‘To take risks,’ said Nietzsche, ‘is to remain scrupulous.’ Few do it better than Peter Ackroyd, the conventional, punctilious surface of his novels habitually undermined by strange metaphysical conceits, Gothic melodrama, farce and capering antiquarianism. Ackroyd braves the accusation of self-indulgence in pursuit of a more exact truthfulness about the oddity of the world we inhabit, balancing his taste for the curious and absurd with penetrating reflections on fiction, time and memory. The result is novels which should appeal equally to the common reader and the funkiest theoretician. He is a great intellectual populariser without the frequent shortcoming of the breed, the urge to skimp on complexity. Once again, in English Music we are confronted with a typically unpromising Ackroyd premise: the history of English art and letters refracted through the memoirs of a lower-middle-class visionary and illusionist. Once again he has himself pulled the rabbit out of the hat, producing a book which is on the one hand a disciplined and touching study of the father/son relationship and on the other a daring exploration of the meaning of English culture.
Outwardly, though, the story is rather dull. The narrator, Timothy Harcombe, starts out as a child assisting his father at East End spiritualist meetings. His mother being dead, he is raised in the middle of an extended family of shabby-genteel invalids and misfits and shows a startling propensity to fall