At first glance, Peter Ackroyd writing on the middle ages is about as plausible as Will Self publishing a biography of Chaucer or Irvine Welsh issuing a scholarly monograph on The Dream of the Rood. He seems too modern, too urban, too camp and cosy to want to wander the whale-roads with Beowulf or rough it with the pilgrims to Canterbury. How could the devotee of that strenuously postmodernist poet JH Prynne and the author of Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag come to feel a spiritual kinship with the Anglo-Saxons?All I can say is that he views Ackroyd (and the Anglo-Saxons) in a very different light than I do. And Self and Welsh. Ackroyd has always been totally immersed in the ancient context.
I love reading this book. Peter Ackroyd is very well read, and he likes the same type of writing that I do, so it's a great ride through the subject. His chapters are long leaping chains of allusive thoughts, going from Old English poetry up to the modern day, tracing similarities of theme and style. Whether he is finding real commonality over 1500 years of writing, music and painting (and embroidery and architecture) or imposing it on literature like a Rorschach blot, it would be hard to prove. I think it's real.
One pleasure as I read is to extend his chains of allusion, which sort of peter out mid-twentieth century, on to popular English culture: Nigel Kneale, The Beatles, Bowie, Alan Moore, Edge of Darkness, Red Dwarf, Radiohead. 'Alien' for example I think harks back to Beowulf and Hamlet: Nostromo-> Elsinore-> Heorot. In fact I'd like to write a 'modern companion to Albion'.
What are the characteristics of the English Imagination according to Ackroyd? And what is their origin? Despite that being the whole point of the book, it would be hard to pin him down, in fact that is also part of the point. I think he argues for a link between the physical features of landscape and weather, of the confluence of different enthnicities, and perhaps some non-physical haunting of the landscape, and the effect this has on people who live here. And what are the effects and features? Mistiness, indeterminacy, lack of certainty, inconsistency, mingling of forms and feelings, hauntedness, shyness, vulgarity, embarrassment, sympathy with the devil, gloom, liminality, despair, failure, the demotic voice, sarcasm, riddles, ecstasy. Think of Gawain, Gulliver, Scrooge, Alice, Frankenstein, Holmes. Think of Blakes 7!
You are forced to ask to what extent these are widespread human characteristics, not English ones? There are certainly non-British writers, for instance Poe and Borges, who would fit very well into this model. And there are some British writers such as Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland who I think don't map very well into it at all. You are also forced to ask to what extent these are characteristics of Ackroyd himself, which he is projecting onto our culture. On the other hand I think there is a strand of dream-haunted imagination which is real, and does endure within British culture, among other places on Earth.
The other issue which came to mind a lot as I read this book (I am still reading it) is that there is another strand of British culture - this is outside the scope of the book of course - which is actively hostile to the British imagination. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that there is something about living in Britain which blurrs boundaries, that fantasy and eccentricity are always seeping under the doorframe. There will be people who feel called to resist this dissolution. To fight fancy and to ridicule those who give in to it. I am thinking the Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips, Richard Littlejohn, Mary Whitehouse, Jeremy Clarkeson. Thatcher. Opposed to the British imagination there is always aggressive British philistinism. Often they seem to be the ones with all the power. I think it's because the philistines often try to present themseves as the real British, and often they have all the money and the police on their side, that a book like this is so inspiring.