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Peter Ackroyd: English Music

This is, in my opinion, Ackroyd’s masterpiece to date. Only this novel and First Light of the novels to date are set away from London, though even this one starts off in London. Why do I call it his masterpiece? His other books seem to be exercises in relating the past to the present, poking around in the seamy side of life and showing that everything has a dark side. These are, of course, very valid themes and should not distract from Ackroyd’s worth as one of England’s best contemporary writers but, in this book, he takes it one step further by adding a spiritual dimension and by also exploring, far more so than he has done in his previous works, what it means to be English. This exploration of Englishness is done primarily through an exploration of English art (in the widest sense) but also by moving away from London and setting most of the book in the English countryside.

The plot concerns Timothy Harcombe who, with his father, does a spiritual healing act in an obscure London theatre. Timothy has psychic powers. Mixed in this story of Timothy and his father – the relationship is very important – is the story of Timothy’s dreams or, rather, his romp through English literature (Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations, Sherlock Holmes). However, the casual life Timothy and his father are leading cannot continue and he is sent to his grandparents in Wiltshire. At school in Wiltshire (as well as in his dreams), he discovers music – English music – particularly the early composers. In his dreams, it is no longer Alice but Purcell, Boyce and Byrd. And then it is art, as Hogarth and the visions of Constable, Palmer and Gainsborough enter both his life and his dreams. He works as a night guard in a gallery of English paintings. Of course, as he works his way through Englishness, it is almost inevitable that he ends up with Arthur.

This is undoubtedly one of the best novels to deal with the idea of Englishness, at least as seen through English art (in the widest sense) and English sense. Ackroyd, who is very knowledgeable on the topic, gets well beyond the biography approach of some of his other novels and is able to touch and England that is more than the seamy side of London which has (and still is) the focus of his other novels. This is not to decry this other approach but, rather, to praise Ackroyd for the courage of going that much further. It can best be summed up in the words of Hogarth in the novel Our English music must be sustained until we reach the very last note.

Incidentally, if you are looking for this book, I have seen it, on several occasions, classified in a bookstore under Music rather than Fiction or Literature but then if booksellers knew what they were doing, there would not be any need for this site, would there? And, of course, it is out of print both in Britain and the USA.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Hamish Hamilton