Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
“I have liv’d long enough for others,
Like the Dog in the Wheel,
And it is now the Season to begin for myself:
I cannot change that Thing call’d Time,
But I can alter its Posture and,
As Boys do turn a looking-glass against the Sunne,
So I will dazzle you all.”
Who starts a book review with lyrics from Ziggy Stardust?
One could be forgiven for attributing this proclamation to David Bowie’s extra-terrestrial alter-ego. However, these words spill from the journal of Nicholas Dyer, the nefarious 18th century architect whose flair for design is matched by a desire to enact a bloody plot. It is this amalgam of science and the occult that Hawksmoor becomes the inaugural choice for David Bowie Book Club. Selected from a list of Bowie’s top 100 books as of 2013 it is the brainchild of Duncan Jones, honouring his “beast of a reader” father and his love of literature.
Hawksmoor is a split personality, Nicholas Dyer’s first-person account (ye olde-world Englysh – warts and all) come across as a satanic version of Mister Hyde. From the infinitesimal detail of his commissioning seven churches around the city of London to the inclusion of hermetic symbology, Old Nick relishes the opportunity to describe every part of his Machiavellian scheme: transforming his churches into thousand-year monuments dedicated to the Serpent, Baphomet and Maskim alike. The elegant script decries his contempt toward humanity alongside gleeful admissions of human sacrifice upon the consecrated ground.
Two centuries later and it begs the question: does Nicholas Dyer still wander within the church walls?
Enter DCS Nicholas Hawksmoor. Methodical, obsessive and aloof, the titular character is on the hunt for a serial killer who is hell-bent on desecrating the same hallowed ground where Dyer committed his crimes 250 years earlier. His languid nature is portrayed in the third-person, a 20th century Doctor Jekyll unaware he is chasing an ancient Hyde and his grim observations casting a pall over the city of London.
Hawksmoor is a devilish fictionalisation of Peter Ackroyd’s London. One gains a sense of the author’s delight in capturing the spirits that haunt the city, becoming most evident when the antagonist Dyer enthusiastically describes the townspeople’s horrified reactions to the Great Fire of 1666. Ackroyd’s uncanny ability to place you within his city is renowned, his non-fiction series The History of England is a lively retelling that sets aside certain truths to allow his saga to unfold.
Perhaps it is the duelling personalities of Dyer and Hawksmoor that resonated most with Bowie, known best for his various stage personae, possibly seeing shades of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke within each character. Ziggy (Dyer) is the stronger voice in the narrative, and is determined to herald catastrophe, the destruction of humanity and the beginning of a New World Order. While Detective Hawksmoor reflects the bleak outlook that is the Duke, impassive and unable to comprehend the actions of those around him, existing as a detached guardian patrolling the darkest corners of the city.
Maybe I should lay off the milk and peppers for a while and finish this review with a lyric from the Thin White Duke:
‘I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years,
Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.’