"Murderers will try to recall the sequence of events, they will remember exactly what they did just before and just after. But they can never remember the actual moment of killing. This is why they will always leave a clue." -- Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd CBE (born 5 October 1949, East Acton, Middlesex) is an English novelist and biographer with a particular interest in the history and culture of London.
Peter Ackroyd's mother worked in the personnel department of an engineering firm, his father having left the family home when Ackroyd was a baby. He was reading newspapers by the age of 5 and, at 9, wrote a play about Guy Fawkes. Reputedly, he first realised he was gay at the age of 7.
Ackroyd was educated at St. Benedict's, Ealing and at Clare College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a double first in English literature. In 1972, he was a Mellon Fellow at Yale University in the United States. The result of this fellowship was Ackroyd's Notes for a New Culture, written when he was only 22 and eventually published in 1976. The title, a playful echo of T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), was an early indication of Ackroyd's penchant for creatively exploring and reexamining the works of other London-based writers.
Ackroyd's literary career began with poetry, including such works as London Lickpenny (1973) and The Diversions of Purley (1987). He later moved into fiction and has become an acclaimed author, winning the 1998 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the biography Thomas More and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987.
Ackroyd worked at The Spectator magazine between 1973 and 1977 and became joint managing editor in 1978. In 1982 he published The Great Fire of London, his first novel. This novel deals with one of Ackroyd's great heroes, Charles Dickens, and is a reworking of Little Dorrit. The novel set the stage for the long sequence of novels Ackroyd has produced since, all of which deal in some way with the complex interaction of time and space, and what Ackroyd calls "the spirit of place". It is also the first in a sequence of novels of London, through which he traces the changing, but curiously consistent nature of the city. Often this theme is explored through the city's artists, and especially its writers: Oscar Wilde in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983); Nicholas Hawksmoor, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh in Hawksmoor (1985); Thomas Chatterton and George Meredith in Chatterton (1987); John Dee in The House of Dr Dee (1993); Dan Leno, Karl Marx, George Gissing and Thomas de Quincey in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994); John Milton in Milton in America (1996); Charles Lamb in The Lambs of London.
Ackroyd has always shown a great interest in the city of London, and one of his best known works, London: The Biography, is an extensive and thorough discussion of London through the ages. In 1994 he was interviewed about the London Psychogeographical Association in an article for The Observer where he remarked:
"I truly believe that there are certain people to whom or through whom the territory, the place, the past speaks . . . Just as it seems possible to me that a street or dwelling can materially affect the character and behaviour of the people who dwell in them, is it not also possible that within this city (London) and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond?"
In the sequence London: The Biography (2000), Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002), and Thames: Sacred River (2007), Ackroyd has produced works of what he considers historical sociology. These books trace themes in London and English culture from the ancient past to the present, drawing again on his favoured notion of almost spiritual lines of connection rooted in place and stretching across time.
His fascination with London literary and artistic figures is also displayed in the sequence of biographies he has produced of Ezra Pound (1980), T. S. Eliot (1984), Charles Dickens (1990), William Blake (1995), Thomas More (1998), Chaucer (2004), William Shakespeare (2005), and J. M. W. Turner. The city itself stands astride all these works, as it does in the fiction.
From 2003 to 2005, Ackroyd wrote a six-book non-fiction series (Voyages Through Time), intended for readers as young as eight. This was his first work for children. The critically acclaimed series ("Not just sound-bite snacks for short attention spans, but unfolding feasts that leave you with a sense of wonder", The Sunday Times) is an extensive narrative of key periods in world history.
Early in his career, Ackroyd was nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984 and, as well as producing fiction, biography and other literary works, is also a regular radio and television broadcaster and book critic.
In the New Year's honours list of 2003, Ackroyd was awarded the CBE.