredited, it is axiomatic that Ackroyd's pursuit of origins and essences should not fit in the value-averse space of the contemporary. Especially not in English cultural soil, where attempts to investigate tradition have been met with derision or aggravated suspicion, and more effort has been spent on repressing rather than preserving national memory. The pathos pervading his English chronicles, his refusal to formulate mea culpas for the past, and his emphatic explorations of Englishness, have predictably enough been subject to acerbic criticism. Qualified as sentimental or antiquarian at best, hegemonic at worst, Ackroyd's understanding of Englishness is equally unlikely among the body of works exploring English identity. To begin with, in his model, the archetypical site of identification is not the English countryside, but a protean, 'illimitable' London represented as a matrix of the universal, the very centre of gravity itself. The image is seminal and replete with the kind of material begging postcolonial deconstructions. The filiation that he imagines for English national culture, that of Catholic spirituality, and the poetics that he builds on it, situate Ackroyd on the orbit of the chivalrous, courtly model, the Quixotic rather than the Anglo-Saxon, ingratiating type. He is the Ingenious Gentleman of Londinium, graciously transforming cultural windmills into giants, typifying in baroque style the constant aesthetic tension between idealism and realism.

From an insider's perspective, Ackroyd's idee fixe, his excavations in origins and beginnings do not sit well with these times not yet freed of spectres of post-colonial guilt. From that of the outsider, Ackroyd's search of a shared unifying English identity amid such divisive pressure is commendable in ways more than one. In his epic journey to the heart of English difference, Ackroyd forays into the collective memory of his race in pursuit of a sense of commonality, of 'patterns of culture, patterns of inheritance, patterns of belonging', [6] speaking with impassioned rhetoric of England as he knows it. The method is eclectic and the cultural paradigm that Ackroyd's latest work articulates veers between the fictional and the historiographic in a manner which fuels considerably the attitudes of 'Anglo-sceptic' fellow scholars. On the one hand his cultural statements make serious claims to recognition, on the other, the phantasmal register of his English narrative groups it with the familiar historiographic metafictions of the postmodern repertoire. Ackroyd's own earlier exploits of the genre in pieces such as Hawksmoor and Chatterton foster the mixed response. The stylistic infelicities of the series of books opened up by London: the Biography, the apex of his millennial English project, with their rushed, gallop-like tone, hardly help in discerning the nature of Ackroyd's endeavour. His immersion in the literary past takes the form of a cultural utopia, a reconstruction of origins, bracketing fragmentariness in favour of cohesion. In his quest for a model, Ackroyd is eager to see, if need be fabricate, continuities where there will be none. Perhaps one of the least convincing aspects of Ackroyd's Englishness is his inability to think out his model in its articulations and interconnectedness with the present, Ackroyd failing to address the past in a present-day perspective, through the lenses of the modifying polarities and realignments of culture politics nowadays. The oracular, visionary tone adopted in statements such as: 'what we see here is a kind of attenuated spiritual longing, which has come back literally to haunt us' [7] is especially suggestive of the extent to which the author may appear to cast himself in the position of a great seer. Indeed, as it has been pointed out by the most zealous of his critics, his operation is in the main that of retracing an atavistic sensibility, of restoring a form of proto-English cultural memory through the unearthing of vestiges of a lost civilisation. However, despite his reluctance to factor in the transformative power of contemporary phenomena, his cultural analyses of Englishness have the force to generate a wider, more inclusive notion of Englishness. They raise awareness of English identity as constitutive of the interplay of inside-outside perceptions and constructions, thus re-signifying the perimeter of current debates.

Ackroyd's central thesis, which he put forward in a LWT Lecture delivered at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1993, is the existence of a native English tradition of 'London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries' that best encapsulates 'the true nature and spirit' of London. The location by Ackroyd of English cultural identity in the Catholic civilisation before the Reformation provides him with a cultural logic both tenable and productive, certainly one that creates a new frame of reference for the understanding of a set of dominants in English art forms. The claim is of course problematical in a variety of ways, not least of all in its conflation of London and England, a habit severely judged by Ackroyd's reviewers. Second, the identity poetics that Ackroyd formulates is primordialist in substance, not because it entails questions of value, but because it naturalises the state of being English, projecting it as an all-encompassing contagious condition. This is all the more so as it is coached in a theory of the authentic nature of English identity as emerging from 'the buried traditions of a once Catholic England' [8]. Culture politics aside, Ackroyd's case for the legacy of Catholicism in poetical terms, is not entirely implausible and on the whole, the paradigm holds water. The Catholic Mass did after all mould theatrical representation in incontestable measures and the centrality of theatrical traditions in the shaping of English character cannot be overstated. In its celebratory and ritualistic practice, Catholicism is the true kindred spirit of the English, Ackroyd professes, because it inculcates in the individual the inclination for spectacle and play, manifest in the relish for performance arts, high in mimetic drive. In Ackroyd's poetic reasoning, elements of an English Catholic culture live on in the continuing predilection of English artists for ancient forms of creativity based on imitation, the predisposition for showmanship, the music hall tradition, pantomime and vaudeville, pantaloonery, all illustrations of the 'intrinsic and necessary aspect of the London genius' [9]. By extension, these are aspects of English cultural identity that, as most mainland Europeans would agree, find correspondences in the stereotypes of pretence and hypocrisy, surface over depth, facetious courtesy. He thus posits the native English tradition displaced by the Reformation as the expression of an archetypal form, a primal and recurrent image or prototype of the English imagination reverberating in the collective unconscious:
 We all know how the drama was in origin a form of religious ritual,
 how in this country its beginnings are to be found in Mysteries and
 the Miracle Plays and how its deepest source probably lies within the
 Catholic Mass itself. We also know how certain forms of Protestantism
 were as deeply opposed to drama as they were to Catholicism....
 Catholicism is a religion of ritual, spectacle and symbolism, whereas
 Protestantism is more concerned with the exigencies of the solitary
 conscience and the individual's relationship to God: it is not a long
 step from The Pilgrim's Progress to The Prelude, and the connection
 between Protestantism and English Romanticism has often been made. The
 Protestant tradition is one which has characteristically also
 emphasised the uniqueness of the individual genius, and the
 exclusivity of individual creativity. Chatterton was, as he knew well
 enough himself, born at the wrong time. [10]

The congeniality of the dramatic forms in English literary traditions substantiates the thesis of the scenic character of English culture, an attribute that applies to a large extent to Ackroyd's own writing, which replicates the attraction of the surface and the exterior, heterogeneity and jocularity. Similarly, in assimilativeness, the attribute that he associates the most with the English spirit, Ackroyd appears to find his inspiration for his own versatility as a writer. One manifestation of this is the conflation of genres that has earned him a name as a resourceful re-inventor of fictional discourse. Ackroyd's banishing of strict determinations of genre, is greatly telling of his reading of Englishness. In his view, the strength of English literary traditions lies in inventive adaptation rather than invention, and although he does catalogue a suite of literary forms deemed characteristically English, to Ackroyd, what distinguishes English literary imagination is the self-conscious adoption of 'styles and languages of the past' [11]. Ackroyd's genre-boundary violations, his blending of metafiction, biography and history, are in themselves instances of creative assimilation. As well as pointing to the impurity of narrative forms, Ackroyd restores the freedom of the genre to accommodate a more synthetic brand of the narrative imagination. In so doing, he defamiliarises biography, disturbing its representational framework through radical reconstructive and interventive strategies. In his practice, biography is a pretext for the literary historian to dialogise with his subject and fulfil those potentialities that form an integral part of the author's aesthetic project. In the Ackroydian vein, Blake, Dickens, More are larger than life because their vision is made consummate by a skilful carrying out of their design. Through the coalescence of fact and invention in his biographies, Ackroyd challenges conventions of narrative rebalancing the imitation versus invention polarity. In this, he iterates that much of fiction is about unwriting and rewriting existing narrative modes, making his mark on the polyvocal range of the genre.

In the works explicitly configuring his Englishness project, i.e. the lectures and non-fictional works, Ackroyd develops his views and their implications to a far lesser extent than he does those of his biographical subjects. Common to both London: the Biography and Albion is the precipitated burning of stages in what would require a systematic chain of argumentative scaffolding, the hastening of conclusions and, in general, a lack of fine-tuning in presentation that strikes a discordant note in a stylist of his calibre. Thus, in the tackling of pivotal points on the making of English identity, many of his propositions remain unelaborated, or end in instances of plain truism as is the case with the language-people analogy below:
 I think the English language of all languages is the most assailable.
 It's the one which has been most obviously based on assimilation so we
 have romance elements, Celtic elements, Saxon elements, French
 elements, Latin elements, as you say. And what we have at the end of
 it is a very heterogeneous language, a language which is capable of
 going in many directions at once. It's immensely subject to influence,
 it's immensely subject to borrowings and adaptations, so in a sense
 the language is, mimics or is a paradigm for the people. As the
 language is, so are the people, a very heterogeneous bunch a 'mixed
 mongrel race' as Defoe said, a race that depends upon immigration to
 sustain its prosperity and its growth. The language either influences
 or mimics those characteristics. So, when we talk about the nation
 we're talking about the language and vice versa. [12]

In the sections of Albion dealing with early renditions of the Bible in the demotic, Ackroyd is more to the point, and of a more eloquent and meticulous argumentative disposition. Here he pauses from exhortation to bring linguistic evidence in support of statements otherwise equally elated:
 Tyndale was a master of the short phrase, placed within the movement
 of a larger cadence, and this in turn is based upon a Gloucestershire
 dialect touched by wider understanding; it is a paradigm of the
 English imagination itself. It might be noted that Tyndale's English
 reproduces 'the rhythm of the original Hebrew' as well as that ancient
 tongue's 'balance, imagery and conscience of expression'; it is
 another example of the ability of the English to adapt, to borrow and
 to synthesise. [13]

Intrinsically, what sets Ackroyd apart from his contemporaries, conferring on his cultural project a third dimension of depth, is the metaphysical aspect of his work. Rather than an isolated trait, Ackroyd's adherence to a metaphysical-spiritual order conveys on his writing a redemptive quality, conditioning the interpretation in significant ways. Thus, whereas in a secular reading, suspending the mythic-metaphysical plane, Ackroyd's search of a cultural logic of Englishness is fraught with megalomaniac affirmations, a symbolic interpretation, attentive to his fundamental imagism, discloses an attitude of humility and faithfulness to his subject. What may pass for conceit in Anglo-sceptic English circles acquires an aura of authenticity and earnestness for the non-English Anglophile who happens to believe in the existence and 'orthodoxy' of such a thing as Englishness, and the right of the English people to assert it.

One of the chief unifying components of his work, the spiritual, figures in a welder of hypostases, ranging from the metaphysical quest and the power accorded to the visionary, to the protean mode of discourse, and more importantly, a devout, priestly attitude to language. It is the principle underlying all of Ackroyd's oeuvre and translates into a potent mythic-mystical substratum. Particularly in his latter day works, the aspiration for transcendence overshadows the frivolous postmodernist indulgence in metatextual ludics, which is why the preferred reading of these books is in the symbolical-archetypal key. This is so not because the author's positions are above politics or more defensible when read as metaphysical reveries. Rather, an effective critique of Ackroyd's identity poetics and politics calls into question elements of imagology, theories of collective image, and national characterology, with appreciable touches of classical historiography. In the dramatisation of sacred and profane mysteries, sacramental rites, apocryphal traditions, the cabbalistic and the esoteric, Ackroyd subscribes to a numinous order of sacred space and time. Among the manifestations of this allegiance, his deification of London gives the amplest evidence of the teleological model that his work imbibes. The claims to universality accompanying Ackroyd's London-centrism are more relevantly analysed within the framework of ideality of his homo religiosus make-up. The category, as expounded by an historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, [14] designates the individual as permeable to the manifestation of the sacred in human experience. Through constant recapitulation of rite and myth, the religious individual chooses to remain in the sacred, permanently renewing his connection to the primordial time. Ackroyd's re-enactments of scenes, forms, voices and vocabularies of old, his painstaking attempt at the consecration of space are just that, efforts at a revalorisation of the symbolical order. The religious then pervades Ackroyd's texts in multiple ways, whether in the form of liturgical representation or in that of repetition, ritual, and imitation. The ceremonial and sacramental nature of Catholic practice is inspiriting to a writer so extrovert in the imagination ambit. In the baptismal scenes of high atmospheric quality that open the biographies of Blake and More, Ackroyd is equally concerned with the spectacle underlying the ritual as with conveying the sense of elation and piety. The spiritual-theatrical imbrication is deployed to a very revealing effect, as some of his reviewers noted:
 This is the first biography of More to have absorbed the small
 revolution in Reformation scholarship of the last 20 years--pioneered
 by historians like Christopher Haigh and Eamonn Duffy--and is able to
 see England, through the mists of Protestant and Whig propaganda, as
 one of the most authentically Catholic countries in the history of
 Europe. In an early chapter, Ackroyd evokes the meaning behind the
 sacrament of the Eucharist as well as any theologian I have ever
 read. [15]

Paralleling images of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in Ackroyd's biographies are secular acts of consecration that own a crucial place in his ars poetica. Verbal bravura, mimicry and vetriloquism are ritual actions through which rather like an actor, he inhabits the subjects of his biographies. Ackroyd's method is strongly empathic, the veracity of his biographies owing a lot to his power of intense identification with indeed impersonation of his historical characters:
 The only way of writing any kind of study, say the Thomas More one, is
 to so fully enter his sensibility that you become a part of it, and he
 becomes a part of you. In that process you begin to see the heart of
 his design. It would be foolish and unproductive to see it as a
 totally alien system of belief. Far better to enter it in a spirit of
 communion. [16]

Speaking in the poetic tongues of his Cockney visionaries is Ackroyd's mode of becoming symbolically contemporary with his past masters, and reinvesting the scene of contemporary writing. Rather than appropriating his subjects to analyse them in a trans-historical perspective, Ackroyd makes use of an epic approach, concentrating all his efforts on the biographical narrative, and on an as minute and artisan-like restoration of the persona and age as possible. 'If the language rings true, then you know you're right', he tells an interviewer. It is a degree of self-effacement not entirely value-free, Ackroyd projecting inevitably if unknowingly something of his own 'design' into the characters whose 'systems of beliefs' and visions he enters.

According to Eliade, the religious individual experiences the world as having a sacred centre. London is Ackroyd's:
 London is not only a physical community but also a host of angels
 singing 'Holy, holy, holy!' ... The presence of relics, of shrines and
 of holy wells, in London and elsewhere, testifies to a sense of time
 utterly at odds with the twentieth-century vision of the city as a
 quickly running mechanism or an endless flow of passing human
 beings ... The sense of the sacredness of place is central
 here. [17]

Religious emotion, experienced in the process of public worship, is at the heart of Ackroyd's airy prose, and an abundance of theological references run through all his writings. William Blake, whose life Ackroyd wrote, is Ackroyd's most iconic 'Cockney visionary', a native of London 'imbued with a religion of piety, enthusiasm and vision' [18]. England's 'last great religious poet' [19], epitomises the kind of fulsome, prescient creativity that Ackroyd assigns to home-grown, original London genius. As English Music (1992), Ackroyd's most poetised transposition of Englishness, illustrates, 'the song of Albion' is a multi-voiced ensemble of soloists working in unison. Ackroyd's vision is one of sublime harmony and seamless continuity, 'the Briton, Saxon, Roman, Norman, amalgamating into one nation and finding their sacred home in the word'. [20] Ackroyd's notion of the dialogic imagination of English artistry and scholarship is of course a manifestation of what Blake envisaged as the 'One Central Form of the Imagination'. Part of his revisionary project, indeed of his direct tribute to Blake is to revitalise this 'sacred art, an art of vision rather than verisimilitude or proportion'. While this may not appear evident to Ackroyd, his appraisal of Blake's 'second sight' is equally geared at epic magnitude as is his endeavour to earn a share in the ideal order formed by 'individual talent'. In this sense, Ackroyd does an immaculate if subliminal job of contextualising the reception of his work, so much so that setting his name on the pedestal after his recent productions is hardly optional. Like Blake's, Ackroyd's is a religious mind that detects meaningful patterns and a glorious design in the phenomenal world, forging links and concocting collective acts of imagination and faith. Ackroyd notes that '[Blake] had a very strong sense of place and all of his life he was profoundly and variously affected by specific areas of London'. [21] Similarly, Ackroyd's obsessive brooding on Londonness seems to metamorphose at times into a plague afflicting his sense of self and reality. Absolute Truth and Beauty, together with the cosmogonic imaginings of the English as a chosen race, nourish Ackroyd's cultural phantasms, Ackroyd often literalising Blake's imagery to picture a resplendent state of grace, 'living forever in the state of eternity called Albion' [22].

As a haven of mystical ideas, religious movements, occult groups and practices, London is the heartbeat of Ackroyd's chronicles of Cockney visionarism. He draws his vision of organic Englishness invariably out of London, whose timeless, galactic universality he postulates. As Eliade shows, the structuring of identity as native space unbound, is always a trans-national, trans-individual experience:
 Even the European of today still preserves an obscure sense of
 mystical solidarity with his native soil. It is the religious
 experience of autochthony; the feeling is that of belonging to a
 place, and it is a cosmically structured feeling that goes far beyond
 family or ancestral solidarity. [23]

The transgressive function of the spiritual is visible already in Ackroyd's early 'historiographic metafictions', the likes of Chatterton and Hawksmoor, or fictional biographies, of which The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde is his most noteworthy. Hailed today as classics of British postmodern experimentation, these are texts that grow out of a significantly different logic than the postmodernist 'emplotment of history'. While they may constitute themselves in radical subversions of historical truth and the convention of verisimilitude, they do not dispel altogether the illusion of an ultimate transcendent reality outside the textual realm. Nicholas Dyer, the eighteenth-century architect in Hawksmoor, is animated by the desire to emulate the Universal Architect. In Chatterton, the secret afterlife of the eighteenth-century poet Thomas Chatterton that the writer protagonist, Charles Wychwood, envisions is demystified in the end as fantasy. Wychwood dies, but the vision remains to propel his quest forward, 'and all the unhappiness and all the sickness can be taken away by that vision' [24]. To those possessed by a recuperative vision, like Wychwood, the Chatterton effect of voice impersonation is enabling and cathartic, even if, ironically, the subject does not outlive the process of creativity release. The therapeutic setting of the theatrical as derivative of religious rite is what salvages the Ackroydian text from the postmodern trivialisation of historicity, the object of Fredric Jameson's major critique. Far from defective, Ackroyd's texts are historically hyperconscious, suspending disbelief in the eventual beneficial outcome of the fictional exercise. The dual readings to which they yield depend on where one places the demarcation line between the sacred and the profane planes of significance. Consequently, in the internal logic of Ackroyd's works, Chatterton's legacy is alternatively a metaphysical chimera or a linguistic hoax.

Ackroyd's writing is in itself a form of ritual chant and continuity in connectedness the inspirative mantra that rejuvenates his mission. On several occasions, in television shows, interviews and conversations, he distinguishes between secular and spiritual writers in terms of the cultural outlooks and inheritances informing their work:
 Where am I coming from? Well, I was brought up as a Catholic, put it
 that way, but whether that has in any sense dominated my consciousness
 ever since, is a matter for my personal debate. I certainly would
 divide writers, or in fact the world, into those who are secular and
 those who are spiritual, or who hunger after some kind of spiritual
 truth, or aspire to some kind of spiritual awareness. And I suppose I
 put myself in the latter category. On the whole. [25]

In addition to its rich ritualistic and symbolical dimension, Ackroyd glorifies Catholic tradition for the communal feeling and publicness of faith that it cultivates. He polarises the Catholic and Protestant sensibilities, contrasting the restrained, individual-oriented theology of Protestant cultures to the collective ethos of Catholicism. In 'The Englishness of English Literature' Ackroyd replays the crucial episode in culture history, speculating wildly: 'Let us try to imagine what kind of culture might emerge from such a tradition. Let us imagine for a moment, that there had been no Reformation' [26]. Protestantism, Ackroyd holds, emphasises the uniqueness of the individual genius and creativity, the individual's unique relation to God and the moral value of individual experience, promoting a 'solitary conscience' and a repressed culture. Protestant hermeneutics, he suggests, has had long-term repercussions on the interpretation of national culture, giving rise to the reticence of the English 'to espouse the virtues of Englishness at all'. [27] Somehow, Ackroyd implies, the Romantic rhetoric of creative oneness in conjunction with Protestant values bred divisiveness and a deep-seated prejudice against the refractions of the community upon self-identity. In light of the centrality of nationalistic ideas in the art and political philosophy of Romanticism, the thesis is not entirely viable. Chatterton was after all not the only aesthetic misfit to be 'as he knew well enough himself, born at the wrong time'. [28] There was of course Macpherson, the Scottish romantic electrified by an ancient bardic vision, who in his 'Ossian' cycle was just as willing to share in a confected inheritance. The old Catholic culture of London is in Ackroyd's view about cumulative wisdom and shared experience, which he observes in the mental structure and disposition of his Cockney artists, that constantly regenerate the city's potential.

One of the most cogent propositions that Ackroyd puts forward in his considerations of Englishness and Catholic heritage is on the stagy, performative character of English culture. However disinclined to extrapolate one may be it would be hard to disprove his theory of the representativeness of theatrical traditions for the national English temperament. Embedded in Anglo-Saxon (English) imagination, which in Albion he dissociates from the Celtic (British), are not just dramatic performance, but an entire formation of scenic modes of expression. Indeed this is reflected in the English language itself, with its structural and euphonic aptitude for histrionics and its infinite combinatorial possibilities. Ackroyd's own, various, actorly and affected diction is an exemplification of the 'pathos and diversity of London art'.

Thomas More, the English martyr, canonised in 1935 by the Roman Catholic Church, is an imperative within Ackroyd's scope of retracing the spiritual genealogy of London. In The Life of Thomas More (1998) Ackroyd purports, he sets out 'to make connections between More, Milton, Dickens and Turner. So you have a complete picture of the city of a thousand years' [29]. Whereas historical lineage will have a lot to do with the endeavour, in taking on More, the 'ultimate' Catholic figure, Ackroyd offers himself the perfect setting for an understanding of Englishness as a religious theme. Revisiting More Ackroyd returns in fact to the scene of the culture war that resulted in the division of English sensibility. The biography is thus a twofold illustration of Ackroyd's theme of 'heredity': it is on the one hand explorative of cultural union and fragmentation, the continuities and discontinuities of Englishness between humanism and fundamentalism, in religious and profane history; on the other, it sheds light on Ackroyd's ardent belief in the idea of a national culture. In Ackroyd's rendering what gives substance to More's trajectory from 'baptism to beheading' is the scramble for a common culture, the moralist's and statesman's campaign against disintegration. The stress Ackroyd places on More's resistance to anarchy and disunion somewhat locates the utopian spirit in the English cultural paradigm. Describing the last days of Catholic England comes therefore as a logical sequence in Ackroyd's continuing identity theme:
 It was a Catholic culture before the Reformation extirpated it--indeed
 More spent much of his life fighting that Reformation and attempting
 to maintain the Catholic identity of London. London, and England were
 then part of a great European civilisation both spiritual and
 intellectual. In fact London, in the early years of the sixteenth
 century, was the intellectual centre of the new humanist learning. So
 in many respects that city has become a quite foreign and alien
 one. [30]

The scene of Catholic English culture gives Ackroyd the chance to explore the reciprocity between religious and theatrical practice, Ackroyd portraying the Eucharist, the most solemn of the Christian sacraments, as 'a public drama enacted every day', reminiscent of the sacred mysteries of the pre-Christian era. While not entirely a panegyric for the new humanist, the book is a masterful biographical narrative, whose language does at times slide into the hieratic. Although no doubt conversant with a vast body of meta-historical and ecclesiastical writings, Ackroyd does not apply himself to a trans-historical rethinking of More in the consciousness of the English nation, or in that of Roman-Catholic hagiography. In his references to More's philosophical-moralistic and religious tracts he resists the temptation of bringing in contemporary argument, and prefers to dedicate himself more heartedly to ruminate on the sacraments contested by Lutheranism. In chapters such as 'Holy, Holy, Holy' Ackroyd appears more prone to evoke the mystical-magical heritage of Catholicism, its residual archaic sites per se than More's daily experiencing of the Mass. The biography captures More's predicament in contrasting moral and legal authority.

The fact that popular culture of theatrical extraction features so high in Ackroyd's native English canon together with his cult for 'monopolylinguists' such as Dan Leno and Charles Matthews, Blake, Turner and Dickens, contributes a nuanced difference to his identity model. The inherently English pedigree that he traces is an assortment of pamphlet and caricature, the pantomime and the vaudeville, music-hall and stand-up comedy, gothic literature--'the most thoroughly English in inspiration and execution'--variety show and passion drama. In a masterstroke of irony this shifts Ackroyd's position from the mainstream of 'official culture' to a site of odd, unfashionable marginality, positing him as simultaneously an establishment and an anti-establishment figure. The popular is to Ackroyd the norm-breaking, the banning of drama at the time of the Reformation being invoked as the most irrefutable evidence of its seditious potentialities. Ackroyd operates therefore with the widest acceptance of the theatre as not just spectacle and play, but a source and catalyst of creativity, defining an entire visual sensibility and culture:
 When I talk about theatricality, however, I am not necessarily talking
 only about the theatre--I am talking about a particular London
 sensibility that derives its energy from variety, from spectacle, and
 from display. I am talking about a sensibility in which pathos and
 comedy, high tragedy and low farce, are effortlessly combined. The two
 great London novelists, Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens, were
 steeped in that sense of life. Of course they were both practising
 playwrights as well as novelists but, what is more important, their
 fiction is saturated with the conventions of the theatre. [31]

Ackroyd's own fiction is filled with the conventions of popular theatre, his prose, in the attentiveness to external, outward detail, its flamboyance, certainly in its pathos displays a dramaturgic type of imagination. Yet, a more particularistic faculty of the fictional works and in part at least of the biographies, is that of the writer-illusionist, Ackroyd's dramatis persona in works such as English Music and Dickens (1990) being that of a thaumaturge, conjuror of mystery worlds or literary dialogues. This self-assigned magus role is perceptible as well in Ackroyd's demonstrative reproduction of voice, the tantalising make-believe exercise that he consistently performs, prompted by the fantasy of reviving the latent connections with the English race. Hence the, strangely enough, unconventional figure he cuts in contemporary literary history: 'I'm not really part of the main stream of English fiction. I'm sort of a little bit on the side of it' [32], Ackroyd reckons, putting flesh on an old bone of contention:
 In my own case I have noticed when writing in the voice of Chatterton,
 or Hawksmoor, that the sentences seemed almost to form themselves in
 some simulacrum of the London period I was describing. In my most
 recent novel, The House of Doctor Dee, I have tried to invoke my own
 vision of the continuing city--that is why some of it is set in the
 sixteenth century--but I knew, as I was writing these passages, that
 the speech, the behaviour and the beliefs of sixteenth-century
 Londoners were exactly as I described them. I do not believe this to
 be an act of mediumship or divination--except in the sense that one is
 divining the historical patterns of London speech or London writing
 that lie just below the surface of our contemporary language. [33]

At the heart of his writing of Englishness, London reigns supreme and is Ackroyd's unfailing timeless muse. London: the Biography replicates in its metaphoric and metamorphic form a place universal, the vision contrasting sharply with the universal placelessness of cosmopolitan, 'global writing'. Ackroyd's pan-historical urban order bears nothing of the politics of territoriality characterising the accelerated environment of techno-culture. Moreover, such is the degree of de-spatialisation that the city acquires in his works that it makes Ackroyd's 'regionalism' unthinkable.
 My principal subject, in both biography and fiction, has been the life
 of London in both its past and present incarnations. It seemed a
 natural and inevitable step, therefore, for me to address the city in
 a more elaborate and direct manner. It ended up being quite a major
 project, and not one I would want to repeat quite frankly, because it
 took up a lot of effort and ingenuity and time, not to mention
 research that required very detailed and painstaking notation of
 specific sites and topographical details. It took quite a while to
 do--about three years, and that was with the help of a full-time
 researcher. The biography of London was much more difficult than the
 biography of a particular individual. London is so much a greater
 subject, so much a larger and more complicated subject. In a sense, it
 was like writing the biography of a thousand different people, which
 you can imagine causes problems. [34]

The space of the urban is written in the vocabulary of hagiography, in London: the Biography, and throughout his London writing, Ackroyd resorts to a grandiose array of tropes of excess, ranging from hyperbole and spatial metaphors, to personification and metonymy. Critically, this consistent 'abuse' of proportions is problematic, for it makes all commentary of his technique appear as in itself a trope, perhaps a litote, i.e. an understatement in which the affirmative quality of his discourse is expressed by the negative of its opposite, i.e. by that which it differs from. The grandiloquent manner and the religiosity of his adoption of this figurative repertoire entitle the interpreter to speak of Ackroyd's 'sanctification' of the city. Surely, it will soon be noted, Ackroyd articulates here an imperially nostalgic, bluntly hegemonic image of London that cannot remain unpenalised. In his exclusive discourse non-Londoners 'do not exist' and neither does anything outside London it can be opined. Indeed his literary icons are no occupiers of a 'third space', hybrids, or diasporic denizens of England. Aesthetically, it can also be argued, Ackroyd denies his audience the joys of serendipity, leaving next to nothing of London for the reader to discover by chance. His monumental images of totality exhaust and deplete rather than enrapture, diluting the mystery so evident in his earlier fictional discourse. However, as many of his detractors would perhaps admit, the innumerable accusations that Ackroyd's magnum opus may at first appear vulnerable to, the 'placism' or the 'racism' that, according to some it makes itself guilty of, are prejudices nurtured by a cultural age going to indescribable lengths to expel the term 'national' altogether from its cultural vocabulary. Ackroyd's interpretation of the local as the universal is ultimately a matter of poetic licence.

This is not the 'propaganda culture' some reviewers have claimed, although Ackroyd's canon is doubtlessly affected by 'Anglophilia' and does appear anachronistic. His attempt at constructing a body of English national literature out of dominant cultural formations illuminates significant confluences between England and continental Europe, hence its relevance to the European imagination. Ackroyd's 'difference' resides in the medley of popular forms, his alternative to orthodoxy is not the intellectual insularity of England, but the anti-thesis of it, an England culturally united. To his credit, it is in the dialogic attributes of his cultural paradigm that the salient components lie.

In spite of the fascination with the 'days of old' that he shares with his fellow London mystics, of his desire to resuscitate spectres and ghosts from the past, Ackroyd is not a cultural historian. This is not because he lacks the accuracy or breadth of scholarship--his work rests on the most solid encyclopaedic foundations. With his keen historical sensibility, insatiable appetite for learning and imparting learning and relentless commitment to explicate, he fits the profile of an unrivalled literary historian. However, his equally unquenchable thirst for fantasising 'corrupts' the literary historian in him. His is the vision of a cultural utopian more in the tradition of Don Quixote, touched by the sublimity indeed 'the madness of reading' and an intense nostalgia for realism; his mental landscape is a chivalrous one. To him, the quest for the English imagination is real, the Holy Grail of a lifetime's wandering. Ackroyd's is a litterateur's imagination blocking from memory a deceptive present. His Englishness is a structure of his mind and feeling. He revels in the pastness of the past, and its reverberations on the present, taking for granted the redemptive quality of retrospection. Rather than appropriating the past event from a contemporary perspective, he relies on the capacity of the cultural past to transform time present. In their bearing on the dynamics of English national/international literatures, his excavations into concepts of English identity re-inscribe the notion with a sense of plenitude, and enlarge upon the scope of literature in the twenty-first century, renegotiating the place of life writing in literary history. In a review of Timothy Mo's An Insular Possession, Ackroyd notes: 'It has been said that a novelist should not undertake a work which does not educate either himself or his readers'. [35] Ackroyd seldom fails his reader in the teacherly quality.

For all its loose ends and eccentricities, or rather because of them, Ackroyd's masterwork, London: the Biography is a book with serious claims to immortality, representative of the 'imperishable' daring English spirit, the 'undying humour' that he associates with Dickens. In it Ackroyd sets out to write the impossible, conquer all the lofty and unattainable ideals, one is almost tempted to say, do the writer of vocation pilgrimage. The extent to which he intuitively grasps the essence of Englishness is a measure of the intensity of his daydreaming.

Many have derided Ackroyd's thesis on Catholic England, sounding a note of radical disbelief in the 'demonstrable' specificity of national culture. Whereas expressive all along of the elusive nature of Englishness, Ackroyd keeps with steadfast resolve to the path of Eliot's principle that 'the more truly native--even parochial--a literature is the more universal it can become'. In his unparalleled undertaking, Ackroyd succeeds in bringing out the universal and parochial in English culture. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchins, Ackroyd, just like Samuel Johnson, is 'unimaginable as a product of any other culture'. [36] Whether this is because he is a 'self-made' author who 'creates his own contexts' or a 'native Englishman', remains indefinitely arguable. Theatrical and venturesome, extravagant, driven by a mind of his own, Ackroyd may not be 'a man for this season', but his imagination is, to quote his reflection on Langland, of 'a thoroughly English kind':
 Langland was dismissed as an eccentric, but much of the English genius
 resides in quixotic or quirky individuals who insist upon the truth of
 their independent vision in the face of almost universal derision....
 His genius was in fact of such a thoroughly English kind that his work
 was immediately recognised for what it was; it has the deep momentum
 of the English imagination. [37]

In the final analysis, for all the 'great books' that it relies on and the institution that his name is becoming in Anglophone letters, Ackroyd's model is not a grand narrative of national origin, but a cultural reverie indicative of an absolute level of commitment and aspiration for totality. It is after all an exemplary reading of Englishness in the modern city epic fashion, He is a 'fabulist' of the identity theme, nurturing a project which is not offered up as a monadic entity, but an imagined and reified form of writing for posteriority. At root, his is a prospective memory destined for future generations to recover and reconstruct on its strength their own negotiated version of cultural identity. His claims to universality derive from his departures from contemporary dominant cultural values. In his unwavering recourse to a 'will to remember' Ackroyd sees to it that his influence and idea of Englishness will extend into future centuries, which makes him a 'shaper' and 'shaker' of culture at one and the same time. And, perhaps, the best of Ackroyd is yet to come!

Dr Adriana Neagu is Associate Professor of Anglo-American Literature in the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania.


[1] John Mahogany, 'London Calling', in The Guardian online, (Sat July 3, 2004).

[2] Andrew Anthony, 'The Big Life', The Observer online, Sunday, (Sept 4, 2005).

[3] Interviewed by Andrew Marr, The BBC Talkshow, The Talk Show,, 1-13, 5.

[4] Idem, 11.

[5] 'The Englishness of English Literature' in Thomas Wright (ed.), Peter Ackroyd: The Collection 2000), pp. 328-341, p. 330.

[6] The BBC Talkshow, p. 3.

[7] Idem, p. 6.

[8] 'The Englishness of English Literature', in op. cit., p. 336.

[9] 'London Lumanaries and Cockney Visionaries' in Wright, op. cit., p. 345.

[10] 'The Englishness of English Literature', p. 337.

[11] Idem, p. 334.

[12] The Talk Show, p. 3.

[13] Albion; the Origins of the English Imagination. 2002, p. 294.

[14] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: Trans. Willard R. Trask, 1959.

[15] Andrew Sullivan, 'Public Man, Public Faith', The New York Times on the web (25 October 1998).

[16] The Independent online interview, (28 August 2005).

[17] The Life of Thomas More. 1998, 1999, 111.

[18] Blake. 1995, 1996, p. 4.

[19] Idem.

[20] English Music. 1992, p. 349.

[21] Blake, p. 20.

[22] English Music, p. 20.

[23] Mircea Eliade, p. 129.

[24] Chatterton. 1987. p. 152.

[25] The Talk Show, p. 6.

[26] 'The Englishness of English Literature', p. 336.

[27] Idem, p. 328.

[28] 'The Englishness of English Literature', p. 337.

[29] Anke Schutze, 'I think after More I will do Turner and then I will probably do Shakespeare:' An Interview with Peter Ackroyd, EESE 8/1995-163.

[30] Bold type interview,

[31] 'London Lumaniaries and Cockney Visionaries', p. 345.

[32] In Anke Schutze.

[33] 'London Lumaniaries and Cockney Visionaries', p. 350.

[34] On line interview, Bold Type Conversation.

[35] 'An Insular Possession: The Times Book Review' in Wright, p. 192.

[36] Christopher Hitchens, 'That Blessed Plot, That Enigmatic Island', The Atlantic Monthly (October 2003).

[37] Albion, p. 163-4.
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Author:Neagu, Adriana
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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