In a handsome, book-lined room overlooking a quiet London square Peter Ackroyd is hard at work on what is probably the biggest non-fiction project of our times: a six-volume history of England, beginning with volume one: Foundation with the final instalment not appearing until 2023.
In its scale, Ackroyd's project echoes the monumental histories of Churchill, Trevelyan and Macaulay, but perhaps the closest parallel is Edward Gibbon's legendary The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a six-volume uber-work, completed in 1788, that consumed 12 years of the author's life. Ackroyd, however, is made of sterner stuff, as he also has an entirely separate nine-book deal under way with Random House, for fiction and non-fiction. He won the Somerset Maugham award as long ago as 1984, and has since won two Whitbread awards and been shortlisted for the Man Booker, but this may be his most productive period yet.
"The idea for it came to me quite rapidly. It suddenly struck me that it was something I could do. In about three minutes I scribbled down what the six volumes should be, and then just took it from there. It just seemed a natural development, I just went with it."
The thumbnail sequence of the volumes that he initially outlined has been retained: volume one runs from the beginning to Henry VII's death in 1509, followed by successive volumes on the Reformation, the Civil War and the Stuarts, the Industrial Revolution, the 19th century, and finally, the 20th and 21st centuries.
And how would he present and sell the book to a customer in a bookshop? "It's a tapestry of the lives of the famous and the lives of the unknown, of the history of England and the consciousness of England, of the nature of Englishness and of the continuities that bind us to the past." There is a long pause. "Actually, I probably wouldn't say that. I probably wouldn't say anything I'm so quiet," and he laughs uproariously.
The first instalment covers by far the longest period, meaning whole reigns, even epochs, are sometimes compressed into a few pages. The structure is a straight-forward narrative chronology. Although, given the paucity of early sources, the doings of kings and great men "feature prominently". Ackroyd intersperses the book with thematic chapters on houses, roads, names, the family and so on.
The past and the present
To this basic structure Ackroyd adds two things: his familiar and engaging literary style, which provides the readability so essential in a work of this magnitude, and another familar Ackroyd theme - the role of place and chance in affairs. "I'm concerned with the continuities of the past, and the evidence of how the past affects the present, all the themes I've explored in my novels and biographies I've brought to bear on this subject."
So London was not founded by the Romans, but was an Iron Age settlement, if not older, built around a now-obscured hill-fort; England was a heavily organised and administered country, going right back into pre-history, which facilitated Stonehenge for example; the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established in the Dark Ages were based on pre-Roman tribal boundaries; the protracted Civil War of the 12th century was started because of a bout of diarrhoea; Kent has been a rebellious corner of England since the year dot to the 19th century and beyond.
He makes bold, flowing statements and conclusions that make the familiar, national story fresh again: England was a slave state for a thousand years from the Romans to the Normans; the institution of parliament arose almost entirely by accident; most of the Magna Carta is irrelevant.
He finds the "bad" kings most interesting - John, Richard II and Ackroyd's favourite, Richard III, later famously maligned by Shakespeare‚ "who invented a lot of the atmosphere surrounding him because the ruling monarch was from a different dynasty. The truth about the real people will never be known. They've been traduced or celebrated by generations of historians who've concocted stories for their own benefit."
Most of those he has read, if the thousands of books in his study are anything to judge by. His method is to visit locations, read widely, synthesise and summarise. Footnotes on sources are dispensed with (although Gibbon incredibly cited more than 8,000) and the reader has to place his faith in Ackroyd as the narrative unfurls. He writes with such style and authority that that is no hard task.
"My favourite historians are also good writers as well as scholars, like Macaulay and Gibbon. For me, history is partly a story of the characters' adventures, but it's also got to be able to bring to life the great general drama of the human spirit, it's got to do all those things, and I think that's what Macaulay and Gibbon do, and I use them as my idols to follow."
The History of England: Foundation is published by Macmillan.