Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination

Peter Ackroyd
Random House (November 2002) 518 pages
ISBN: 1 856 19721 2

reviewed by Ann Skea

England is a land of dreams. They think their dreams to be visionary and their visions to be divine.

Peter Ackroyd is, I think, a romantic. Not that I am complaining. His vision of historical continuity in the English character and imagination, from Bede c.673-735 through to the twenty-first century, is one I rather like. Of course, the well-known eccentricity of the English is an ancestral trait. Of course we are pragmatic, eclectic, prone to melancholy and, yes, probably bloody-minded, too; of course we have always been self-deprecating, ironic and fond of "low" comedy; and of course we have always complained about the weather. Isn't that what it is to be English?.

Well... maybe.

Ackroyd's enthusiasm is contagious, especially when he discusses London, visionaries, theatre and language: all things he knows a lot about. His breadth of learning is prodigious but lightly worn, and his excursions into strange territory, like forgery, gardens and plagiarism, is often unexpectedly fascinating and provocative. But in spite of all the evidence he brings to support his thesis (and sometimes there does seem to be an awful lot), I found myself constantly thinking "Yes, but..."

Yes, there does seem to be a strong connection in English language and literature with the alliterative verse of the Anglo-Saxons and with our ancestors' patterns of vernacular speech. But did the English love of miniatures really grow from our delight in manuscript grotesques? What about the Mogul love of miniatures, where did that come from? And don't Japanese Haiku and Chinese Bonsai arts demonstrate that same love? Maybe it is a human delight, rather than a peculiarly English characteristic.

And, yes, Ackroyd makes a good case for continuity in our love of flat, intricate, decorative design. But what about the flat, intricate patterns of Arabic art?

Sometimes Ackroyd's gaze seemed to be so focused on England that I kept asking myself what the quintessential, historically based characteristics of the French, the Africans or the Chinese might be, and how similar or dissimilar to the English.

These are quibbles, however, and it is good to be challenged like that. This book (although anything but miniature) in fact displays many of the traits of language and approach about which Ackroyd writes. It is full of antiquarianism, intricately interwoven but flat patterns, miniature portraits, grotesques and visionary dreamers. I particularly enjoyed reading about Bede, a brief history of the English Bible, and the "Mongrel tendencies" of the English language. And I was delighted by the gloom and doom of "It Rained all Night."

Although the theme is constant, there is enormous variety in this book, as just a sample of the chapter headings will show: "A Land of Dreams," "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes," "The Italian Connection," "And Now for Streaky Bacon," The Song of the Sea," "I saw you Missis," "Femality and Fiction," "Some more Dunces," "Ghosts." And Ackroyd's five-page list of characters is impressive, ranging from Bede (c 670), through (I choose at random) Chaucer, Byrd, Johnson, Pope, Smollett, Sloane, Macaulay, Elgar and Spencer, to Howard Hodgkin (1932).

This is a book to read slowly, to return to and browse in. It is serious but also full of humour, learned but also, at times, cheekily daring. Not every chapter is successful, and there is a tendency to list things in the interest of brevity, but on the whole it is a very interesting and absorbing book. I recommend it, even if Ackroyd does prove that my doubts about his thesis stem from my own inherited, quintessentially English individualism and, as he puts it, "disaffection from, or dissatisfaction with, abstract speculation."


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