Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd, the London seer, cockney rebel and analyst of cross-dressing trends, has a disturbing tendency to associate land with intention. In his novels and histories of London and England, he often refers to the land as 'working through' its people and usually in a less-than-nice way, as with the murderers of London for example: they didn't do it, the city did. All of this can suggest a highly-unpleasant 'blood and soil' brand of Fascism, lurking under the surface, especially when it comes for example to 'Albion', Ackroyd's "history" of England.

The real story is, I think, more subtle than that. Ackroyd is playing with notions of truth and make-believe. This dynamic motivates the cross-dresser as much as it does the novelist. His histories mix fact with suggestion in a way that is both compelling and repelling. Fictions are seductive, troublesome and dangerous, but there is no getting away from them. They are as much a part of human life as fact.

I think that Ackroyd is at his strongest when he makes the truth/invention dynamic most explicit in his work - when he shows his hand. It works best when he works with the father/son(daughter) structure. In both "English Music" and "The Fall of Troy" there is a major, dominating father-figure set against a naive, innocent child-figure.

The father-figure is not, as one might expect, the arbiter of truth and justice. Quite the opposite. These characters are fuelled by dangerous fantasies. Experience does not open their eyes to the truth - it only shows them how to exploit it for fantastical ends. 'Herr Oberman" (Uberman) in 'Troy' destroys genuine archaeological evidence in the service of his fantastical claims. Clement Harcombe in 'English Music' is a highly dubious "Medium and Healer".

In a neat act of subversion, Ackroyd deploys the children as the rational truth finders. In 'Troy', Sophia (a clear stand-in for a 'daughter' figure) can literally see right through Oberman's lies. Yet, being child-like, she remains in thrall with the daemonic father figure. Similarly, Tim Harcombe in 'English Music' tries to escape his father by slipping into artistic vision.

I believe that these oppressive, anti-rational father figures stand in for the 'land' in Ackroyd's histories. They are both everywhere and inescapable. We are fatally in thrall with them even while understanding the trick of it. And that is ultimately what any novelist would want.