(Chatto & Windus, £25.00, 548 pages. published 3 October 2002.)
Peter Ackroyd is a biographer, broadcaster and author. His works on
Blake, Chatterton and Dickens have helped seal his reputation. He has
even written a biography on London, but his newest book takes on an
even greater subject, the roots of the English imagination. It takes
him on a journey from the country's early pagan roots. From Beowulf
to Blake, from the Druids to David Hockney, what makes the English
dream like no other people on earth?
The introduction to his book admits to omissions, but it is hard to
fault Ackroyd's breadth of vision and scholarship. His familiarity with
the likes of William Blake and Charles Dickens could only have assisted
in such a mammoth undertaking.
Not surprising from the author who gave us The Last Testament of
Oscar Wilde and the biographer of one of England's first great drag
queens, Dan Leno, the queer side of the English imagination is more
than just referenced for notes. One of the most enthralling chapters
in the book describes the endless fascination, especially in the theatre,
from the mummers of the Middle Ages to present day pantomime, for men
dressing as women.
For centuries, women were never allowed on the stage, but even after
they were men still continued to find excuses to don female apparel.
Its role in comedy, especially, remains to this day. From Monty Python
to the League of Gentlemen and, surely, Eddie Izzard is the world's
first transvestite stand-up comedian -- as well as an Englishman!
With the success of Harry Potter and Tolkien's classic trilogy at the
box office, Ackroyd's history of the English imagination is both timely
and instructive. He demonstrates that like Hollywood, Albion is not
just a place but a state of mind.
Review by Howard Watson.