Don't have any more, Mrs Moore. Is Peter Ackroyd a cockney mystic or one of our greatest scholars? A visionary or bombast? Will Self on the man who would be king of literary London

Albion: the origins of the English imagination

Peter Ackroyd <em>Chatto & Windus, 516pp, £25</em>

I feel my grandfather would have appreciated this book. Albert Henry Self was the son of the conductor on the Number 11 tram. A Fulham boy, he was waiting table in a cafe when a patron spotted his ability to add the bill up with a single saccade of his bulbous blue eyes. The cafe's patron became my grandfather's, putting him through school and sponsoring him while he took the civil service examinations. Henry Self ended up as a heavyweight mandarin, Beaverbrook's permanent undersecretary during the war and, latterly, chairman of the Electricity Board. A Knight of the Garter, and one time President of the Laity of the Church of England, in his old age, my grandfather's cockney origins only emerged when he'd had an extra Guinness or three over lunch. On these occasions, he'd beat time with his knife on the table and give us a rousing chorus of "Don't Have Any More, Mrs Moore", much to the consternation of my authentically genteel grandmother, who'd bleat: "Really Henry!"

Down in the basement of their terraced Brighton house, Grandad laboured to complete his magnum opus, a three-volume work entitled The Divine Indwelling, which he hoped would reconcile science, Christianity, eastern mysticism and the new-fangled existentialism. A remorseless autodidact, Grandad had employed his eidetic memory to gain no fewer than 11 extramural degrees from London university during his 30-odd years commuting on the Brighton Belle. Grandad, like me, was afflicted with a strabismus, a condition he sought to alleviate through practical ophthalmology. He believed he had found the cure in the form of a combination of six different lenses, and in breaks between working on his book he could be seen patrolling the neighbourhood with six pairs of spectacles strapped to his imposingly bald cranium.

Before he too expired from a surfeit of prolixity, my father repeatedly enjoined me to "do something" about The Divine Indwelling, but I had to confess that on reading even two or three pages of the work, all I could say for it was: "Grandad suffered for his learning - and now it's our turn." None of which is intended to lead you to the conclusion that Peter Ackroyd's new book is a misguided exercise in philosophical bombasticism, suitable only for a vanity press. Still, Albion and its author do share much with my grandfather and his literary aspirations.

Like The Divine Indwelling, Albion is a work that aims to be compendious and inclusive. Ackroyd views the English imagination as synthetic rather than analytic, empirical rather than logico-deductive, concrete rather than abstract. And like The Divine Indwelling, Albion is an attempt to fuse many disparate intellectual elements, if not into workable system, at least into a concrete and tenable object. In common with Henry Self, Peter Ackroyd is a variety of cockney visionary - the term he himself bestows on his favoured posse of Hogarth, Blake, Dickens et al - who has partially adopted the discourse of hierarchy. In my grandfather's case, this took the form of wielding power in civil society, while in Ackroyd's there is the steady accretion of literary pre-eminence. Fortunately, there is one regard in which they conspicuously differ: Ackroyd can write.

In attempting to give us a grand tour of the English imagination, Ackroyd employs the same discursive method that he used to such brilliant effect in London: the biography. But while in that work each chapter offered a peregrination through space and time that simultaneously mapped the evolving character of neighbourhoods while analysing their topography, in Albion, the core motif is the "interlace structure" shared by both Anglo-Saxon poetry and embroidery. Like these, Albion affords Ackroyd the opportunity to weave his word-craft into "a pattern of contrast and recapitulation so that the effect is of formal intricacy and immediacy rather than any linear development". He comes at his subject again and again from different angles, so the meat of the text is informed by the contrast between the apparently ceaseless stream of new references and the revisiting of those Ackroydian favourites we have come to rely on.

Ackroyd calls our attention to the euphuism of seventh and eighth century texts, with their lavish display of archaisms, Grecisms and neologisms. He points out the persistence of this "deliberate parody of learning" in the work of two of his fellow travellers - Thomas Browne and Richard Burton - but we can mark it in his own style as well. All literary texts display a fondness for one word above all others, and in Albion this is "adverted", a tocsin of a term that calls our attention to the author's "redactions", "exequys", "velleities" and "divigations". These would be tiresome - and besides the point - were it not that Ackroyd can also be perfectly bluntly spoken when he wishes.

Indeed, there seems in this contrast, between clarity and complexity (or even contrivance), one of the fundamental contradictions of Albion. Its author wishes it both (or even all) ways. He wants to establish an unbroken line between Old English and the modern tongue, while stoutly maintaining the vital importance of its hybridisation with Latin and French. He wishes to hymn the "serpentine line" with its percussive use of alliteration, while also fixing our attention, through a myriad of example, on just how alien the antediluvian language is to our own. As if by analogy with this, Ackroyd searches through the thickets of consonants for the irreducible Englishness of certain poetical or pictorial ideas, before animadverting (on page 168) that "we may recognise that the origins of the English imagination are not wholly to be found in England". He goes further, bringing forward Ezra Pound to remark that: "English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer."

I've had cause to remark before in these pages quite how much Ackroyd is our own, contemporary John Stow. There is a reproduction in Albion of an engraving of Stow himself, which suggests an uncanny physical resemblance between the two scholars as well. Like the antiquarians of the 16th and 17th centuries, Ackroyd undertakes a search for the relics of England's past in the belief that they represent some "inkling of what England is really like". His own works increasingly resemble a palimpsest, with historical references sewn one to the other, then lovingly worked over. But whether it can be asserted that "The advantage of English historicism is that it allows contemporary events and preoccupations to be observed in the context of a transcendent past" is debatable, if the key designator is taken to be "English". After all, it's just this view of a "transcendent past" that infected Nazism.

In any event, if Ackroyd wishes to maintain his curiously contrary view of English imagination, at once pure and mongrel, why doesn't he bring the whole enterprise up to the present day? Albion ceases at the turn of the 19th century, with Ackroyd's central trope - the bird flitting through Beowulf's Saxon hall - metamorphosing into Vaughan Williams's lark ascending. But what, I wonder, could he make of the latter half of the 20th century, when the English imagination engaged in promiscuously potent couplings with American, Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean and Asian sensibilities?

No, Ackroyd is on paradoxically firmer ground by remaining in the misty past, where "dreams are interwoven with the fabric of the English imagination". But what a survey of the oeneric landscape can this be, where there is no ambit for the psychoanalytical? On the notion of the "involute" in De Quincey's work (which many now see as an anticipation of the Freudian unconscious), Ackroyd is effectively silent. He accepts that "in this potent mood (ie, embarrassment) may lie one of the uses of dream", but he himself appears too embarrassed to enlarge on it. By the same token, it's difficult to engage deeply with the author's dissection of the place of the miniature in English imagination, when he refuses to admit the insights of Levi-Strauss. In The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss points out that all distortions in scale are a move to "sacrifice the sensible in favour of the intelligible". But while Ackroyd concedes that the English propensity for creating "fantastic miniature worlds" may have something to do with arrested sexuality, Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, along with other examples of English "nonsense", is bizarrely attributed to "some embarrassment at 'sense', or . . . reluctance to make any grand statement".

In truth, the more this reader bored into Albion, like some strange critical geologist taking a core sample of a paper world, the more I reached the conclusion that this "endless enchanted circle" was really Planet Ackroyd. The characteristics that the author ascribes to the national spirit-made-manifest (if that is what English imagination can be said to be) are mostly those that we know inhere in him and his own work. A weighty sense of the ghost of England's "old religion": a rambunctious juxtaposition of the high and the low; a pervasive "dustceawung" (or melancholic apprehension of the decay of all things); a pervasive sense of irony; sexual embarrassment, and so on. Ackroyd makes much of the place of London in the English imagination, suggesting that the novel itself is a "London form"; but it's difficult to imagine him making this contention quite so strongly if he himself were unashamedly White Rose. And by the same token, it's hard to imagine that he would protest quite so strongly for biography itself as one of the primary constituents of the English imagination, were he himself not such an accomplished biographer.

But what do any of these cavils matter? In the face of Ackroyd's sonorousness, his inclusiveness, his ability to project a central column of text into his readers' minds, while decorating the margins of our consciousness with the "babooneries" of medieval illuminated manuscripts, such objections appear petty. Ackroyd is an encyclopaedist, universalist, a cultural critic on the grand scale, whose own method is "syncretic and additive", like that of his imagined English imagination. He is masterful on the place of the female imagination, fascinating on the relationship between English Romanticism and plagiarism (with particularly notable sections on Chatterton and Ossian), and he plays a notably straight bat on English empiricism.

The strength of his linkages between the visual and literary aspects of the English imagination is evinced as much by the superb choice of illustrations in the book as by anything Ackroyd writes. It doesn't matter whether his argument stands up to criticism, because I don't think that he's advancing one at all. Rather, he's taking us by the hand and leading us for a stroll around the tumultuous rookeries of his effortlessly acquired erudition.

Unlike my grandfather's The Divine Indwelling, I never had the sensation for an instant, when reading this book, that Ackroyd gained anything but pleasure from deploying his learning. I think Grandad would have appreciated that - while also envying it terribly. But then, perhaps, that too is an aspect of the English imagination?

Will Self's most recent novel is Dorian: an imitation (Penguin)