British Author; Born 1949

Peter Ackroyd can be described as a novelist, biographer, historian, poet, critic and journalist and is one of the most prolific writers currently active. In addition to writing thirteen novels and a number of acclaimed biographies has also produced a steady stream of reviews and critical essays for The Spectator magazine and most recently in The Times and Sunday Times.

Peter Ackroyd was born at a council flat in East Acton on the 5th October 1949. His mother was a personnel officer with an engineering firm, whilst he never knew his father, who left when he was a baby. (Although they later engaged in a brief correspondance, Ackroyd has never seen him since and insists that he has no desire to do so.) Despite being raised on a council estate it seems that he was a precocious child, reading newspapers at the age of five and writing his own play about Guy Fawkes at nine. He won a cholarship to the private Saint Benedict’s School in Ealing and then another scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge where, in pursuit of his desire to be "an ordinary, middle-class person", Ackroyd made "great efforts" to lose the he last remnants of his cockney accent.

At Cambridge he read English, where "his study technique was to immerse in every word written by or about an author who interested him, then distil from his reading a single essay of such nitric brilliance that his tutors and examiners could merely swallow hard and wonder about the safety of their tenure." Inevitably he graduated with a double first, and afterwards won a further scholarship to Yale University where he studied as a Mellon Fellow, and completed the work for his Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism, which was later published in 1976.

On his return to Britain in 1973, Ackroyd was appointed literary editor of the Spectator, even though as he later admitted "I didn't know what a literary editor was". During his time at the Spectator he established his reputation as a binge-drinker and became well known for his habit of falling down drunk. His publishing career began with the appearance of a volume of poetry London Lickpenny in 1973, whilst he also wrote a history of transvestism and pictorial piography Ezra Pound and His World. Ackroyd continued to work at the Spectator and became joint managing editor of the magazine in 1978, although he resigned the latter position in 1981 to concentrate on the business of becoming a published author.

His first novel The Great Fire of London in 1982 followed by The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, written in the style of Oscar Wilde himself as his 'autobiography'. Although this latter work won him a Somerset Maugham Award in 1984 it was his third novel Hawksmoor, the winner of both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize which established his reputation. Hawksmoor featured the historical figure of the eighteenth century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, with a fictional modern day policeman of the same name investigating a series of child murders which were inspired by the earlier Hawksmoor's work. This established what might be seem as the trademark of Ackroyd's fiction, that of the dual narrative, where an imagined historical narrative is interweaved with another entirely fictional present-day account.

In the midst of this activity Ackroyd also set about the task of writing a biography of the poet T.S. Elliot. Here Ackroyd was faced with the problem that the Eliot estate refused him permission to use his subject's poetry and correspondence, and Ackroyd was therefore obliged to use what has been described as "more adventurous forms of biographical narrative". This established what has been called his "most distinctive trait", that is the blurring of genre distinctions, so that as his fiction is consistently based on historic events, his non-fiction contains significant elements which can only be described as fiction. Ackroyd's biography of Dickens for example, includes long imagined conversations between the author and his subject which take place on the London Underground. Some critics regard this as evidence of Ackroyd's intellectual brilliance, others belive it merely shows that he is a pretentious idiot.

The biography of T.S. Eliot was sufficiently impressive to become the joint winner of the Heinemann Award took the Whitbread Biography Award for 1984, and sold sufficently well to persuade the publishers Sinclair-Stevenson to offer the huge sum of £650,000 as an advance on his proposed biographies of Charles Dickens and William Blake. (Which enabled Ackroyd to buy a large house with a swimming pool in Devon.) Although regarded as silly money at the time, both biographies, Dickens which appeared in 1990 and Blake in 1995 proved to be commercial successes, and Ackroyd's achievements as a biographer began to overshadow his efforts as a novelist.

Further efforts in this direction followed including The Life of Thomas More in 1998 and London: The Biography in 2000 which won the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature. This latter work is a reflection of Ackroyd's obsession with his birthplace as virtually all of his work whether fiction or non-fiction is centered around the city of London. Ackroyd himself has said that "London has always provided the landscape for my imagination. It becomes a character - a living being - within each of my books." Despite the success of his biographies Ackroyd has continued to write fiction which has generally been inspired by and drawing on research carried out for his non-fiction.

Ackroyd claims that he was seven when he realised that he was homosexual and it was in America that he met a dancer named Brian Kuhn, who became his partner until his death from Aids in 1994. Following Kuhn's death, Ackroyd abandoned his home in Devon and returned to London. There he maintain a routine of beginning writing at 7.30am and continuing with breaks for household chores and food, until 9pm, when he starts drinking until he falls asleep. He now cites work and drink as being his major obesessions.

Peter Ackroyd has also written a series of six non-fiction children's books for Dorling Kindersley under the overall title of Voyages through Time, and has also been working on a series of biographies for Chatto & Windus entitled Brief Lives, of which three have appeared to date. Most recently on the 17th April 2007 the publishers Macmillan announced that they had agreed to publish what Ackroyd describes as a "profoundly important project, no less than the biography of England in six volumes", the first volume of which is expected to be delivered in 2011. In addition he has written and presented a number of television series for the BBC on the subjects of Dickens (2002), London (2004) and The Romantic Poets (2006), and has written a play The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which ran both in the West End and on Broadway.

Ackroyd is also fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded a CBE iin 2003 for services to literature.




The Brief Lives series

  • Chaucer (Chatto & Windus, 2004)
  • Turner (Chatto & Windus, 2005)
  • Newton (Chatto & Windus, 2006)

Collected prose


Children's Non-Fiction


Simon Hattenstone, Tales of the city, The Guardian of Monday August 11, 2003,6000,1016 415,00.html

Andrew Anthony, The Big Life, The Observer of Sunday September 4, 2005,6000,1562487,0 0.html

Biographical info at;,,-1,00.html,,1000000040,00.html

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