'Communicating with the past: An essay on Peter Ackroyd'
Martin Amis once disparaged what he called the 'comfort' of writing historical fiction, in that the story, the essential facts, were already laid out and required ony diligent research to bring them to life, implying that the interpretation of the here and now was a far more rigorous task for a contemporary novelist. In Peter Ackroyd's historical novels, the research, although always more than diligent, lies so easily on the surface of the book that it can appear like simple observation, even though it must take a great imaginative effort to recreate the past in such vivid colours.
        With Ackroyd though, his historical fiction is not written out of some romantic association with the past, but out of an attempt to define the thesis that runs right through his work as a whole, from the novels to the biographies, and to the monumental histories of London and the English imagination. For Ackroyd, the past is not another country, open to tourists and dilettantes, but a visible spectrum that feeds into the here and now and surrounds us at every turn.
        His concern is with the urban past, specifically (almost exclusively) London's, and with the lives of those writers and artists he terms 'Cockney visionaries' who have been inspired and revolted in equal measure by the capital. Blake, Dickens, Turner, Chaucer, are all subjects of his unique mode of biography, which seeks to imaginatively inhabit their subject as much as explore the bare facts of a lived life. Famously, in his biography of Dickens, he steps into the narrative at points and indulges in imagined conversations with his subject on the London Underground. In Ackroyd's work, even in a more academic form like the biography, an attempt to communicate with the past is perfectly acceptable, and to have the past talk back is almost expected.
        In his historical novels, specifically Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee, Ackroyd tends to split the narrative between the modern day and the distant past, following separate stories that nevertheless intersect at crucial points, each narrative feeding into the other. In Hawksmoor, we follow the story of Nicholas Dyer, apprentice to Christopher Wren, as he begins to design and construct several new churches in the aftermath of the Great Fire, building them to his own occult specifications. In the present day, police detective Nicholas Hawksmoor investigates a series of ritual killings, where the victims have been found at the site of these same churches. It is either the confluence of the churches or the general pattern of coincidence and synchronicity that London throws up around itself that have been responsible for the murders, but in a sense it doesn't matter. The crimes are never solved; Ackroyd's intention is not to write a mystery story, but to show the dark patterns that run under the surface of the city, and the ways in which permanence and change affect the people who live in it. Sometimes the two timelines cross over, as when Hawksmoor is drawn to Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and during a thunderstorm hears echoes of an argument between Dyer and a colleague making the same trip 250 years in the past.
Ackroyd plays with the strata of history by the way he alters the known facts - there was no such person as Nicholas Dyer, and the real Nicholas Hawksmoor was in fact the 17th century architect who designed some of London's most imposing churches, including St Anne's in Limehouse, St Georges-in-the-East in Wapping, and the famous Christchurch at Spitalfields. These churches have inspired writers such as Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. I have noticed details myself when walking around these sites - in the grounds of St Anne's there is a stone pyramid inscribed with the Masonic credo 'The Wisdom of Solomon'. A stray German bomb gutted St Georges-in-the-East during World War II - when it was renovated and reconsecrated, the presiding clergyman was a Reverend Solomon.
        In The House of Doctor Dee the past is reluctant to let go. The narrator inherits a house in Clerkenwell from his dead father, and discovers that it used to belong to the Elizabethan philosopher, mathematician and alchemist, Dr John Dee. At the same time, a dual narrative is unfolding - as the narrator explores the house and begins to feel the echoes of its past, we follow Dr Dee as he enters into his strange occult relationship with Edward Kelly, his medium, and begins alchemical experiments to create an homunculus. Again, Ackroyd plays with the historical facts; Dee didn't live in Clerkenwell, but in Mortlake, near Hammersmith, which at the time would have been a village well outside the bounds of the city. It is almost as if Ackroyd is daring the careful reader to challenge him on this. It suggests he believes that the nearness of the past lends it a certain malleability.
        In his most important work, London: The Biography, Ackroyd structures his investigations around his central thesis. The book is grouped into explorations of theme, rather than following a strict chronology. There are chapters on 'London as Theatre', 'Crime', 'Night and Day'. One chapter looks at the great plane tree that stands at the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street. Survivor of the Great Fire, it was written about by Wordsworth. Ackroyd notes the variety of trades and shops that have operated in this area since the 1400s. From this he is able to comment on the wealth of continuities that run like a seam through London's history, the way the streets of the City correspond to the old Roman patterns, or the history of the great Maypole that was erected on the crossing of Leadenhall Street and Gracechurch Street in the 15th century, a site that is now occupied by the 'tall and glittering Lloyds Building'. Curiosities like this are more than coincidence; they give the impression of a city that is alive and constantly evolving, changing while discarding nothing that has gone before.

This possibility - in fact this inevitability - of interaction with a living and breathing past, feeds into Ackroyd's other great interest: literary forgery. In Chatterton, again through a dual narrative, he explores the history of the Romantic period's
by Richard Strachan