Biographies

I am an inveterate reader of biographies. Being (just about) a relative youngster myself, there is something fascinating about being privy to someone’s entire character arc throughout the course of their life. Also seeing how different people handle the various stages and struggles of life is always interesting – I sometimes read through sections of a biography when the protagonist is going through the same kind of scene, if only for motivational purposes! It is always worth remembering that all things have occurred before – this can only reduce any hubris and increase your empathy. (It’s one of the ways that you can always tell people who are well-read, if they read the right books: they have a humane empathy beyond their actual life experiences).

Unfortunately it seems to me there are two kinds of biography: literary, academic biographies, and the bog-standard kind. The former are distinguished (I use the word deliberately) by their intensive footnoting and historian’s evaluation of sources. They are likely to have several hundred footnotes citing sources per chapter, an extensive bibliography, and a critical evaluation of the work of their subject. Proper. Your bog-standard, common-or-garden biographies contrariwise will cite no footnotes, nor cite any sources, and often will rehash commonly told stories or indeed myths. (For example, I must have read a dozen Beatle, Lennon, and McCartney biographies: nearly all state what (if anything) happened between Lennon and Brian Epstein sexually, but not one (not a solitary one!) has ever cited a source for it. And at the bottom of the pile is the clippings job, a hurried book compiled from newspaper sources (“clippings”) rather than interviews or textual research. These are truly the bastard children of the genre.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a great desire to write a biography of John Lennon in his Beatle years (1960-1970), as I don’t think he has yet received the biography he deserves. Ah, if only I had the time – the despairing cry of every half-assed writer to ever live! But wanting to do this has made me try to look at the biographer’s craft more objectively, and to consider which are the cream of the crop.

Wilde: The Biography by Richard Ellman

Hands-down, the best biog I have ever read. The thing about Wilde is that his story is better than most of his written work. To me, only his essays (particularly The Soul of Man Under Socialism), some of his childrens stories (especially The Selfish Giant, which left me awestruck the first time I read it) and The Importance of Being Earnest stand as irrefutable classics. His poems are stews of Hellenic references and overwrought aestheticism (with too many “methinks” for comfort), his other plays successful West End dramas but nothing ultimately memorable. But of course as Wilde said he put his talent into his work and his genius into his life, and the stories of how he conquered London, America, and Paris are rich with wonderful anecdotes and majestic phrases. The drama of his downfall gave Wilde the moral authority to criticise his era no-one else: the 1890s remain the Wilde decade.

This is all captured with magisterial aplomb by Ellman. Magnificently researched, told with acute relish and a gift for  epigram, he tells the story of how Wilde symbolised his age with vast learning and deep humanity.

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs by Ted Morgan

As a rebellious smartarse, I read Naked Lunch (and even The Soft Machine, Junky and Queer) as a teenager. I don’t think any of them are much good these days (though Naked Lunch is the best of them – it has an absolutely ferocious humour), but it has to be said Burroughs lived an absolutely fascinating life. Born in 1914, he studied in Vienna between the wars, lived  in New York (inaugurating the Beats), Texas and Mexico, hunted yage in the Columbian jungle, lived a half-life as a junky in Tangiers, wrote “cut-up” texts with Brion Gysin in Paris, met the demi-monde in London, was feted as a punk precursor in New York then retired, like Dorothy, to Kansas. The salacious content of Burroughs’ life – the William Tell death of his wife, his homosexuality, his drug addiction – is handled with empathy and tact by Morgan, though there are some curious lapses. At one point after Naked Lunch, Burroughs seems to go through some intense heterosexual phase (gasping in a letter that “I must have some cunt”), but what happened to revert things to normal isn’t mentioned. Nor is enough made of “The Yage Letters” to Allen Ginsberg. Despite these, this is a tour-de-force, a fantastic introduction to the Beats, and Burroughs’ central place in the American counterculture.

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion

Larkin’s reputation took a shredding when his biography and Selected Letters came out. Fair enough; he was evidently a racist pisshead, in his latter years anyroads, and his treatment of the women in his life is often unfortunate at best. (Though to be fair he also had a romantic, spiritual side which has been rather occluded in recent years). The interest in this biography is the centrality of Larkin’s writing in his life. Motion as a poet himself understands the way that Larkin’s poetry is formed by and is a response to his experiences, and thus places it in a pivotal position throughout the book, contextualising and explicating with sympathetic insight. So many biographies (the “bog standard” type) fail to put their subject’s work in the context of their life and the broader world – Motion does this with aplomb. Thus, Larkin’s increasingly caustic poetry is seen in the light of Larkin’s deepening gloom, as caused by his fear of death, his painful relation with his mother, his playing two women against each other, and (I would guess) the British post-war decline. All the same, what does emerge is rather a somber portrait – if you read Larkin’s brilliant Selected Letters, you’ll find out that the guy was often deeply hilarious.

Churchill by Roy Jenkins

I am a complete political biography/memoirs nerd. I’m just fascinated by Westminster, the green benches, the bearpit of PMQs,  the battles that echo down the years: the Miners Strike (still in the news); In Place of Strife; Maastricht; the IMF rescue (which turned out to have been unnecessary, didya know?); the Falklands; Thatcher’s routing of the wets; Major’s destruction by the Euroscpetics; Wilson vs Heath, Callaghan vs Thatcher, Blair vs Brown, Benn vs Healey, Thatcher vs Heseltine, Kinnock vs the hard left… they continue to resonate. The best though is Roy Jenkins’ splendid biography of Churchill. Though Jenkins unabashedly admits he hasn’t done any original research, as he says there’s little need, with Churchill’s archive available and all those connected with him who have written about him having had their pieces published. Jenkins writes about Churchill very much through the prism of his own experience, namely as a long-serving member of the House of Commons, a much-stationed Cabinet minister (Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, but it took another 16 years before he went one better to actually lead an administration) and a extraordinarily productive writer and journalist.  Being a privy counsellor and thus with access to Cabinet and civil service papers is an terrific advantage for Jenkins, but he makes full use of them. What is also most pleasing about this book is Jenkins’ readiness to evaluate his sources, especially when they conflict, as often happens with a man of Churchill’s preeminence. The prose style is however somewhat flabby, sentences having too many clauses, and there’s also too many Latin tags for my liking. Nonetheless, the book is a magnificent achievement, one which helps me feel close to Churchill’s overpowering personality, his relish, his vigour and his astonishing verbal prolixity.

Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello

This is a tremendous book, a biography of Warhol which primarily focuses on the time Colacello worked with him, from about 1968 to 1981, as a reviewer in and then editor of Warlhol’s magazine Interview (originally inter/VIEW – how 60s!). As well as that it’s a memoir of Colacello’s time with him (and these were plentiful, for Colacello often was as much Warhol’s room-worker in their incredibly hectic and ambitious social life), and a portrait of the disco era, as well as the coming of the Reaganite 1980, not to mention a frank portrait of many celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jean-Michel Basquiat via Bianca Jagger and Imelda Marcos. It’s ambitious in scope, then.

Fortunately Colacello does not get bogged down in all this, dividing the book episodically, and with great detail and amounts of dialogue (he kept a daily diary, and like Warhol recorded his telephone calls). But this means that Warhol’s early life, and in particular the period of the “Silver Factory”, are covered somewhat cursorily, when this is what Warhol is best known for – the underground films like “Empire” and “Sleep”, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground, and his shooting by Valerie Salonis. This is covered in detail elsewhere, so it was more enlightening to read of Warhol’s 50s period as a successful commercial artist and social misfit, as his trajectory and tactics seem to never have changed – always further in, wanting more and more.

The book really acts as a memoir of Colacello’s time with Warhol, and so is a portrait of his 1970s factory – Fred Hughes, Jed Johnston, Pat Hackett – and businesses, where Interview, Warhol’s art and his commissioned portraits combine, sometimes unfortunately but more often successfully. For this period was when Warhol, having conquered the art world, conquered the social elite that he lusted to join. The world of New York’s fashion elite, with their Parisian and Roman counterparts, are drawn with a satirical eye. Colacello, like Warhol, was an outsider entering this world, much like the reader, and he guides us deftly through a veritable torrent of names. (This is not a book to read at one sitting, for the plethora of passing characters can be slightly confusing over too long a period – a minor fault with the episodic narrative).

Colacello shows us how Warhol was driven to reach the top in the artistic, social, financial and political worlds of the time, while maintaining an indifferent facade. But the cost of this was large. Warhol was a huge control freak and he could never reciprocate in his affairs with people – he could only take, never give anyone any real affection, and consequently was unable to have sex or have any real relationship. This soured and poisoned him inside, which only compounded the problem. So, like a tragedy, just when everything seems to reach a peak, it all starts to fall apart. Not only with Warhol – the price of the drug-fuelled disco era shows, with drug busts, AIDS and other illnesses taking their grim toll. The last few chapters, on Warhol’s life in the 1980s (after Colacello departed Interview), have a kind of ghostliness to them, as though Warhol were waiting to die, or perhaps as though Colacello feels that.

This is a wonderful book, elegantly written, with just the right amount of irony to let the name-dropping pass (like when his date was Estee Lauder), politically and culturally sharp, and funny with it too. Anyone with an interest in Warhol, New York in the 1970s, the fashion elites of the time, or in sexuality pre-AIDS, will enjoy it immensely.

Hitler: A Study In Tyranny by Alan Bullock

Amongst my various interests and obsessions is the Third Reich. That such a collective insanity could take place in a country as developed, educated and civillised as Germany (a country for which I have a great respect and admiration) is – I don’t know any words to sufficiently convey it – grimly fascinating, brutally horrifying, morbidly intriguing. This book might not be the most in-depth or detailed on the life of Hitler, but as an overview into his grotesque yet pitiful mind, his strategic triumphs and military-meddling disasters, his dismal private life and hypernarcissism, it’s tough to beat.

Diaries, Letters and Memoirs:

A Life At The Centre by Roy Jenkins

Given Jenkins’ achievements as a biographer (with Attlee, Gladstone, Churchill, Asquith and Dilke only some of his tomes), it should be no surprise that his own memoirs are an entertaining read. This isn’t entertainment in the crash!bang! tabloid sense, but through wit, irony and elegant prose. Compared with Tony Blair’s The Journey, it is rather more elliptic, but also far more sophisticated. (Oh my, but Blair’s writing style is awful). Jenkins is a big man, a man of real substance, and knows it: but then, as someone who was Chancellor, President of the European Commission (still the only Briton to do so), founder of the SDP, Chancellor of Oxford University, prolific biographer and esteemed historian, he’s got plenty to back that up. This is one of the great books where style and content match – Jenkins gives the sense of being a man of great power, wit, learning, and intelligence.

The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Poor bastard. Poor, poor bastard. I’ve read this book a number of times and increasingly the feeling I have towards Williams is pity: the pathos of someone who refuses to let love into his life is acute. Homosexual but intensely conflicted, intensely narcissistic and equally self-loathing, intellectual and yet famous for films which by the 1970s scraped the barrel of flatulent bawdy “humour”, Williams never found happiness in his professional or personal life. And yet his diaries are testament to a man of great kindness (if matched by acts of astonishing rudeness), compassion, intelligence and sensitivity. Naturally the diaries are also filled with pen portraits of many in the UK entertainment business, from Sid James (whom Williams despised) to Joe Orton to Tony Hancock to Maggie Smith, and behind the scenes gossip (Sid James bellowing “I AM A SERIOUS ACTOR!” when Williams ad-libs is utter quality). But the real story is that if you refuse to let others into your life, you are left with an empty shell of an existence. Poor poor bastard.

The Downing Street Years by Alastair Campbell

Simply put, this is top-level politics in the raw. Unadorned, functional prose suits Campbell’s method – this is governance and policy as an endless series of conflicts which he is Rottweiler-determined to win, each and every one of them.

Many cynical political types and naive socialists blame Campbell for creating “a culture of spin”. As should be obvious to anyone who reads the book, Campbell is simply supremely professional in handling the insane demands of a 24-hour media in which appearance is far more important than policy or governance. (Thus the same papers which decry the loss of independence for Cabinet ministers are the same which shriek up “Cabinet Split!” on any occasion of intimations of disagreement, and the ones which position themselves as serious newspapers are as likely to ask inane questions about the Downing Street cat). Of course, Campbell does take this too far, as is his wont – and there still isn’t, to my mind, a satisfactory explanation for the invasion of Iraq – maybe this was deliberately excised and expunged. Similarly, the references to Gordon Brown must have been severely pruned, for he does not really fully feature – there’s rather more about Robin Cook, for example. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant demonstration of the brutal effectiveness of the New Labour political operation, Tony Blair’s masterful people- and strategic skills and Campbell’s scorching dedication.

Diaries: In Power by Alan Clark

He might be a racist neo-Nazi skirt-chasing snobbish misanthrope, but he does have a wonderful turn of phrase. (To wit, “These Nordic tours are a complete fuckface”). There might be something very vicarious about peering into the life of one so privileged (cars, property, etc), but the good thing about Clark is 1. he knows he’s upper-class, and 2. there’s no agonising about it. This is how they live. So all progressive movements are trendy fripperies, all protests due to resentment and bitterness, all other classes swiftly placed and despised.

Also, his account of being a minister is almost gauchely revealing: no bland niceties here. The vanities, the cruelties, the snobberies (Heseltine mocked for “having to buy his own furniture”; absurd aristocratic attempts to claim Thatcher as one of their own, perhaps the miscegenation of a blueblood affair), the day-to-day practises, the immense pressure on the new minister, the politicking, the treachery (his treatment of Tom King really is quite dreadful, but it’s all in a day’s work) – all are laid bare. Governments like to present themselves as benevolent, almost neutral in highmindedly doing what is right for the country. Balls, of course. Like every other large organisation, governments seethe with intrigue and gossip, powergames and human frailty. Seeing behind the bureaucratic wall is therefore a tremendous chance to gawp.

 

What about you?

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6 thoughts on “Biographies

  1. Simon Callow’s biography of Orson Welles is a tremendous read, although I’ve only read the first of the two volumes.

    I have particularly enjoyed biographies of three of my favourite writers – Saki (written by A.J. Langguth), Brian O’Nolan (No Laughing Matter by Anthony Cronin), and Jeffrey Bernard (Just The One by Graham Lord; although Jeff’s autobiographical writings, Talking Horses and Reach For The Ground, are even better).

    I read a biography of Jack London called Wolf a few years ago that was quite riveting too.

    But I think flat-out the best biography I’ve ever read, and one of the best books, period, is Son Of The Morning Star, a biography of Custer by Evan S. Connell.

    I’m slightly surprised you didn’t mention Miles here – never read it or didn’t like it??

    • Yeah, Orwell is quite a fan of London and has written about him – imagine that would be a great read! Haven’t seen Simon Callow’s one, but must pick it up when back in the UK – is it quite recent?
      Of your favourite three writers I have only heard of Saki..! Is this a generational thing or have they simply passed me by?
      The Miles biogs I mentioned previously (in the books about music post). While the critical one is good, intensively researched and thorough, it lacks a certain wit and elan, a lightness of touch, even a lack of deference. It’s telling that Miles’ own autobiography is more open, self-denigrating and wounding than the critical one. Miles was a genius, I’d say, but he was definitely no saint.

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  3. O’Nolan is more commonly known by the pen name Flann O’Brien, under which he published a number of comic novels, most notably (I think) The Third Policeman – which achieved a certain notoriety a few years back when it was mentioned in the TV show Lost. He wrote a funny column for the Irish Times throughout the middle years of the last century, under another pseudonym, Myles na Gopaleen; many of these pieces have been anthologised.

    Jeff Bernard was a magazine writer. He managed to get himself a ‘dream job’ writing a weekly column for The Spectator called ‘Low Life’, all about his experiences hanging out in Soho drinking. He was a close friend of Keith Waterhouse, who adapted his Talking Horses book into a stage play called Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (the euphemistic line The Spectator would use whenever he failed to submit his column), which was entirely set inside his favourite pub, the Coach & Horses on Greek St. I met him a couple of times.

    Both were very brilliant, very funny men who drank themselves into an early grave – unfortunate role models. You can find a number of notes about them on my blogs. (I don’t know that Saki would have fared much better, if he hadn’t got himself shot.)

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  5. Pingback: Biographies « Michael Cormack, Writer and Editor

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