Sorting through the books in my study the other night I came across a deeply recherché item: Peter Ackroyd’s Notes for a New Culture, published as long ago as 1976, never reprinted and now omitted from the great man’s bibliographies. The date on the flyleaf reads ‘October 1982’, and instantly the circumstances in which it was obtained came rushing back into my head: the scraped acquaintance; the tentative note; the brown paper parcel left for collection at the offices of The Spectator; and the accompanying letter in which Ackroyd, making adroit use of the double negative, claimed that ‘he wasn’t sure that he didn’t entirely disagree with it all’.
At the time, though hugely admiring of the author, I remember being faintly puzzled by this self-deprecating disavowal of the book’s knotty and determinedly highbrow thesis. How, I wondered, could you renege on a theory about the ‘secret history of modernism’ that had taken two years of a Yale University Mellon Fellowship to formulate? Surely, to narrow the