A recent episode in a jobbing writer’s life found me interviewing Carolyn Cassady (author of Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg) in her comprehensively occupied Belsize Park flat. The unreality of this situation – talking, shoulder to shoulder, with one of the Beat Generation’s best-preserved icons – was ameliorated by the fact that our paths had crossed a number of times over the last fifteen years. (Once, during a strained public conversation in Waterstone’s, Charing Cross Road, we had been interrupted by a foam-flecked out-patient yelling: ‘How often do you sleep with prostitutes?’) But even now, at some level, I couldn’t accept it: that this courteous and sharp-witted lady was the one who had been, rather reluctantly, photographed with Neal Cassady, and who had herself been responsible for some of the most familiar images of Kerouac and Cassady in archetypal buddy-buddy poses. I guess that I’m temperamentally ill-equipped to deal with these confusions. Fiction, biography, journalism: they will insist on muscling in on territory that doesn’t, strictly speaking, belong to them. Carolyn, in stately exile in North London, calls into question the eternal present-tense rush of On the Road. They can’t both be true, not at the same time. That plural consciousness is too much to accept. But Carolyn is, self-evidently, very much alive, and feels obliged, as a duty, to swoop on inaccuracies perpetrated by career biographers, manipulations that nudge her out of the official portraits. Biography is serious business these days. It underwrites the republication of a sanctioned backlist. It provokes movie deals that, in their turn, create a climate of excitement which finds Johnny Depp paying $ 15,000 for what purports to be Jack Kerouac’s old raincoat. The vendor cursed himself for letting the relic go so cheap: a soiled handkerchief was subsequently found in the pocket which could have been sold separately, or used to bump up the price tag by another couple of grand.
We are all in it. All culpable for the same failure of nerve. On my way to Belsize Park, I stopped off at Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town to look for a Céline biography that would validate my experience of reading, and relishing, the novel London Bridge. How had the trepanned French maniac achieved such a rapturous sense of the city’s psychogeography – Willesden to Soho to Rotherhithe? I was introduced at the desk, in the way that one is, to an American writer who told me that he’d heard about my novels, even picked up copies, but couldn’t actually commit himself to the act of reading them until he’d checked out the explanatory essays, the biographical anecdotes (which do not exist). Until that time the books could continue to disport themselves as objects on the shelf. I sympathised with his attitude. I do the same myself. Unopened biographies lend gravitas to unsold fiction.
Carolyn had such a strict sense of the past that laboriously produced retrievals, even her own, could never provide an adequate description of it. She was a very real prisoner of her remembered history. Off the Road, at 429 pp., barely scratched the surface of what she wanted to say. Swathes of documentation, letters, had to be cut down or removed entirely. The picture she sketched, of the never-eradicated desire of the principal Beats for a lick at the American dream of the Fifties – Saturday Evening Post family, house, plot of land – remained under-described, overwhelmed by hallucinatory excesses and the tyranny of now. Carolyn endures the continuing pain of accurately curating her own life, checking catalogues and proofs, a torrent of yellow Jiffy bags. The script for the Coppola movie of On the Road is on the couch, preempting future litigation. It was Kerouac who was known as ‘Memory Babe’, but Carolyn who is condemned to live by that title. Questioned now, she goes agonisingly back over what happened to that other woman, her earlier self. She produces hard evidence to confirm her anecdotes. I am shocked to find, put into my hand, the copy of Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, inscribed for Carolyn by way of apology, after a bad boy’s night, a stand-up row with a black girl, sulks in the attic. Here was that book, as well as a copy of On the Road that showed clear evidence of having been thoroughly invigilated, and bearing, at the head of the fixed endpaper, Neal Cassady’s neat signature. Verification that any reputable West Coast bookdealer would kill for; glass-case ephemera lolling wantonly across my lap.
So what happens to the subject who outlives his or her brief biographical moment? Who is left to challenge inauthentic versions of the story? In the Belsize Park flat, one room is a pictorial shrine, mugshots of Beat heroes – Cassady in t-shirt, Kerouac in a Stetson; the kind of image that is now surfacing, as Joyce Johnson recalls, in hip advertisements for Gap khakis (with ‘black-sweatered girlfriend’ airbrushed out). A predatory colonisation of the past. Carolyn’s own traditional artworks, chalk drawings of ballerinas, pencil sketches of Ginsberg and Cassady and Kerouac, were not invited to take their place on the walls of the Whitney Museum for the Beat Generation wake.
In the main room, a low occasional table had been turned into a kind of altar: candles and fastidiously aligned stacks of books. This was Carolyn’s current reading matter, the titles she was happy to display. Alan Bennett’s Diaries and, of course, Peter Ackroyd’s gold-brick biography of Blake. Bennett, Ackroyd and Jonathan Miller – these were the figures who mattered most. The Christmas parcels of English literature. Enough of threadbare bohemia, paranoid narcissism, chemical tourism through the Third World. Enough of ill-disciplined prose and rootless lives. Enough of midnight phonecalls. Carolyn doted on Ackroyd. Hawksmoor the novel and Dickens the life. Peter was surely joshing her when he said that he was no initiate, had no knowledge of, or interest in, magical systems. He was the pivot, the man who had, single-handedly, made the arcane popular.
A trip through the States visiting the Beat gerontocracy, the survivors, had prepared me for this. In Corso’s hutch, his minders begged for copies of Barbara Pym, while Gregory spoke wistfully of Philip Larkin. Denton Welch was William Burroughs’s main intellectual squeeze. Ferlinghetti had high hopes for Jeremy Reed. The Beats were now heritage fodder, a potential Bloomsbury group. There was even talk of James Ivory optioning a Neal Cassady property.
I wondered, thinking of Blake’s formative experiences there, whether Carolyn had caught any of Alan Bennett’s Westminster Abbey footage? Bennett, required to audition for the John Betjeman slot, couldn’t bring himself to deliver much more than formulaic world-weariness, a drone like a miraculously articulate David Hockney impersonator. Jonathan Meades does this schtick so much better, performs himself with lip-smacking relish. Gossip has its charms, but not when it’s dragged out over three interminable evenings with animated postcard footage re-used to the point of exhaustion. Church visiting, and the contemplation of sepulchral monuments, stands in the place of the English spiritual confession. It took a Blake to extract a mythological system from the minute particulars of these chipped effigies, to release deep-stored energy from cold stone. Alan Bennett has perfected another form of autobiography, the pre-posthumous diary; the present moment written backwards. The inconveniences of an insider/outsider, eavesdropping on his own sensibility. A Crabb Robinson without a Blake. A diarist reluctant to engage with himself as his true subject.
Peter Ackroyd, Carolyn Cassady’s pin-up, was the man who had customised the art of biography so that it could fit seamlessly into an evolving project that included fiction, the public lecture and journalism, in an attempt to revitalise the city in which he lived, the city of consciousness. To clear the path for a system of his own: the myth of the ‘Cockney visionary’ – a phrase which to lesser beings, or those fated to live among them, had the definite ring of an oxymoron. The vitality of Ackroyd (as of his friend Michael Moorcock) is on a 19th-century scale. He has made respectable the concept of the man of letters. And, much more than that, he has made it pay.
Ackroyd also customised his own biography. We know what we are allowed to know and what we can learn, by displacement, from the various fictions. There have been over-confirmed stories, legends left by his peers: the terrifyingly effortless passage through exams and scholarships, the steady ascent of a career curve that would shame a Widmerpool. A Horatio Alger parable that lifted him from a single-parent home in the shadows of Wormwood Scrubs to a Mellon Fellowship at Yale, and the literary editorship of the Spectator. The rest comes from the gossip columns. Londoner’s Diary in the Evening Standard can be relied on for a snigger of fantastical cameos: Ackroyd snoring in the theatre, outrageously affectionate in society, mugged – with Wildean heroism – in Islington.
What might be floated is the notion that Ackroyd is the only Cambridge poet, the only person published by Ferry Press, to go public, to chance life in the front line. To be comfortable with the Braggs and the A.N. Wilsons. The role or mask of the poet, as hermit of language, was never a comfortable fit. Its modesty was of the wrong kind (because Ackroyd’s prose, despite his high profile, his famous devices and Hitchcockian walk-ons, is conventional, aerodynamic, eager to please). ‘The Poet wears violet shades,’ he wrote in Ouch, his first solo pamphlet, ‘Alas his art is dead.’ New York (Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch) seemed to have the glamour, the community, that England lacked. With gifts of a different order, and a more concentrated ego, he could have made an Audenesque transfer to the Lower East Side. ‘Cockney visionaries’ were not then on the agenda. His mimeographed imagery flirted with risk, information was processed while still damp – like a treated Polaroid. ‘Semen on his chin: yes he is alive, too.’ ‘England’, for the youthful Ackroyd, was ‘a one-horse town’. He was glad to be out of it, in the service of international Modernism. Autobiography could be adjusted later, shifting with the climate of the times. In my copy of Ouch, the poet has made a holograph correction: ‘reaming of things to come’ is revised to ‘dreaming’. Ackroyd’s second book of poetry, with its Duncan Grant cover, signalled a homecoming. Title? London Lickpenny. Already, in 1973, the poet was rehearsing pinball-arcade extracts that would resurface, nine years later, in his first novel, The Great Fire of London.
The brief flirtation with the obscurantism of the literary underclass, privately educated Marxists, dysfunctional lyricists, language masochists, ended with Country Life in 1978. Ackroyd signs off this chapter, editions of a few hundred copies that stay in print for decades, with a minor flourish. ‘I suppose this is a definition of madness ... the poet drifts morosely into the evening / which never satisfies him, while sober, / but which may offer the chance to write “about” it.’ Doctored autobiography will no longer be exploited. The ‘I’ of these anorexic pamphlets will be replaced by the avuncular ‘we’ of the biographies. (It’s like a small private company being floated on the stock-market.) Not the boastful, chest-thumping, Thatcherite ‘we’, with its exclusivity, its handbagging clout; nor yet the impersonal, grand yet moderate, ‘we’ of the Cambridge poets. The ‘we’ of civic discourse. (J.H. Prynne: ‘we give the name / of our selves to our needs. / We want what we are.’) The Ackroydian ‘we’ is more feline and clubbable. It belongs in the mouth of a well-informed tour guide who has done the work, chewed up the culture gristle, the carcass of facts, to make it palatable for the rest of us. The plural pronoun is a major device in the Blake biography. ‘Let us accompany him on one of his long walks,’ Ackroyd invites. ‘He would have worn a cloth coat, sheepskin breeches and stockings with knee buckles; he was a typical child of his century, in this respect if no other.’ This is Ackroyd the facilitator, the magic lantern man. On our behalf he has absorbed, with clairvoyant virtuosity, around three hundred secondary Blake sources – years of mind-numbing work for ordinary mortals. But Ackroyd is an unparalleled library vampire, a gutter and filleter of texts, a master of synthesis. He might suggest, in conversation, or challenged at some promotional event, that he is no more than a freakishly gifted mechanic, someone who can précis the essence of a tale, highlight a convincing mise-en-scène. The checklist of publications – fiction, essay and epic biography – disproves that.
The oddity of the Great Work is beginning to emerge: ‘No birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only perpetual pilgrimage within time.’ Everything that can happen, everything that will ever happen, is already present; accessed in one city, London, in one writer’s study. As Blake was possessed – through his left foot – by the spirit of Milton, so Ackroyd, with mesmerising despatch, fast-forwards his triumphant progress through the waxworks of English history. Ackroyd’s early mentor J.H. Prynne, in a lecture on Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, speaks of ‘that extraordinary poem where Blake decides to rework Milton and to arrange for the demonic possession of himself by Milton.’ ‘There are,’ he continues, ‘congestions of personality which result from that unlikely genetic interchange ... There are moments ... which are the absolute presence of love.’
Ackroyd never quite pitches it that high, but biological invasion is what he solicits. The offering up of self to summoned spectres. As a novelist he is, on occasions (as with his account of Fuseli), tempted to ‘do the voices’, but more frequently he elects to normalise the astonishing subversion of his project. He taps the dead. He enlists them into a psychic mapping of London that will reveal it as some kind of Swedenborgian twin – where the bewitched author can converse with Dickens on Kingsland Road. Or he might call up the Blake surveillance tapes. He makes of himself a future ghost, to achieve the gift of retrospective prophecy. ‘One can,’ he asserts, ‘almost enter the scene and tread upon the wooden floor, see the light catch the cast of Apollo Belvedere coloured in oils, smell the mustiness of the clothes.’ These keyhole transcripts demonstrate an eidetic facility that is the journalistic equivalent of Blake’s visionary portraits – part fraudulent, part inspired. Shadows in a crystal ball. The London Ackroyd, interlocutor for Dickens and Dan Leno, had shifted his critical position from Modernism to heritage curation, clarifying with clear lines all that had previously been ambiguous. Pound, with whom Ackroyd began, was no longer a fashionable figure. The Eliot biography, carried through without the blessing of the estate, opened up the way for theatrical exposure of previously well-disguised episodes, psychodramas suitable for translation into movies. Eliot was teased out from behind the curtain of text by an Ackroyd who was denied direct quotation. Back at the start of it all, the launch of the public career, in Notes for a New Culture, Blake was alluded to only as a source for Wyndham Lewis. Vorticist prose, Ackroyd claims, ‘closely resembles that of William Blake; there is even a prose poem in Blast, entitled Hamp, which draws heavily upon Blake’s prophetic books.’ Blake (and Bunyan) ‘were both convinced that their work derived from a tradition and a vocabulary of moral thought much older than the one in which they happened to find themselves’.
This would be the radical, antinomian Blake who belonged in the dissenting company into which he had been coerced by Jacob Bronowski (a Cambridge scientist/poet of an earlier generation) and E.P. Thompson (in Witness against the Beast). Ackroyd’s life of Blake had to ease him away from all that, portraying a wilfully obtuse man, with his spites and his angels. He is ticked off for ‘raging in a darkened room’ and not networking his career to greater effect. Blake’s own biographies (those celebrations of demonic and celestial entities) were published in eternity, scratched out on copper plates in reverse script. They were the epic imagining of natural forces, veins and cauldrons, energies christened with outlandish titles. Biographies for which only Blake could provide the illustrations. Biographies given as dictation, conceived and constructed outside time. Endured. Biography as revenge, sweeping those who opposed the poet, falsely accused him, into a cosmogony of pain and illumination, endlessly cyclical. The blood of life is drained into myth. Something richer and stranger than ‘a Londoner, affected by all forms of London drama and London literature’.
In the book-buying season, shortly before Christmas, the Evening Standard placed Ackroyd’s Blake at number three in their non-fiction bestseller list (behind Delia Smith and The Diaries of Cynthia Gladwyn.) They glossed the book, for the benefit of readers who had managed to bypass the promotional campaign, as: ‘The supreme Londoner.’ What isn’t clear is whether they were alluding to Blake or to Ackroyd. Because that was the mask that Ackroyd had chosen, his autobiography was the biography of the city. Wilde, Chatterton, Hawksmoor, Eliot, Blake were chapters in a taxonomy of consciousness. Milton, the subject of Blake’s own act of self-invasion, was the current project. De Quincey and Turner were targeted as future avatars. Ackroyd’s Blake was a book I looked forward to reading, as the most recent chapter in a story that was unravelling in such a curious way and at such a pace – with virtuous ancients summoned from the aether to bear witness. (I imagined all the previous biographies and fictional improvisations hung around Ackroyd’s study like the Poetic Heads Blake produced for his patron William Hayley’s Turret House in Felpham: Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and the boys. Trophies in whose glow the Sussex poetaster could bask, quietly absorbing their power.) But how much more interesting it would be, I thought, to discover in some south coast junkshop an engraved and finished copy of Blake’s Ackroyd.
It isn’t fair to see Ackroyd as a Hayley, of whom Gilchrist, in his 1863 life of Blake, said: ‘whatever his merits, he was certainly prolific.’ Gilchrist sketched Hayley as ‘a literary country gentleman ... whose words flowed a thousand times faster than his thoughts’. Hayley has the Ackroydian generosity (‘seeing all men and things athwart a fog of amiability’), the gift of discovering the best in the most unlikely subjects. A taste for the primitive, the botched and hobbled. A sentimental attachment to young orphans and drowned sailors. Hayley had a considerable, if transitory reputation, both as verse-maker and biographer (Milton, Cowper). His poetry might have been bad enough for him to have been offered the Laureateship, but the ‘Lives’ which he produced with such apparently effortless efficiency were thought of as among the best examples of the ‘modern’ school. ‘Well and gracefully written,’ according to Gilchrist, ‘in the smooth style – in a style, which is something.’ Ackroyd is much more than that: a Hayley ‘genetically’ invaded by Blake, or Dickens. A driven man, a true ‘chaser’.
Ackroyd’s Blake processes the given stock of information. There is a comparatively slender corpus of anecdotes to work with, untrustworthy tales retrieved and rehearsed by Gilchrist, Mona Wilson and the rest. The interpretations – efforts to understand their own incomprehension – attempted by other poets: Rossetti, Yeats, Swinburne, Ruthven Todd, Kathleen Raine. The inducting of Blake into a spiritual brotherhood. The bones of the life – childhood, visions, apprenticeship, marriage, labours, Felpham interlude, return, death – could be knocked off in a couple of dozen pages, the Classics Illustrated account. Chesterton in his lively pocket-book of 1910 begins, as Ackroyd does, by confronting the problem of time in the life of a man who refused to recognise its jurisdiction. ‘William Blake would have been the first to understand that the biography of anybody ought really to begin with the words, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” ... We shall have rent up the roots of prehistoric mankind and seen the last revolutions of modern society before we really know the meaning of the word “town”.’
An author is defined by who he chooses to write about. There are no accidents. Ackroyd has co-opted Blake. Blake (‘one of those extraordinary Londoners who, self-taught, reach out towards the past and seek the truths of ancient knowledge’) will underwrite the notion of the visionary, the secret life of the city – which is somehow radical, dissenting, without being overtly political. ‘Visionaries can be born and nurtured within the very depths of London.’ He doesn’t have to do anything. The anecdotes are nicely managed. It’s like waiting for one of the big speeches in Hamlet – a play which seems to be made entirely from quotations, the titles of detective novels – and wondering how the headline actor will handle it, weave through the big soliloquy, fit it into the whole.
Ackroyd paces the set pieces (face of God at Broad Street window, tree of angels on Peckham Rye) with precise and clearly explicated information about social conditions and the singular techniques by which Blake produced his prophetic books. He has mastered the necessary technical language of burins and relief etching. (The book, through the scale and quality of illustration, asserts its status. A fatter, lusher and therefore more significant account than James King’s 1991 William Blake, His Life. King doesn’t have such a subversive programme – though he casts a sharper eye on the motives of men like John Linnell, whom he depicts as a hustling opportunistic businessman as well as a friend and promoter of Blake.)
There’s nothing missing, nothing to regret. Ackroyd shadows his man across the relevant period map, with perhaps a little too much fondness for local colour. Spelling it out for a transatlantic audience who no longer believe that London exists – unless it’s awash with muffin men or swathed in a blanket of Ripper’s fog. Time behaves itself, the chronology is linear. Ackroyd doesn’t attempt the conjuring tricks of the Dickens biography. He can’t quite bring himself to introduce Blake to Swedenborg, or the blacking-factory Dickens. ‘Two London visionaries passing one another along the busy thoroughfare.’ Those tropes are reserved for fictions, such as English Music or The House of Doctor Dee. Ackroyd is most comfortable with a documented past, with picking up on the hypnotic rhythms of lost speech. (I met a woman once with the same gift. She worked with serial killers and psychopaths on the Isle of Wight, imitating their cadences, the rise and fall of tone and emphasis. She spoke back to them in their own voices, thereby learning to soothe and to control.)
Ackroyd loves his Mayhew catalogues, the peristalsis of the mob: ‘riots by sailors, silk-weavers, coal-heavers, hatters, glass-grinders’. Paragraphs rush breathlessly along like video presentation commentaries in the London Dungeon or the Globe Theatre. History whispering insistently in the shell of the ear. ‘Songs and the street cries, the hackney chair men and the porters, the thoroughfare crowded with carriages and dustcarts and postchaises, the dogs and the mud carts, the boys with trays of meat upon their shoulders and the begging soldiers, the smoke from the constant exhalation of sea-coal fires, the whole panoply of urban existence.’ This is his Lionel Bart tendency. The production numbers that animate his pitch, so that he can be a music hall turn as well as a scholarship boy. A fabulous exuberance and a chameleon respect, that has him becoming, or seeming to become, the thing he witnesses. ‘The eye altering alters all.’ He offers a sympathetic reading to Blake’s ‘babooneries’, the sexual anguish, his notebook marginalia with the ‘suggestion of homosexual fellatio’. Then he cools us down. ‘That is to move too far ahead.’
Thomas Carlyle, another prodigious filler of shelves, reckoned that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ The pathos formula perfected by Ackroyd. Carlyle did not enjoy such a smooth passage. ‘Swimming in the Mother of Dead Dogs, and a long spell of it ahead!’ he wrote, when mired in his six-volume History of Frederick the Great. Literary biography, drawing up useful morals for contemporary life, pitching an alternate universe, is no longer a legitimate vehicle. We don’t need to know. We have no wish to be instructed by the lives of the great. Biographies, ghosted or otherwise, of gangsters, movie queens, footballers, royalty, or the Archers, are fine. Fast trash, gossip. Fabulous romances to dress a prurient pack of photographs. They can be baroque epics that slip you in at the back door, such as Nick Tosches’s pathology of Dean Martin, or they can be necrophiliac insults inflicted on the undead corpses of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield or James Dean. They can be gangland revisionism, pedantic squabbles over otherwise forgotten crimes, mouthy justifications scooped onto wood pulp. They can come from either end of the Pergamon Press scale, a ghosted Pamela Anderson or a cryogenic Nicolae Ceausescu. There can even be cod biographies of characters that never existed: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Dr Who (the ‘novelised’ version of Ackroyd’s Dr Dee). This dreck is vigorously republican; it has played a major part in eroding the myth of the House of Windsor, first by hagiography and then by sleaze. Peekaboo biogs are the decadence of a form initiated by Lytton Strachey. Their virtue is that they shouldn’t outlast an intercity train journey.
Blake, unfortunately, is not of that family. It’s a golden brick from the pyramid in the window of Waterstone’s. Biographies of true writers, poets, are always something of a betrayal. All that is required is in the work. All that it is ethical to expose. It doesn’t matter how well it is done, the act is vampiric, evaluating the bright lies that authors use as a lure, dragged across meaning, to cover their tracks. Ackroyd’s biographies have to behave under prohibitions that do not apply to his fictions. In a mere novel, Dee can live in Clerkenwell if the author wants him to. Hawksmoor can pursue a geometry of child sacrifice. He is free to disguise and eradicate, as he desires, the chalk marks of his own biography. ‘I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans / I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.’ Fiction, as unsubstantiated biography, is free to play fast and loose with the lie of the land, with time and event. But a career in fiction needs to be blended, measured, with intervals of visible scholarship: as if to prove that the author is capable of it. The facts, sifted from the critical mass, are not in dispute. A degree of ‘romancing’ is acceptable to sugar the pill. What is not there in the texts is not supposed to be there. Should we not allow dead writers, after all this time, the privilege of being forgotten? Lost lives, and grateful to be so.
There is no single Blake. Not any longer, not once the envelope of identity had been laid aside (his stone slab in Bunhill Fields, close to the memorials for Defoe and Bunyan, is a sentimental prompt and not a marker for his bones). It is not known where he is buried, or where Catherine Blake, his father, mother and brothers are to be found. It is our weakness to insist on having a mossy tablet to represent memory, to provide a focus for our pilgrimages. Poets, from the body of work, from the surviving texts, create the Blake that best suits their purposes. Michael McClure discovers a form of energy, muscular and swift, a poetic prescription with which he can ‘write the body’. The Californian Blake. Ginsberg, famously, heard Blake’s voice while lying on his bed masturbating in Harlem: a voice ‘with all the infinite tenderness and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son’. The two poets, debating their experiences, realised that they had ‘two different Blakes’. McClure spoke of it in an interview with Jerry Aronson: ‘Allen has a Blake who is a Blake of prophesy, a Blake who speaks out against the dark satanic mills. My Blake is a Blake of body and of vision. Blake was such a powerful, such a great being that it’s possible for every one of us to have an entirely different Blake.’ The brand-name could stand for the ‘Glad Day’ penny-whistle, hand-clapping bard of Michael Horowitz, the mapper of particulars beloved of the psychogeographers and latter-day Surrealists, or the grafting radical introduced by Joseph Skipsey in his 1885 selection. Skipsey, the Tyneside collier poet, who eludes biography, was introduced, many years later, to a public who had forgotten his existence, by Basil Bunting. Journeyman work for both men. Bunting knew exactly what the problem was: ‘A man’s circumstances seldom matter to those who enjoy what he makes ... Things once made stand free of their makers, the more anonymous the better.’ The act of biography is therefore undesirable, if not openly treacherous, a defiance of the poet’s will. Blake can be safely inducted into the Puritan tradition with Milton, Bunyan, Lawrence and, finally, the Quaker Bunting. Skipsey saw Blake’s prophetic books ‘dark as a coal-pit whose intense gloom is unilluminated by the dim light of the Davy lamp’. Each succeeding generation reveals him in its own way. Now a biography of Bunting has been proposed as a device (as well as a tale worth the telling) to buy time for another poet, for Tom Pickard perhaps. Ackroyd, coming from a more catholic (and Catholic) camp, is less fierce, less implicated, in his treatment. His Blake is decently crafted fiction overwhelmed by an excess of tyrannical facts.
Looking back over my notes, I wasn’t satisfied. I couldn’t do justice to Ackroyd’s book without coercing it into another scheme, a quest. I decided to pay homage to the supreme Londoner’s own methodology, as it was recently revealed to the journalist Luke Jennings. Ackroyd let it be known that he was a compulsive wanderer, a descendant of Arthur Machen. Obsessively, since childhood, he has explored ‘a city whose dark alleys and darker secrets he knows better than any living writer’. ‘I read, walk, read again,’ Ackroyd explains. Contemporary sites in the bleakest riverine quarters of East London have, apparently, lost their atmosphere; time having ‘flowed backwards’ into the Hawksmoor churches. Elsewhere, still numinous places have been ‘irradiated’ by previous occupants. How better then to get a fix on Blake than to dowse for spiritual residues gifted to London by the list of addresses exposed to the uninitiated in the Ackroyd biography?
I removed the glossy dustwrapper with its gilded relief script and its reproduction of The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for the Possession of a Child. Then, in a gesture of reckless sacrifice, I broke the book’s spine and hacked the wad of text into portable portions, sealing each one in a plastic envelope – before setting off, on foot, to seek out the traces of Blake in the city. I would leave each envelope, after I had finished with it, in the hands of whoever was primed to receive it.
I confess it: I hoped that my journey would conjure up the presence of the Islington magus. Ackroyd was surely out there, taking the dictation of the dead, mapping future fictions. It was astonishing that our paths had never crossed. The only London scribe you can rely on smacking up against, two or three times in a fifteen miles trot in any direction that takes your fancy, is the serial propagandist, Stewart Home; always scampering, rabbiting like a speed freak, snorting with derisive laughter, Camden Town or Soho, Poplar or the Elephant, a scandalous pamphlet, the ink still wet, thrust into your hands. Never Ackroyd, not out of doors. I’ve seen him step out of taxis once or twice, noticed him lending his support to obscure artists in whitewashed Spitalftelds dives. But his famous explorations, ‘invariably carried out alone and on foot’, remain one of the great metropolitan secrets. Swinburnian dérives kept from mundane eyes. Perhaps, like Aleister Crowley, Ackroyd had achieved, by acts of occult geometry, the gift of invisibility.
I reread the first chapters in Bunhill Fields; nearest to me, this was the dim enclosure where Blake’s story ends. A bone pit of Dissenters quilted in lichen. Obelisks and stone tanks husbanded behind iron fencing. Flocculent green stuff glowing luminously beneath the white skin of Bunyan’s effigy. I expected, against all foreknowledge, to run into Ackroyd here. To get his word on all this. But that was not to be. Business folk hustled through, using the graveyard path as a short cut. I laid the plastic envelope down behind the jar of wild flowers that decorated the memorial slab for William and Catherine Blake.
In Soho, nothing. No trace of irradiation from the various buildings where Blake had lived. Ugly plaques, more suited to record the passing of a tripe factory. In Poland Street, what comes to mind is Derek Raymond’s fictional ‘Factory’, the barracks of his dream police. In Golden Square, the statue of George II is shrouded, boxed for repairs. The caretaker opens up. A plaster finger on a prong of metal. A bench on which to read the second segment – before leaving it, in tribute, at the statue’s feet.
South Molton Street has risen in status, a rich blue ceramic plaque – next to a Reed’s employment bureau. The romantic novelist would have to chemically boost the imagination to get any reading here. Better stick with the relevant section of Ackroyd’s comprehensive guide-book. Conjure up, as he does, sunsets and sunrises, the whiff of Tyburn. Push south towards St James’s, Piccadilly – and receive the bonus of a perfectly pink butcher’s shop, ranks of headless pigs behind a picture-book window. Real meat to hang alongside the burnished leatherware.
Ticket bought, the visitor to the Abbey can walk among the sepulchral monuments. Again, as with Bunhill Fields, there is a resonance – but not of Blake. Not of the work he did here, his apprenticeship, induction into the Matter of Britain. It’s not easy to read the third part among the weird Kenneth Baker anthology that is Poets’ Corner. Dylan Thomas summoned alongside Henry James. A sampler of dubious quotations. A head of Blake with gaping Bedlam sockets instead of eyes.
The Tate no longer has its Blake watercolours in glass cases under felt in a remote basement. Blake is on the poster, a featured artist, upstairs, his ‘hell’ twinned with Turner’s ‘heaven’. The original of Ackroyd’s cover is on show. Shields of astonishing colour. Carry them over the river to the plaque for Hercules Buildings. (Having first paused in the gift shop to slide the next plastic envelope into the Blake display unit, between two of the sumptuous facsimiles, Milton, a Poem and The Continental Prophecies, in the six-volume series of Illuminated Books. I could have lingered here, searching for such marvels as the melancholy, rooster-headed Los from Jerusalem – but I couldn’t risk drawing attention to myself by lasciviously handling these gloriously coloured pages. It wasn’t the real thing, but it was as near as most of us will ever come: like peeping into a furnace of light through a crack in the door.)
Standing under the glow of the railway, in Lambeth rain, I thought it permissible to wonder about Ackroyd’s optimistic reading, his genial account of Blake at his window looking over the river. ‘He could have seen the wherries, fishing boats and sailing ships upon the Thames.’ And to wonder even more about the much-debated naked episode in the garden, that vine-enclosed Edenic bower. A muddy tump, sheets of liquid steel drifting down through the clammy mist.
Fountain Court, the steps declining from the Strand towards the river, does have an atmosphere that is worth recording. A gash in the fabric of time. The 19th-century building, like all Blake’s London dwellings, has gone. But the room where he died, where the river could be seen as a bar of liquid gold, is present in its absence. Beneath it, a minatory Ackroydian passageway.
Asked by Maxim, a men’s magazine, to nominate the private place that meant most to him, Ackroyd chose Fountain Court. The ‘wrong’ one, the one with the circular fountain in the Middle Temple. A displacement that shifted the Blakean bedroom, perched above a busy street, half a mile or so to the east, into a site of withdrawal and contemplation. But then periodicals and newspapers operate an oblique take on reality. The Independent, showcasing ‘Six Good Poetry Books’ in October, had William Blake: The Collected Poems at number six (in company with Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, Simon Armitage and Margaret Atwood). The book was puffed as ‘the background to Peter Ackroyd’s best-selling biography’.
The hike to Felpham, a dormitory of the living dead, was unremarkable. I understood why the journey took Blake 18 hours. There were moments, up on the South Downs, when weariness conjured up ‘Nature’s cruel holiness’. There was a glimpse of Chichester spire through the early mist. The flint-dressed cottage was soon located and the bricks, that had once been part of Hayley’s wall, photographed. The church had a grand memorial tablet to Hayley – which mentions Cowper but not Blake, merely commending the local grandee for raising ‘neglected talents’ drooping head’.
Standing on the wall opposite Blake’s cottage, as the only position from which to get a decent photographic representation (framing out the bloke on a ladder fitting a burglar alarm), a window behind me was fiercely rapped and then thrown open. ‘Do you realise this is private property?’ A repeat, with me in the Schofield part, of the Blake treason episode. The casting out of the drunken soldier from the garden. Let them have it. Even Bill Brandt in his portrait for Literary Britain could manage no more than an unconvinced section of cottage wall. Winter roses, not notably sick, masked the heritage tag. Ackroyd’s yellow sands were not in evidence. A holiday camp to the right and a diminishing display of groynes to the left. A brown and curdling sea, backed by a line of deserted beach huts. I left the last section of the biography in the bin alongside the regulations for the Blakes Road Slipway. I understood Blake’s enthusiasm for a rapid return to London.
With the shape of the essay nailed down, but unresolved, I walked west, along the canal path to Islington. Bought a book someone in Texas had asked for and drifted on towards the City – as the only place where you didn’t have to queue for hours for an airmail sticker and customs declaration. A voice pulled me up on St John Street. It was Ackroyd. Unshaven, carrying a large brown leather bag. He’d been shopping, he said. I mentioned the difficulties with the Blake review. He barely remembered that one, ancient history. The Milton novel, Milton in America, was already finished and two or three others were lined up and ready to go. He was taking the measure of Thomas More. The man had purchased, by some awful Faustian bargain, a sense of time that most of us would never begin to comprehend. He’d been granted the Einsteinian gold card, which appointed him the memory conduit for a literary culture that was disappearing as fast as he processed it. Awestruck, eyes to the ground, I plodded on.