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Albion

by Peter Ackroyd

(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.


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