Peter Ackroyd is one of the most productive and elegant biographers writing in English today but is often accused of not uncovering anything new about his subjects. That doesn’t matter, he tells Tony Clayton-Lea
Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus, €16.99
PETER ACKROYD? Say hello to the man behind block-thick books about — deep breath — TS Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake, Thomas More, Ezra Pound, Geoffrey Chaucer, JMW Turner, and Wilkie Collins. As if chronicling in exceptionally attentive and in-depth detail the lives and times of such august figures, Ackroyd has also delivered equally acclaimed histories of his place of birth (London: The Biography, 2000) and the water that runs through it (Thames: Sacred River, 2007). He is regarded, not to put too fine a point on it, as the biographer’s biographer.
As if to highlight his skills even further by honing his craft ever leaner, he has within the past two years delivered what can only be described as slim biographies of two relatively contemporary London-born figures that — by coincidence or not — revolutionised the film industry: Charlie Chaplin (published last year) and, his recently published titular biography of Alfred Hitchcock.
While his biographical subjects are all famous historical figures with sizeable egos to match their influence and renown, Ackroyd himself comes across as a somewhat reticent person, a writer perhaps too well used to surrounding himself with too many previously published biographical tomes, and too much archival material of one sort and another.
Not shy, not unforthcoming, but rather unaccustomed to being in the glare (a ray, even) of publicity, a conversation with Ackroyd is a textbook lesson in economical speech. And yet despite or because of this what he says carries weight; like his compact biographies, just because there aren’t hundreds and hundreds of pages doesn’t mean to say that important details are missing. Ackroyd agrees.
“As a writer, if you think you’ve been able to translate or convey the essence of the subject, then the size of the book is really of no consequence. Some of my biographies are larger in pagination and word count than others simply because of the amount of available material.
“For example, the documented life of London, as a city, is immense and, obviously, goes back many hundreds of years, so of course archived material is substantial, to say the least. And the city is still living, still breathing. The lives of Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock may have been written about extensively, but there’s a finite amount to write about. More often than not, the breadth or brevity of a biography is a question of practicality,” he says.
Leafing through his own back pages, so to speak, it’s clear that Ackroyd prefers to delve into history, specifically British history, than anything as uncouth as the present day.
“That’s true. My historical interests are far more powerful than my interests in contemporary life,” he says.
There’s no particular reason for that, he says — it’s just the way it turned out. “It’s the way my mind and imagination formed, simple as that. Is there an explanation for it? No, there isn’t.”
Another obvious theme running through his work is London itself; from the city and its river to its inhabitants, Ackroyd has
chosen to document the town he was born in and loves so well. While the city is as as exciting and invigorating (and, depending on circumstances, insular and lonely) as any you care to mention, it seems the biographer selects people as visionary as they are creative.
“Most of my my histories, my biographies, my studies, if you choose to call them that, are centred around London in its past and relative present,” says Ackroyd in typically understated manner.
“You could argue that the reason for this is that I’m very much rooted in my own background; that’s a good enough argument, in that I’m a Londoner, I was raised in London, and my imagination was formed in London. In fact, you might say that the landscape of my imagination is London. So it’s the place I’ve come back to many times in the course of many different volumes of my work.
“I’ve written about people such as Blake, Chaucer, Turner, Dickens, Chaplin, and now Hitchcock — it’s quite a long list, but throughout them all London is the one constant that has stayed with me.”
It seems something of a sacrilege to suggest this, but would he ever veer away from writing about Londoners? Is it a case of there being too many rich pickings in and of the city to think of looking elsewhere? A silence ensues that suggests the question is borderline ludicrous. Eventually, there’s an answer that’s part brusque, part deeply sympathetic.
“It isn’t that, it’s just the way my imagination lays. I’ve found that the geography, biography and psychology of London are where I’m able to enjoy easy contact with my characters and my subjects. If I were, for example, to deal with a French or an American subject, then I know I just wouldn’t have the same purchase on their background or their life. London is in me, and I’m in it. I suppose I know the city as well as any one can — I’m 65, and I once wrote a very long book on the place, so while I’m aware of much more than many people I wouldn’t claim to have a universal knowledge of it,” he says.
The people Ackroyd chooses to write about have to connect with him on specific levels, he says. And vice versa.
“You have to connect imaginatively with the people you’re going to become involved with and that takes into consideration their lives, characters, thoughts, interests, and so forth. I wouldn’t be able to undertake any of these biographies without having an almost spiritual connection with them.
“I often think that the subjects choose me, and not the other way around. They arrive when I’m not expecting them, and then they become obvious material very quickly,” he says.
Does he really feel that such a spiritual connection needs to be so distinct?
“It definitely has to be there, but I wouldn’t be able to define it in any close way. It’s just something I know about the people that I select to write about,” he says.
There is a slight bristle in the air when the topic of previously published biographies of his subjects comes up. Taking his two most recent works (Chaplin and Hitchcock) as examples, it has been noted by reviewers and critics that — while the books are splendidly written — there is little, if anything, new that Ackroyd unearths about his subjects that hasn’t already been widely covered.
“That makes no difference whatsoever. The most important thing for me is to do it in the way I want to do it, and that’s the challenge for me. The amount of previous biographies or history about a particular subject doesn’t effect me at all. All I have to offer is myself, and that’s it,” he says.
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