Books & Literature

Book Review: The History of England Vol VI: Innovation, by Peter Ackroyd

HISTORY: Innovation brings Peter Ackroyd’s History of England to a triumphant close.

Disappointing, but still highly readable.

Peter Ackroyd is an historian, biographer, novelist, and researcher of awe-inspiring breadth. He is renowned for his novels such as Hawksmoor, and his biographies of Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More, amongst others. His love for London is evidenced in his London: The Biography, and Thames: Sacred River, both of which are notable for their depth of research, and their unique structure.

In 2011, he began what would become a six-volume series: The History of England: Innovation is the sixth and final volume.

To jam the history of England in the 20th century into 500 pages seems a tad ambitious, but if anyone can do it, it would be Ackroyd. He has chosen to write in very short chapters (there are 63 of them), which certainly keeps the work pacey. There are no times when it feels bogged down in necessary but tedious detail, as can happen in some works of history. The master still knows how to make a work highly readable.

However, its rollicking pace also bespeaks seemingly superficial research and a glaring lack of Ackroyd’s usual depth. In deciding to cover political, economic, cultural, and social history in one small volume, he has produced a work that is often a shallow mish-mash.

For example, the teddy-boy phenomena of the 1950s gets several paragraphs, while the London smog, which killed thousands and lead to significant changes in environmental legislation, gets one. The sections on music border on the cringeful, with some of the information not just shallow, but inaccurate. Structurally, we get one paragraph on art, then we jump to something happening in Whitehall and then back over to women’s fashion, with little structural sense.

Innovation reads like a solid first-year university term-paper. It feels like a work that was rushed-to-print, along with attendant poor editing. The masterful Ackroyd we know and love is in there somewhere, and he has his moments. Sadly, they are few.

For someone who is unfamiliar with his previous work, this is a respectable, interesting, and certainly highly readable, work of history. It is an excellent introduction to 20th century English history, and in that its idiosyncratic structure works well. The reader is given a taste of politics, art, economics, and everything in between.

This is a good Christmas gift for the general reader interested in history. A bit of a let-down for anyone wanting something deeper.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan
Released: September 2021
RRP: $36.99

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

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