PETER ACKROYD IS fascinated by the associations that particular places take on over the centuries and which come to define their character. ‘The history of London’, he argued in his marvellous, slightly mad book London: The Biography, ‘is a palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths.’ Take Clerkenwell, on the western edge of the square mile, for example. It has been a centre of radical activity for the past six hundred years. Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, camped on Clerkenwell Green after torching the nearby priory of St John. Chartists, Fenians, suffragettes and trade unionists have all gone there to rally support for their causes. William Morris and Eleanor Marx addressed crowds from a balcony of what is now the Marx Memorial Library, also on the edge of the Green. There, in 1902, Lenin edited his newspaper Iskra from a small first-floor office.
Ackroyd’s latest novel is a meditation on the fourteenth-century origins of this radical aspect of Clerkenwell’s history. It seethes with conspiracies, plots and counterplots. The story unfolds in 1399. Sister Clarice, a nun at the House of St Mary, is having visions of King Richard 11’s imminent deposition by Henry Bolingbroke. News of these visions has begun to spread. Some say the nun is mad; others believe she is divinely inspired and that she prophesies the truth. Meanwhile, a series of attacks on local churches, thought by many to be the work of a heretical sect known as the Lollards, fuels the unrest and speculation. The people grow increasingly agitated day by day. ‘It was as if the city were bracing itself for a fever. There were citizens moving about from street to street, or from lane to lane, with intense looks of fear and amazement.’
More sinister forces than the Lollards, it turns out, are at work. At the dark heart of the action is Dorninus, a secret group of high-ranking men ruthlessly committed to political change. The story hurtles along in short chapters which elegantly blend fact, fiction and literary allusion, as a plucky physician, Thomas Gunter, pits himself against the forces of Dominus, led by a murderous Augustinian friar, William Exmewe. As one would expect of Ackroyd, the city itself is as important a dramatic presence as any of the principal characters. Every page is busy with evocations of the sights, sounds and smells of medieval London:
They were in the street called St Martin, with its row of four-storey houses on either side. In front of them some stew was being boiled in a cauldron on a hot bowl of coals, and an ancient woman skimmed off its fat with a perforated spoon. A tooth-drawer, with a wreath of teeth draped over hls shoulders, passed them and then looked back with an expression of delight as he loitered among the street-stalls piled hlgh with garlic and wheat, cheese and poultry. The late rains had left the street reeking of night-old vegetables and piss.
Occasionally, in his hurry to convey a sense of the similarly pungent spoken language of the period, Ackroyd resorts to list-making, as when he introduces a splendidly articulate brothel-keeper: ‘She had many words for men like Miles Vavasour who came in search of young women – lorrel, loricart, lowt, slow-back, hedge-creeper, looby, lobcock, crafty Jack, longlubber, hopharlot – each with its own range of allusion and association.’
It is hard not to feel that there is an element of donnish playfulness to the whole enterprise: the Chaucerian allusions; the clever weaving into the story of real-life figures and events; the teasingly obscure notes. But in the end all that is largely irrelevant to the main appeal of the book. The Clerkenwell Tales is a gripping thriller which also happens to be wondehlly full of engaging historical detail and conversation-enhancing words like ‘hedge-creeper’, ‘longlubber’ and ‘hopharlot’.