Having heard that Peter Ackroyd had just suffered a major heart attack, and knowing that his lover died of Aids six years ago, I assumed the worst. So I was surprised to find that there were decorators painting his hallway as I arrived at his Islington home: does a dying man renovate his house? I was hurried through and walked past Blake's tortured face-mask in the living-room, down a spiral staircase, and out into the garden where I met Ackroyd, 50, in the December drizzle.
He wasn't emaciated or covered in sores, but he did look a little pale and thinner. To be honest, the weight loss suited him: he seemed fitter than when I last saw him a year ago. He sweetly apologised for the workmen and his inaccessibility - quite a bit of phone tag was played in order to organise the interview. "I've been spending most of my time at the Royal Brompton convalescing and only come back to do bits of reading during the day," he said, walking into the huge, tube-shaped shed that houses his study. Sitting at his ten-foot long, uncharacteristically messy desk, he sipped shakily at a glass of water as he spoke about the circumstances of his coronary.
"It was actually on the very day that I had finished my biography of London. I had just written the words 'the end' when I felt a certain breathlessness. At the time, I ignored it, had a little to drink and went to bed. But the next day, still feeling out of breath, I visited the doctor, who immediately sent me to hospital in an ambulance. I was very lucky. If I hadn't been admitted then, I would have definitely died. Apparently I had a blocked artery and my heart had stopped beating properly; the consultant put my chances of survival at 50:50. For reasons I don't understand, there was a lot of fluid on my lungs; if the liquid hadn't been pumped out, I would have died. Once in hospital I was wheeled into intensive care and they immediately sedated me on morphine. I was unconscious for a week. When I woke up, it felt like I had just arrived in hospital. My friends and my mother all came to visit me and looked rather anxious. It began to sink in that a very major thing had happened to me. Oddly enough, though, I wasn't worried at all: I hadn't felt so good in a long time. It was the first rest I'd had in years."
Asked what he thought had caused the heart attack, he said, laughing: "Writing my biography of London was a big contributory factor. London very nearly killed me. While I was writing it, I would jokingly tell my friends that it was killing me. This turned out to be literally true. You see, London has definitely made my career - my most successful books all have the capital as their main theme - but it has exacted a very high price. Perhaps the city, which I regard as an organic being in its biography, wanted my death as payment. Luckily it didn't cash the cheque. In a strange way, I think that the very last word of the biography helped to resurrect me. It's the Latin word Resurgam, which is what Christopher Wren made the centrepiece of St Paul's: I will arise again."
Ackroyd then drifted into mysticism as he discussed the ways in which his work explores his sense of the numinous, and of how human beings are pre-eminently spiritual beings. "I totally reject all these institutionalised lies about man being descended from apes. Evolution is all a myth," he said, adding that because he rejects a deterministic world-view, he has intimations of an afterlife.
All this talk of death made me curious. Was his heart attack an HIV-related condition? He blinked.
"Whatever do you mean by that?"
Well, are you HIV positive?
"I am negative . . . What the bloody hell do you want to know that for?"
When I explained that it was well documented that his partner, Brian Kuhn, died from Aids in 1994, Ackroyd said: "It's a bloody stupid question. It's totally irrelevant. Brian died six years ago. Aids is a difficult disease to catch. You have to receive infected blood in an opened wound to infect yourself."
There was an awkward silence. So what did cause the heart attack? "Too much smoking, drinking and working too hard," he said, regaining his composure. "I was writing 1,000 words a day for two years and covering 2,000 years of London's history in every chapter; all the chapters are thematic so that there are histories of light, smells, children, death. That's a huge amount of information to assimilate, and if you've been drinking a lot the night before, it's even harder work. I never drank while I was working, though. I'm taking things a bit more easily now - only a couple of glasses a night."
But Ackroyd's idea of a relaxed life is not most people's. Just a week after surfacing from his coma, he wrote a lead review for the Times, where he is chief book reviewer, and an essay on William Blake for the Tate Gallery. "I suppose my work-rate was near suicidal before the attack, although it didn't feel like that at the time. I've been like that since adolescence," he said.
It was as a pupil at St Benedict's, the Catholic state school in Acton, that Ackroyd discovered his compulsion to work. "I was a scholar and altar server there. I loved reading and writing Latin and Greek from the age of 11, as well as listening to the Latin Mass. It wasn't until my final year that I read English literature. I grew up with my mother in a council house near Wormwood Scrubs - there weren't many books to read in the house - and so my sources for reading were to be found in school and at the library. But my mother, as well as the monks, did encourage me. She's proud of all that I've done."
Was growing up in such a religious environment difficult when he discovered he was gay? He curls his lip, pondering the question. "No. Not at all. By that time, I had already stopped believing, in the traditional sense."
But does his mother, who is still a Catholic, have problems with his sexuality? "No," he said. "We never discuss it."
This is what is both intriguing and puzzling about Ackroyd: while many writers are explicitly motivated to write by traumatic events in their life, he seems to have glided through situations that many might have found intensely difficult. He derives no inspiration from his homosexuality or working-class origins; he has never made an issue about being gay and solved the class problem by teaching himself to speak "properly" in front of his bedroom mirror. He sailed through Cambridge during the late 1960s, achieving a First in English. He then went to Yale on a scholar- ship for two years, where he caroused with the likes of the gay American modernist poet John Ashbery. When he returned to England, he was made literary editor of the Spectator at the age of 23, becoming joint managing editor a few years later. By 1981, he had published three books and decided to write full-time; now, for the first time, he hit a tough patch.
"The early to mid-1980s was a very dark period for me. I dropped out of the literary scene and became very isolated. People said that my biography of T S Eliot (1984) would be a disaster because I was refused permission to look at his papers by the Eliot estate. My agent said that the parallel narratives of the 18th century and the present day that form the backbone of Hawksmoor [a literary thriller about Satanism in east London] wouldn't sell. I was vindicated by the success of both books. They were real breakthroughs for me: my body of work based around the theme of London began then. I gained confidence in my own judgement."
Ackroyd won't be drawn into saying which of his works he considers most highly, although it's clear that his biographies of William Blake (1994) and Thomas More (1998) are favourites simply because he refers to them most in conversation. "I'm more like a musician who writes operas, sonatas and symphonies, and should be judged upon the oeuvre rather than one piece. However, I never reread my work and I never read my published reviews. I don't deem myself successful: I'm always wanting to write a better piece. Also, regarding feeling successful, living in England affects me. Here no one comes and lauds me in the street like they might, say, Gunter Grass in Germany. The English don't celebrate their writers. I feel very alone here, but I suppose I like it that way. I'm not an introspective person, so I don't care what people think of me. I just get on with my work; I'm driven from within to write about events outside of me. I'll never write about myself."
On a personal level, though, the death of Brian Kuhn contributed to his increasing his rate of literary production to near-suicidal levels: a novel or biography a year since 1994. "Brian's illness was a shock, but it stopped me being frightened of death. It was a definite watershed. I sold my mansion in Devon and moved to London permanently. After he died, I employed a full-time research assistant, Thomas Wright, who does a lot of my research in the British Library. I now have a new partner, Carl."
But the heart attack has made him re-evaluate priorities. "It's made me realise that I have no right to be depressed. I suppose my excessive drinking and industry had made me feel quite low. But now I feel rejuvenated, ready to live another 50 years. I'm currently working on a history of the English imagination, which should keep me occupied well into the next millennium. But I am going to enjoy life more now, take more breaks, go for walks and listen to music, a love of mine. I find the music of Byrd and Tallis very soothing."
I left Peter Ackroyd feeling oddly uplifted. Having expected to disinter doom and gloom, I discovered spirit and optimism. This great man of letters, who has produced one of the most influential novels of the past 50 years, Hawksmoor, and some of the best biographies of the century, has, on the edge of death, discovered a new vitality, a renewed will to live. The publication, in August next year, of the book that nearly killed him, his monumental Biography of London, is likely to be one of the most important texts to herald the new millennium.