Short Memories

      There comes a time in life when one notices not only how young the policemen look, but how young the memoirists have become. Ferdinand Mount, when his enormously enjoyable Cold Cream was published last year, seemed far too boyish to be looking back across the decades; now Maggie Gee and Candia McWilliam are about to follow his example with what seems like indecent precocity. But no doubt their readers will forgive them: Maggie Gee’s book, which is due in March, has already been greeted with enormous enthusiasm by Claire Tomalin, and though we must wait until August for Candia McWilliam’s, that too should be a treat (at least, if what she has previously written about her Edinburgh upbringing is anything to go by).

     Visitors to have, of course, already had the pleasure of an extract from Piers Paul Read’s memoir about his father. His admirers can now look forward to a new novel, to be published by Bloomsbury in the spring, entitled The Misogynist. I discovered this at the launch of The Rivers of Heaven when I mentioned to him that my wife’s grandfather Ronald McNair Scott had written a novel called Misogyny over the Week-End. (It features in an anthology of weird book titles, Fish Who Answer the Telephone, which includes such classics as The Glands of Destiny and To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair.) It transpired that Piers had read and admired this work, though it had not influenced his own. His wife Emily describes The Misogynist as ‘disgusting but very funny’.

     Among the biography shelves, a battle is being fought over the late Lesley Blanch, author of The Wilder Shores of Love and The Sabres of Paradise. This week I received an email from her literary executors Georgia de Chamberet and Susan Train warning of the unauthorised life by Anne Boston to be published by John Murray in January.  Their chief complaints are that ‘Anne Boston’s claim that all Lesley’s papers were lost in a house fire is incorrect’ and that ‘more third party material’ (particularly from Lesley Blanch’s memoir about her husband Romain Gary) has been used than was ‘fair or right’; the book, they claim, is ‘an unfounded attack on Lesley Blanch’s reputation’. Meanwhile, Samantha Weinberg (another of my former colleagues at Harpers & Queen) is at work on an official biography; as she is a supremely adventurous spirit in the mould of Blanch herself, it seems to me that she is the ideal choice.

     Ted Hughes is to be the subject of a biography by Jonathan Bate, following his brilliant study of John Clare.  (The great thing about researching a writer who died comparatively recently, Bate told a Royal Society of Literature meeting, ‘is that there are people around who can answer your questions’.) Selina Hastings, introducing her glowingly reviewed The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham at a talk organised by Primrose Hill Books, was asked whom her next biography would be about: ‘Sybille Bedford, I think and hope’ was her reply.

     The last book I read by Somerset Maugham was his early novel Liza of Lambeth. I can’t think of many works which show such fascinating development on the part of the author: at the beginning the working-class characters are surveyed from a distance as objects of curiosity; by the end Maugham has begun properly to engage with them, and in the final scene you can see glimpses of his future greatness. Touchingly, Selina Hastings emphasises how grateful the poor of Lambeth were to meet in the young Maugham a doctor who took a real interest in their lives.

     Like many of my generation I discovered the excitement of reading largely through Puffin books. For this I have to thank Kaye Webb, founder of the Puffin Club, whose biography by Valerie Grove is being published to mark Puffin’s 70th anniversary – an occasion which, Valerie tells me, they have chosen to celebrate next May. This reminds me of a hilarious press release I received recently with the headline ‘2012 CHOSEN AS YEAR OF CELEBRATION FOR DICKENS’S BICENTENARY’. Given that he was born in 1812, one would have thought that the options were – to borrow Sam Weller’s words – strictly limited.


Anthony Gardner To Alpha Centauri

     We live, it seems to me, in an age of opinion. Newspaper columnists are paid enormous sums to air views which seem ever more tangential to reality; members of the public are encouraged to text their thoughts on everything in creation; and as for bloggers – why, millions of us blithely send paragraphs such as this out into cyberspace like scientists launching interplanetary craft, not knowing whether anyone out there will receive or take any notice of our signals.

     But how many of these opinions are of any profit to humanity? Very few. Dr Johnson, whose 300th birthday we celebrate this year, argued that the task of criticism was to improve opinion into knowledge – and that is what, in its small way, this web log will attempt to do, in addition to spreading the word of new literary endeavours.

     How soon after finishing a book should a biographer embrace another project? Some, having lived with a subject for years, feel it almost improper to devote themselves immediately to another, like a widow hurrying into a new marriage; others cannot wait to move on. Among the latter is Caroline Moorehead, who is following Dancing To the Precipice – her acclaimed biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin – with an account of five heroines of the French Resistance. She never feels happy, she says, if one of her books appears in print before the contract for the next one has been signed.

     For novelists, too, it is important to move on. The process of readying a book for publication – as I discovered with my own The Rivers of Heaven – can be enormously time-consuming; but while it is too important to neglect, it is not remotely as fulfilling as the act of creation. The anxiety of that limbo between final proofs and publication (‘The time I hate most,’ Selina Hastings told me after sending off her new biography of Somerset Maugham) is easier to set aside if your mind is already engaged by the next challenge – in my case a novel which combines foxhunting with Chinese expansionism.

     One ingredient biographers and essayists do not have to worry about – unless they take great liberties – is dialogue. Rupert Christiansen, the author of brilliant cultural studies such as Romantic Affinities and Tales of the New Babylon, says that he has found this to be the greatest challenge in attempting his first novel. But since he is one of the few contemporary writers I am eager to read on absolutely any subject, I am sure he will prove equal to it.

     I was lucky enough to work with both Selina Hastings and Rupert Christiansen on the late and much-lamented magazine Harpers & Queen. Several of our other colleagues have also become respected authors, among them:
Julie Kavanagh, who is following her definitive biographies of Frederick Ashton and Rudolph Nureyev with a book on the model for La Dame aux Camélias;
Maggie Fergusson, who – after her wonderful biography of George Mackay Brown – is working with Michael Morpurgo on an account of his life;
and Jasper Rees, whose highly entertaining I Found My Horn has encouraged him to undertake a further autobiographical adventure, this time an exploration of his Welsh roots.

     Another colleague, Markie Robson-Scott, has embarked on an account of her father’s friendship with Christopher Isherwood, while Ysenda Maxtone Graham, whose biography of her grandmother The Real Mrs Miniver was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, has turned to fiction with her first children’s book Big School: an extract from it can be read on the website.

     Five years ago I had the exciting task of writing an article for the Sunday Times Magazine about Philip Larkin’s largely unpublished letters to his girlfriend Monica Jones. Anthony Thwaite was subsequently asked to edit a collection of the letters, which he has now done. However, the publishers – Faber & Faber – have decided rather late in the day that they would like to include some of Monica Jones’s letters to Larkin (held in the Bodleian Library), so it is likely to be some time before it reaches the bookshops. For copyright reasons I cannot reproduce any of the letters, but this was my introduction to them:

     A few weeks after Philip Larkin’s death in the winter of 1985, his colleague Betty Mackereth set about fulfilling one of his last requests. Taking his diaries – some 30 volumes of them – into his office at the university library in Hull, she fed each in turn into a shredder, keeping only the covers, before sending the looped and tangled remains to be incinerated. By nightfall, history’s best chance of reconstructing the life and thoughts of the most acclaimed English post-war poet had vanished (to borrow one of Larkin’s own phrases) in slow, suspended skeins of smoke.
     What only one person knew was that an archive existed which, to a large extent, duplicated those diaries. It consisted of more than 1,400 letters – as well as 500 cards and telegrams, and scores of photographs – sent over a period of 40 years to Larkin’s longest-standing girlfriend and closest confidante, Monica Jones. Written in his small, neat hand, they chronicle – often day by day, and sometimes hour by hour – every aspect of his life, from the pork chops that he re-heated for supper to the experiences that shaped his poems. They contain declarations of love, his often scathing thoughts on other writers, childhood reminiscences, political diatribes, damning self-analysis, and confessions of sexual inadequacy.
     That the collection has remained a secret for so long is due to the sad decline which Monica Jones suffered in the years following Larkin’s death. Living on in the house that the two had shared, she was too confused to remember how much of his correspondence she had hoarded. Only now, following her death in 2001 and the recent decision of her executors to put the letters up for sale, has their existence become public knowledge and their enormous importance recognised. The price put on them is £200,000, which the Bodleian Library in Oxford is doing its best to raise before they are lost to the nation.
     The discovery has come as a surprise even to those closest to Larkin. Anthony Thwaite, a friend of the poet’s since 1958, had little luck with Monica Jones when he edited Larkin’s Selected Letters 1940-1985 ten years ago: ‘Monica was in a pretty poor, disorganised state,’ he remembers. ‘She scrabbled around and found twenty letters, of which I used fifteen in the book.’ Andrew Motion uncovered a larger cache when researching his official biography of Larkin, but according to Joan Winterkorn of Bernard Quaritch, the booksellers handling the sale, the archive is ‘almost entirely unseen and unstudied’.
     ‘To come across a correspondence of such intimacy, carried on for such a long time, is very rare,’ says Joan Winterkorn. ‘His letters to his friends like Kingsley Amis and John Wain were more about things like jazz; whereas with these, because he and Monica knew each other so well, you get a sense of him talking to himself. Given that his poetry is about the minute details of life, they are the most important record that could exist.’

     In January, Antonia Fraser will publish a memoir of her life with Harold Pinter. I met the great playwright on two occasions and found him perfectly polite but (as many  people did) intimidating, so I look forward to discovering a softer side to him. Meanwhile, Lady Antonia’s daughter Rebecca Fraser is working on an account of the Pilgrim Fathers, and her sister Rachel Billington on a new novel whose denouement makes intriguing use of numerology.