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.



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