‘There’s a writer in England called … er, Peter Ackroyd,’ David Bowie said in a short film he made in 2003, ‘who wrote a book called … Hawksmoor I think it was. Wasn't it? Yeah.’ Ackroyd's 1985 novel struck him as 'a very powerful book, and quite scary', and in 2013 Bowie included it on a list of his favourite 100 books, ranging from the Beano to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. His son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, recently launched #BowieBookClub to discuss 'dad's favs' on Twitter, choosing Hawksmoor as 'an amuse cerveau before we get into the heavy stuff'.
The novel's protagonist, Nick Dyer, partly based on the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, is a follower of a Satanic cult who consecrates his churches with human sacrifices. Hawksmoor is the name of his pale shadow, a modern-day detective investigating a series of murders that mirror those committed in the name of Dyer's art. (Bowie had a longstanding interest in the occult. 'I was up to the neck in magick,' he said of his Thin White Duke period, when he lived in 'that whole dark and rather fearsome never-world of the wrong side of the brain'.)
Ackroyd’s narrative shifts between the early 18th century and the 1980s, as does the idiom. 'In each of my Churches I put a Signe,’ Dyer says, ‘so that he who sees the Fabrick may see also the Shaddowe of the Reality of which it is the Pattern or Figure.’ Hawksmoor’s speech, by contrast, ‘came out of him like vomit … carried him forward without rhyme or meaning': 'Sign? I know nothing about signs.' When I translated Hawksmoor into Russian in 2010, I used a pastiche of late 18th-century Russian as the closest analogue to Ackroyd's stylisation of early 18th-century English.
Dyer’s 'Church in the Spittle-Fields’ is ‘near complete' when the mason's son, who by tradition has to 'lay the heighest and last stone on the top of the Tower its Lanthorn', falls to his death from the scaffolding. The accident inspires Dyer to oppose 'a certain ridiculous Maxim that The Church loves not Blood' and he starts looking for victims – preferably young boys – to kill and bury beneath his churches. Six of them (fictional versions of the six London churches designed by Hawksmoor) form 'the Sextuple abode of Baal-Berith', but the architect wants to construct a 'Septilateral Figure' as a monument to the seven demons he worships.
Dyer's magnum opus is the (fictional) church of Little St Hugh, whose location can be traced to Moorgate Tube station if you follow Dyer's last walk. I once did that for a piece structured around the quasi-situationist practice of entering search words into Google Maps and following the directions. Looking for 'church' I was sent to 'Church's Shoes, £££'; 'hawksmoor' produced 'Hawksmoor Spitalfields - Carefully sourced & aged stakes, ££££'. The confusion wouldn't have surprised Ackroyd's detective, to whom 'the computer itself only partly reflected the order and lucidity to which he aspired'. Dyer is even more radically low-tech, deriding the Greshamites, challenging Christopher Wren on the Enlightenment and generally scorning progress.
Bowie shared Dyer’s obsession with ‘the trew Musick of Time’, but he also loved technology. Turning to the cut-up technique in the 1970s, he made do with paper and scissors, like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, but in the mid-1990s he developed, with Ty Roberts, a randomising computer program they called the Verbasizer, which allowed Bowie to create 'a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topics and nouns and verbs' at the press of a key. He used computer-generated cut-ups for the lyrics to 1. Outside, his 1995 concept album, whose themes include madness, 'art-ritual murder' and the artist's alter ego reporting from the future.
Unsurprisingly, 1. Outside was the record that the #BowieBookClub readers most readily associated with Hawksmoor. It includes songs called 'Thru' These Architects Eyes' and 'A Small Plot of Land'; someone heard echoes of Dyer's description of the Great Fire of London – 'the People cryed aloud to Heaven, raked in the dung of their rotten Hearts and voiced abroad their inward Filthinesse' – in 'The Hearts Filthy Lesson' (the missing apostrophes may be a feature of Verbasizer). The discussion soon moved on to practical questions: 'Hawksmoor is the killer right?' More guesses were made: that it's Dyer travelling in time; that 'the true murderous power in this book is actually London itself.'
One of the best descriptions of the book was: 'Bodies in the bricks. Devil in the detail. A portrait of a diseased and dysfunctional London built on a river of blood. Damn hard work in parts, but unnerving, vivid & sinister. I liked it, even though it freaked me the fuck out.’ A more typical view was: 'Weird, Satan-y, occasionally compelling, often confusing'. Some people enjoyed the oldspeak, but more struggled with it: 'Hard 2 follow so I'm reading it twice!' One tweet caught my eye: 'Started reading Peter Ackroyd's “Hawksmoor” for the David Bowie's Book Club and really glad that I had picked a translated copy. 17th century English? Haha, no thank you.' I asked if it was a simplified version with the historical chapters rewritten in contemporary English, or a translation into another language. The reply floored me: 'Russian :)'.