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Peter Ackroyd: ‘When I was young I wanted to be Pope’

The acclaimed writer of Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd has made a career out of recounting the lives of Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens and more. In his Letter To My Younger Self, he explains why he would never dream of giving young Peter advice.
Peter Ackroyd’s new book Mr Cadmus  is out now (Canongate, £8.99) Photo: Charles Hopkinson

Acclaimed novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd is known for his wealth of books tackling the history and culture of his native London and taking on biographies of historic luminaries including William Blake, Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin.

Here, in his Letter to My Younger Self, he explains why he would never dream of giving young Peter advice, why he considers being homosexual to be a blessing and why he’s always had “monkish inclinations”.

I was born in Paddington Hospital on October 5, 1949 and was then brought up on a council estate in West London which was, as far as I knew, the extent of the world. In retrospect it might seem a cramped or poor existence, but at the time it was all that I needed. You do not need to live in a great house, or in middle-class comfort, to entertain great thoughts. There were gangs of boys on the estate, but I never joined any of them. I preferred my own company, and that is a principle I have maintained. I have never joined a group or gang, whether of protesters, of letter signatories, of writers – because I was acutely aware that I might lose my individuality. It was an instinct.

I was brought up by two women – my mother and my grandmother – but I doubt that I ever realised how extraordinary they were. My grandmother was alert, ever curious and quick-thinking. My mother was highly intelligent, sociable and with a good-natured liberality that allowed me to develop as I thought best at the time. I could not have managed life without them, and now belatedly I register my gratitude to them.

As well as the women who raised me, my early life was influenced by religion and particularly of Roman Catholic piety. I became an altar server in our local Catholic church, and I believe that this had a profound effect upon me. It gave me a powerful sense of formal order and ritual as well as an inherent interest in the supernatural. That has prevented me from the excesses of empiricism or scientism, in the sure knowledge that the world (and indeed the universe) has a spiritual as well as material existence. In my early youth I also believed in a guardian angel who would protect me from serious harm, and no doubt this belief may still flicker out in moments of crisis.

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1986 In between the release of classic novels Hawksmoor and Chatterton. Photo: Jeff Goode / Getty Image

When I was very young I wanted either to be Pope or a solitary monk like a Carthusian or a Trappist; the papacy was unfortunately out of reach, but I believe that I still have monkish inclinations. I like solitude and silence, to the extent that some people believe me to be a ‘recluse’. But this is not really correct. It is only the case that work has taken the place of prayer.

At the age of nine or 10 I wrote a play concerning Guy Fawkes. It was not performed, of course, but I presume that it was a sign of my interests or preoccupations. When I was 13 or 14 I became obsessed with English poetry. I can still recall the moment, and the line, that spurred me forward. It was from Tennyson’s The Dying Swan, and it went something like this: “And took the reed-tops as it went”. I even told a school friend that I wanted to read the work of every English poet. It was an unlikely goal, but I followed it with determination. This is a quality that may have become useful in later life. Certainly my first books were of poetry, which were probably now be classified as juvenilia. When that particular muse flew off my shoulder, I turned to prose.

I never really considered my sexuality. It just happened, and I never felt embarrassed about it. It never occurred to me that I should somehow define myself in terms of homosexuality, and I never felt any particular sympathy with those who were also gay. It was just a fact of life, similar to having blue eyes or a sense of humour. It has never held me back in any way, and in fact I am grateful for what I consider to be a blessing. My mother once told me not to speak to strange men, but I am pleased to say that I never took her advice.

I don’t believe that anyone changes characteristics or temperament as they grow older. I presume that the boy Peter was very much like the adult in most respects. But likeness does not encompass sympathy, and it may well be that we would not have much to say to one another. I would envy him for his blissful unawareness of the future. Would he be impressed by what I have achieved? He might be aware of the fact that his adult self had been able to fulfil his early ambitions, but perhaps he would have taken that for granted. I don’t believe that he would particularly admire me.

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2012 - With the actor Simon Callow in London Photo: Joanne Davidson/Shutterstock

I would never dream of giving the young Peter advice. Old people do not grow wiser or more serene; if anything they become more stupid and more prejudiced. I think I realised that at a young age, and further experience has not persuaded me to change my opinion. The young boy would be wise to ignore me, as no doubt he would.

The younger me would probably be most surprised by the fact that I was able to move from university into adult life without any serious impediments. When I became literary editor of The Spectator at the age of 23, I had the feeling that I had launched myself successfully into the river of life. I have been in danger of drowning many times since, but I still always found myself clinging to the bank.

There have been crises and traumas in my life but I managed to overcome them. I would only recommend to my younger self that, whatever happens, you must try to maintain your energy, discipline and good spirits.

I don’t believe that I possess a ‘high profile’, and certainly have never felt any pressure or anxiety in that respect. I have just kept going. Criticism, whether good or bad, has had no effect upon me. My younger and my older self may in fact have a common trait, in the instinct to look forward to the next challenge, and then the next.

If I had my time again, I would not do or say anything differently. I have a residual belief in fate or destiny, and am under no illusion that it can be averted or postponed.  As I said before, wisdom and self-knowledge do not increase with age.

I remember the time when I finished my long task on London: The Biography. At the time I believed it to be a difficult work which might or might not interest any readers. Yet I was delighted to have composed it. In fact my delight was soon modified because, a day or two later, I suffered a heart attack which led to a triple bypass. I had ignored the symptoms because I was so eager to complete the book, but as soon as it was finished my heart gave up on me. So I look back on that moment with mixed feelings.

Peter Ackroyd’s new book Mr Cadmus is out now (Canongate, £8.99)