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I’m meeting Peter Ackroyd on Doughty Street in London outside the former home of Charles Dickens. The location is fitting given that Ackroyd has been writing books and presenting television shows about both Dickens and London for the past 30 years.
“This street has probably had more importance in my life than any other apart from the street of my birth,” he says as we head south towards Theobald’s Road. “I was at 56 Doughty Street at The Spectator for many years, my agent is here, I used to work in the Dickens house when I was doing my biography and down there is my office which I’ve been in for 10 years. I’ve been moving up and down this street since 1977.”
Ackroyd has always been a Londoner. He was brought up by his mother and grandmother – he never knew his father – in Wulfstan Street, right next to Wormwood Scrubs prison. At weekends his grandmother would take him on the bus from their home in Acton to central London where they’d walk around Fleet Street and Temple.
“She was a keen Londoner so I suppose she imbibed in me the interest in London which I have,” he muses.
We cross Theobald’s Road and head into a pedestrian passageway past Raymond Buildings where, Ackroyd notes, Dickens used to work as a legal clerk.
“This has been an area for the legal profession since the 13th century. Gray’s Inn itself – the original Gray’s Inn – was built in the 13th century and Francis Bacon planted a tree which you can probably still see.”
As we continue on towards Holborn, Ackroyd remarks that there’s another, underground metropolis beneath our feet. “There’s a whole city beneath the ground here which still exists: huge underground dwellings – tunnels and passages and meeting rooms – built before the second world war. In case of nuclear war it was considered a safe place to come.”
We cross over Holborn and into Chancery Lane, once home to Cardinal Wolsey and until recently the Public Record Office. The street has now been taken over by lawyers.
We’re making relatively slow progress so far. Ackroyd recently tore a ligament in his leg which makes walking fast – or long distances – painful: a cruel trick of nature for someone who loves pounding the streets of the city.
“My hobby was always walking. That’s what I did most of. Experiencing the sensation and the atmosphere of it and getting the pavement underneath your feet is very good therapy.”
I wonder whether such therapy is necessary when you’re producing as many words a year as Ackroyd. He has three projects on the go at any given time, and organises his days with impressive discipline: working on a biography at home in the morning, a history book at his office in the afternoon and a novel in the evening. His planned book releases extend to 2021.
“If you cut up your day well enough, it’s perfectly possible to do anything,” he says.
We cross Fleet Street and take a brief detour down an arched passageway to visit Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, before being passed, in the 14th century, to lawyers in whose possession it has remained since. I ask Ackroyd whether his love of walking around the city is inextricably linked to his passion for history.
“Yes, [it’s] being in touch with a place, and with a very solid past. Just tramping the streets gives you back your equilibrium, your balance.”
Back on Fleet Street, as we pass the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West with its “rather unregarded statue of Queen Elizabeth I”, I ask whether the subject of his most recent biography – Charlie Chaplin – would have interested him so much had the entertainer not also been a Londoner.
“Probably not. But I soon came to realise that he represented a specific London temperament or sensibility. He was in the same tradition as Dickens, for example. I used to use the words ‘cockney visionary’ for people like Blake and Dickens and you could also apply it to Chaplin.”
So how would he define that sensibility?
“It’s human and macabre mixed, comedy and tragedy. It’s always been there ever since the earliest morality plays in the medieval period.”
But the parallels Ackroyd draws between Chaplin and Dickens go further than that. In the book, he also highlights their lower-middle-class origins, the debt they owed their mothers, their ambition and energy, their precocious success. All of this, of course, could equally apply to Ackroyd. It makes me wonder how he chooses his subjects for biography. “Just interest, really, and curiosity. You never get short of material in London. It just goes on and on.”
We turn left off Fleet Street into the bottom of Fetter Lane – the place, says Ackroyd, where the Great Fire of London stopped.
“And that’s funny because Fetter Lane was the unofficial boundary between the City and the rest of London. It was a sort of shadowland inhabited by all sorts of Protestant dissenters, by Jews and non-conformists and radicals, who all lived in Fetter Lane at one time or another. People who are on the boundaries of society tend to congregate on the boundaries of the neighbourhood in which they live.”
As we take the left fork north Ackroyd points out the site of the gin distillery featured in Barnaby Rudge, in which Dickens tells the true story of how, during the 1780 Gordon Riots, a mob broke in, setting fire to the alcohol and themselves at the same time. A couple of paces on and we’re at the spot which, together with Newgate and Tyburn, was one of the main locations for public executions.
Delving into some of the city’s darker history reminds me of remarks Ackroyd has made in previous interviews: that whatever events London is subjected to, it remains essentially the same. I ask him how. “It’s always been a dark city, a city of power, a city of money. It’s never really been interested in people, it’s always interested in profit-making. That’s always been its essence, ever since it was first established by the Romans. It’s a city that’s built on money and trade and greed. I shouldn’t think it’ll change ever.”
We wander along Holborn, past the site of Furnival’s Inn (now Holborn Bars) where Dickens had an apartment, and then past Brooke Street, where Thomas Chatterton committed suicide. Both are now obliterated by modern red-brick office buildings and I wonder what Ackroyd’s view is of people who get nostalgic about London’s changing architectural landscape.
“Well, they’re probably not Londoners for a start. I think that London is always in a process of change and always will be, so there’s not much point in bemoaning this or that development.”
As we turn right up Gray’s Inn Road, Ackroyd tells me what he’s working on next: there’s a biography of Alfred Hitchcock, a history of gay London, the fourth book in his history of England series and a new novel. “It helps to have a timetable for the future,” he says.
Ackroyd is famously attached to London: he doesn’t travel much and has professed a strong dislike for the countryside. As we head back into Doughty Street I suggest that, given both his lifestyle and the subjects of his work, he’s the embodiment of Samuel Johnson’s line that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Ackroyd laughs.
“I think so. You certainly can’t get tired of life when you’re here.”
Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Charlie Chaplin’ is published by Chatto & Windus, £14.99.
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