Peter Ackroyd's The Clerkenwell Tales (review)

Peter Ackroyd The Clerkenwell Tales Chatto & Windus £15.99

- review from The Independent

In his city 'biography', London, Peter Ackroyd devotes fourteen pages to Clerkenwell, and remarks that "the secret life of Clerkenwell, like its well, goes very deep." In his new novel The Clerkenwell Tales, he attempts to lower his bucket into 1399, and to re-create the sights and sounds of Clerkenwell itself - and with his famous obsession with London's past, this is something he is pre-eminently qualified to do. He knows the roads, the habits and habiliments of its people, the incidents, the stench of the Fleet. He brings the reader up short with Clerkenwell's catchphrases, its potions, its noises off, and the stink of its sewers, too. He knows its stuff.

But The Clerkenwell Tales, as a novel, is a major miscalculation. It does neither what Ackroyd says it will do, nor what its peculiarly excitable blurb alleges it will do. The problem springs principally from the attempt to lash the novel to Chaucer, the action being set in what is always presumed to be the last year of Chaucer's life. Hence not only the title, but the structure. Ackroyd opens by suggesting we will "recall" - this is when we have just passed the contents page - that "many of the characters within this narrative are also to be found in The Canterbury Tales". The dustjacket has already told us to expect "the whole cast of The Canterbury Tales, each of them with a different story." To say this is misleading is an understatement.

The novel is divided into twenty-three chapters, called "The Prioress's Tale", "The Shipman's Tale", "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale", and so on. That's to say, there are as many chapters as there were tale-tellers in Chaucer's unfinished epic. In each of these chapters, a representative of the appropriate pilgrim puts in an appearance, sometimes substantial, sometimes minor. One or two (the Summoner and Pardoner, say) are quite like the originals. Others (the Cook, the Squire) are completely unalike. The advantages of the structure are plain enough. It reminds the reader that Chaucer's world was rooted in reality, social, political and domestic. It allows Ackroyd to make brilliant - really brilliant - plunder of the language and behaviour and culture of The Canterbury Tales. There is a constant, skilful reverberation of echoes from Chaucer.

But Ackroyd is trying to tell a story, too, and his artificial game-plan requires him to work in a manciple, reeve, miller, and so on, at regular intervals. This capsizes the enterprise almost entirely, because it fills the tale with occasional characters, until it is thoroughly distracting. He has to cheat, too: his Wife of Bath is neither from Somerset, nor a weaver. She is a powerful brothel-keeper who has once run a bath-house. Hence her name.

There is another problem. Ackroyd's colossal store of information - exciting, fascinating, expertly researched - sometimes overcomes the narrative, so that its middle chapters are freighted down with repetitive sentences which begin "Then," "He", "There", "The", or "It". It's most curious - scraps of exotic, witty, and wonderful fact or observation are regaled to us in rhythmically deadened prose. This detracts from Ackroyd's particular interest - the involvement of a shadowy, masonic clique called "Dominus" in the exchange of kings, from Richard II to Henry IV.

The Clerkenwell Tales might have been better off as plain Clerkenwell. As it is, we settle for the cracking pleasures of his descriptions of buildings, religious rituals and riots, food and drink, and (especially) medicine. Apply the dung of doves to the soles of your feet to make you sleep. Only cut warts from your neck in Taurus. Ackroyd's devilry is in this sort of detail; not in the plot.

From The Independent