15 December 2012

Other people’s lives

In the past few weeks I’ve either started or finished: For Richer For Poorer, Victoria Coren; A Moment of War, Laurie Lee; Robinson Crusoe; and Dracula. If the topic crops up in conversation I proclaim that I don’t read biographies, particularly autobiographies. That is obviously a lie.

I just that I don’t understand the obsession with autobiographies. Every person that’s every wandered through a TV studio seems to have a book out, with Christmas coming a whole swath is advancing on us. I go to football, I have a season ticket, every couple of weeks I brave the weekend assault course that is TFL’s engineering works and make my way across London. I’ve seen most Premiership footballers over the years, and not once have I ever thought as I walk out of the stadium “that angry balding forward seems rather erudite, I’ll buy his book on the way home”.

I look around our home and find a few biographies scattered around, a few I’ve read, a few I’ve not. Beau Brummel and Groucho Marx glare at me, their turn will come, Winston Churchill will get a reread, I’m not sure Marilyn Monroe will make the cut. 

In the late eighties, after seeing the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears we bought the book. Which is unusual as it's usually vice versa. I’d not heard of Joe Orton before although I’d seen Loot one late night on television. Orton’s diaries underpin John Lahr’s biography, therefore, The Orton Diaries were next. They in turn lead to The Kenneth Williams Diaries, edited by Russell Davies. Williams to my generation was the camp one from the Carry On films, a stalwart of Radio 4 gameshows (Mrs RB still finds it amusing that a working class boy in his shared bedroom on a council estate did his homework to Radio 4) and later he appeared on chat shows, usually Wogan with his range of funny voices and caustic wit. His diaries reveal a darker character, and read alongside Orton’s, a fascinating window on the Swinging Sixties, it seems that some people swung more than others. I wonder to whom they were writing, an imaginary audience, future or present, or for themselves?

Williams did produce an autobiography; Orton didn’t have a chance to, would he have done? Would it have been as revealing as his diaries? Did either of them want they diaries to come into the public domain?

Diaries can reveal more of the writer than a self edited autobiography or a sanitised biography. Possibly the most famous diary of all time, with a raised hand in apology to Samuel Pepys, is Anne Frank’s. Last time I read her diaries was just after a visit to her house in Amsterdam. I’ve been there a few times, this time reading her diaries with the house fresh in my memory and maybe with the fact that my daughters were of comparable age brought home the desperate reality of her words. I wanted to learn more about her, but of course you can’t, what we know of Anne Frank is what she has allowed us to know.

Anne Frank had started to rewrite her diaries for possible broadcast or publication after the war, but if she had survived would she have allowed her teenage diaries to be released for all to read? Would we have read them?


  1. Good biographies are often much better than autobiographies and can spark an interest like you point out. My example is 'If this is Man' a novel by Primo Levi. I had never heard of him and a friend told me to read his biography. I did. Suddenly I had to go buy his book. Then I bought his next book. You mention Anne Frank so maybe Levi's books are up your ally as they are semi autobiographical but to separate himself from the horror he changes some things and invents others. Would not have picked him up without the biography, I thought I had read enough about the Holocaust.
    I mentioned Virginia Woolf before. Loads written about her but if you look at sources they all cite the biography by Quentin Bell. Also worth a read...
    And finally there are the memoirs which can be truly awful and sentimental but not the ones about Iris Murdoch by her husband. Like any other book in any genre there is good stuff and bad stuff and some a matter of taste.
    On a final note, I loved your comment about the balding forward. you are absolutely right. How about the early 20's starlets with their books and sage advice? Does the argument "at least people are reading" hold for that kind of stuff in print?
    What a long reply... sorry.

  2. I agree generally, this blog got swallowed by the great laptop disaster of '12, and I couldn't get the flow back into it. I was in Selfridges and walking through the book department (accidentally) I saw a whole section, although labelled 'biography' were celebrity auto. Bradley Wiggins, OK I suppose but...; Arnie, yeah I'll go with that; Amanda Hart? seriously?

    It's a difficult subject to broach, it is people 'who don't read' who read celebs autos, I'm always surprised on holiday by the weighty hardbacks that people have heaved over on the plane to read by the pool, with baggage restrictions that has cost them and as you have mentioned there are a lot of good biographies out there that would be worth the effort, Laurie Lee's autobiographical prose for instance.

    I didn't really listen to The Rolling Stones until I read Phillip Norman's biography, but on the other hand I wish I kept away from Ackroyd's Dickens biography, nothing against the book, but Dickens himself seems to have been a bit of a luvvie and it doesn't add to my enjoyment of his work.

    I always held the 'at least they are reading' as a good starting point but if people are only reading that stuff, maybe they should just read the back of a cornflake packet. Then I'm not sure how many of the copies are actually read.

    I did have a line which I deleted about subverted the genre and persuading Katie Andre-Price to write an in-depth critical biography of Jordan. I'm not sure if that would be playing into their hands or not, irony has been overused and it would sell despite the obvious sarcasm.

    Long replies are good, it does seem as if I'm writing to thin air, and by the way the cat story is the most read, as daughter number 2 says 'it's the most interesting, it's the only one that doesn't talk about books'. And she reads.

  3. Ignore Daughter 2. It's all a matter of taste after all... reading ABOUT books can be as useless to some people as autobiographies. As for the cat, well, nothing sells like gore. Imagine how many hits you would have received if the head had come off while you were moving it etc...

  4. i would ignore her but she's in charge. As for the cat the most frequent question is 'How did it get there?' My question is why did it decide to shuffle off in my loft!

  5. For an answer to your questions you could hold a seance, invite daughter number 2, a mate from the pub and one nosey neighbor and then write about it... Now THAT I would read.