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?