After David Bowie died, (was it really over two years ago? it feels like yesterday), I added my own ‘Bowie Book Club‘ page to my blog with his 100 favourite books. I had no plans to read them systematically, but hoped to read or re-read at least a few of them, and read about some of the others. Then after Christmas, Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, announced he was going to make a project out of it. He announced his first choice from the list, picking Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor as an ‘amuse cerveau’. The second book will be announced on Feb 1st. I dug out my old copy and here’s what I thought of it second time around…
Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
Ackroyd’s third novel was published in 1985, going on to win the Whitbread Award and Guardian Fiction Prize. My old and slightly tanned paperback dates from 1988, and I’m pretty sure I read it around then and remember loving and being mystified by the novel in equal measure. Returning to it thirty years later, I could remember the basic outline, if not the detail of the book.
Hawksmoor is a very structured novel. There are dual timelines: we begin in the early 18th century, and then move to the book’s present in the 1980s – the two timelines alternate strictly. The novel is also split into two parts, with chapter six introducing a new main character and thus a new train of thought into the present day timeline.
Back to the early 1700s, we’re in the workroom of one Nicholas Dyer, an architect, who with his assistant Walter, is devising the plans for seven new churches in and around the city of London.
There was a Noise in the adjoining Chamber (it is two Rooms struck into one, and thus has more of an Eccho), a Noise like to someone’s quick Steps and I broke off my Discourse as Sir Chris. walk’d in, accouter’d as the Boys that run with the Gazette – Hat under Arm, and Breathless, and yet despite his Age not so corpulent neither. Walter rose up in a great fright and spilt the Inke upon his Draught (which was no great Loss), but Sir Chris. did not perceive anything of this and stepp’d up to me wheezing like an old Goat. Master Dyer, says he, the Commission are expecting your Report on the New Churches: if it be not done already get it done now, since they are in great Hast-
-Hast is for Fools, I murmur’d beneath my Breath.
And your Church in the Spittle-Fields, is it near complete?
It needs only the Lead on the Portico.
Well make hast to buy it now, since Lead is under 9L a tun bt in a fair way to go up by next month. And then Sir Chris. stood biting his under-lip like an Infant without his Toy or a Wretch at the Foot of the Gallows. And the other Churches, he asks after a Pause, are they well advanc’d? (page7)
Sir Chris. is Sir Christopher Wren, whom the real-life Nicholas Hawksmoor, the model for Ackroyd’s Dyer , worked for. As you can see the text is written very much in the style of 18th C novels with lots of extra Capital letters and period Spellings (very much in the manner of Pepys). Also, where there is no dialogue, there are few paragraphs, so we have a wall of text in the vernacular of the time – quite intimidating.
Dyer starts telling us about himself, how when he was alone in London as a boy, he was taken in by a man called Mirabilis and inducted into his mystic Satanic cult. Dyer became a stone mason before beginning to work for Wren, finally landing the job to design seven new churches in the City of London. (The real Hawksmoor only designed six). The two men are chalk and cheese – Sir Chris. is a student of the enlightenment, interested in the sciences, whereas Dyer inhabits a darker world, and it’s not long before we realise that the foundations of each of Dyer’s churches will be laid with a sacrifice.
We now turn to the present day, and immediately there are echoes of the past in the here and now as a boy falls into an old tunnel in the grounds of Spitalfields church and dies. You can, perhaps guess how the next few alternating chapters will go – another church, another new death… Then we reach Part Two and meet Detective Chief Superintendent Hawksmoor, who has been put in charge of the investigation into three deaths at Spitalfields, Limehouse and Wapping.
This had been the district of the CID to which he had been attached for some years, before he was assigned to the Murder Squad, and he had come to know it well: he knew where the thieves lived, where the prostitutes gathered, and where the vagrants came. He grew to understand that most criminals tend to remain in the same districts, continuing their activities until they were arrested, and he sometimes speculated that these same areas had been used with similar intent for centuries past: even murderers, who rapidly became Hawksmoor’s speciality, rarely moved from the same spot but killed again and again until they were discovered. (page 116)
This is what Hawksmoor hopes is happening now too. It’s only a matter of time before he gets his man. But there is something very slippery in the air around these churches. We continue to alternate between Hawksmoor’s investigation and Dyer’s increasingly manic exploits as he works towards finishing his great project.
The two timelines are so cleverly wound around each other, you can really believe that Hawksmoor and Dyer inhabit a sort of continuum in which they coexist in each other’s ether, so to speak. The ghostly resonances provide confusion and distraction for the detective who can feel the history at work. Both timelines are also peppered with snatches of nursery rhymes and songs from the 18thC which add an eerie soundtrack.
I found in my re-read that I was a little impatient to get to Part Two where we meet Hawksmoor, and it did take a while to get immersed into Dyer’s world. This is a dark and serious novel – there is little of the bawdiness that I found in Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree (reviewed here) which was also set around the same period. Ackroyd uses little of the ‘flash’ dialect of the thieving classes, who feature so strongly in Arnott’s novel. What the two books do share is a love of London.
Ackroyd’s novels are full of London – its history, its geography, its people, and its hidden ways. He is one of our foremost novelists about the city and once again reading Hawksmoor I found myself looking up pictures of the real Hawksmoor churches and wondering about their real architect, I also revelled in the detective’s walks to the Thames and churhes at Limehouse and Wapping – an area much beloved of East End crime dramas.
I also found a rather wonderful essay An Occult Psychogeography of Hawksmoor’s London Churches here, which is inspired by Alan Moore’s book From Hell (which in turn was inspired by Ackroyd who had been inspired by a poem by Iain Sinclair in Lud Heat to write Hawksmoor – phew!)
This novel was so worth re-reading. Thirty years on, I understood everything much better, I recognised the history behind it and appreciated Ackroyd’s style and expertise – it’s not for nothing that I own more books written by Ackroyd than any other author – I just haven’t read them all yet! (10/10)
Source: Own copy
Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (1985) Abacus paperback, 218 pages.