The Inventory: Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd, 62, has won many awards for his fiction and non-fiction works. He was appointed CBE in 2003.

What was your earliest ambition?

To be a writer was always my greatest aim. I remember writing a play about Guy Fawkes when I was 10. I suppose it’s significant, at least to me, that my first work should be about a historical figure.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

St Benedict’s School, Ealing, and Clare College, Cambridge. I enjoyed reading and learning at school and at university I enjoyed extending my reading and learning. Once I left Cambridge, I went to Yale as a fellow. I spent two years there. After that, George Gale made me literary editor of The Spectator.

Who was your mentor?

George Gale was the one who introduced me to journalism, and the one who picked me up out of obscurity at 23 and made me literary editor. I’m grateful to him for putting me on the path I’ve followed.

How physically fit are you?

Pretty robust; I had a heart attack 10 years ago but nothing since then, so I presume that I am healthy.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Both are necessary but also hard work, patience, perseverance. You don’t get anywhere without hard work and that is the most important key to success.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?


How politically committed are you?

Not at all. I’m not interested.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?


Do you have more than one home?

I have an office in Bloomsbury and an apartment in Knightsbridge.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

A painting by Cézanne of Mont Sainte-Victoire that used to hang in the Courtauld Gallery and probably still does. I used to wander down there in my lunch hour and stare at it.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Taking endless taxis.

In what place are you happiest?

In my study, when I’m reading and writing and doing research.

What ambitions do you still have?

To carry on working.

What drives you on?

I’m blessed with a large amount of energy and I want a reason to carry on expending it.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

Staying alive.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

When I was a child I wanted to be Pope. My greatest disappointment is missing out on that. I also wanted to be a tap dancer but I never fulfilled that ambition either. I used to tap dance, but I can’t now.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

He would be amazed and horrified in equal measure. I wanted to be a poet when I was 20, I had no interest in fiction or biography and precious little interest in history, but those three elements in my life have become the most important.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

Start all over again.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

It depends on the individual circumstances.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I don’t know.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

I can’t imagine not having the life I lead, so I would have to say 10.

“Foundation: The History of England Vol. 1” by Peter Ackroyd is out now;

“The Mystery of Charles Dickens”, written by Peter Ackroyd, runs at the Playhouse Theatre, London, until November 10.

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