Biography and Autobiography

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Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Tue Apr 12, 2011 8:16 pm

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable – review

Black power hero Malcolm X held bizarre and contradictory beliefs – yet his popular legacy is greater than Martin Luther King's. Here at last is the meticulous portrait he deserves

Andrew Anthony The Observer, Sunday 10 April 2011


Malcolm X returns to his house, firebombed the previous night, on 15 February 1965. He was murdered a week later. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Of all the American leaders who were assassinated in the 60s, that decade of turmoil and revolt, Malcolm X has enjoyed the greatest upturn in posthumous fortune. In the pantheon of black American protest figures only Martin Luther King occupies a more exalted position, but it is Malcolm X whose legend has the greater street credibility and aura of cool. It's he who was the subject of Spike Lee's biopic starring Denzel Washington, and it is Malcolm, not Martin, who today is cited by radicals and rap stars.


Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

Yet Malcolm Little, as he was born, was a petty thief and a pimp who found salvation in the Nation of Islam (NOI), a bizarre cult led by a mountebank and sexual predator named Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad preached that white people were a race of devils created 6,000 years ago by an evil scientist named Yakub. As Muhammad's leading minister, Malcolm X rejected the civil rights movement, labelled Dr King a "house Negro", and formed liaisons with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party – organisations that he found preferable to mainstream political parties.

Although the Nation of Islam continually boasted of its willingness to defend itself and by extension the black community, it reserved its fire power for its own members, severely beating anyone who stepped out of line, and killing those (like Malcolm himself) who were deemed a threat to Muhammad. Malcolm X knew this, but he stayed loyal to the cause for the better part of his adulthood – only breaking from the NOI in his last year of life, when he was kicked out in an internal power play.

How and why has death treated him so well? One reason is the Autobiography of Malcolm X, a memoir ghosted by Alex Haley, who later wrote the Afro-American blockbuster Roots. The autobiography sold more than 6 million copies in the 10 years following Malcolm's murder by NOI hitmen in 1965, and continues to be a key revolutionary text. A gripping mixture of urban confessional and political manifesto, it not only inspired a generation of black activists, but drove home the bitter realities of racism to a mainstream white liberal audience.

But if the book's success established Malcolm's legacy, it also created a myth that deterred a more stringent analysis of his life and work. Now, almost a half century on, Malcolm has finally received the biography that his unique role in black and global resistance culture demands.

Manning Marable, who died on 1 April after a long illness, was professor of history and political science at Columbia University and was steeped in African-American studies. He has left a meticulous, comprehensive and fair-minded portrait of both Malcolm and the turbulent period of American history in which he lived and died. We learn that the "Detroit Red" image of Malcolm as a street hoodlum was exaggerated in the autobiography, the better to dramatise his conversion to the law-abiding but society-rejecting doctrine of Muhammad's NOI.

Long before multiculturalism entered the language of political discourse, Malcolm was busy exploring its logical endpoint of ethnic and cultural separation – which helps explain his collusion with far-right white racists, including meetings with the Ku Klux Klan and verbal support for Nazis. But then Malcolm said many things. As Manning shows, he was adept at tailoring his message to different audiences, often blatantly contradicting on a Wednesday what he had clearly and emotively stated on a Monday.

Not the least of Malcolm's flaws was his attitude to women, and his wife in particular. Betty Shabazz was abandoned in her home for the greater part of her marriage, including the period during which Malcolm and his family were targets of a campaign of NOI intimidation. Malcolm's habit, after the birth of each of his four children, was to embark on distant speaking tours.

Yet despite all of this, the man who emerges from this book is in many respects admirable: brave, loyal, self-disciplined, quick-witted, charismatic, acutely intelligent and a public speaker of quite awesome power. A fallacy that has grown over the years is that there were three distinct Malcolms: the street thug, the white-hating demagogue and, after his split with the NOI, a liberal integrationist who was in essence a slightly more outspoken Dr King.

Regardless of his book's subtitle, Manning convincingly argues that there was in fact a much stronger continuum. Malcolm (whose father was probably murdered by white racists) was first of all the child of supporters of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. And while he softened his position vis-a-vis white America in his post-NOI phase, he remained capable of vehement anti-white rhetoric and overwhelmingly concerned with black power.

Given his difficult childhood (he was taken into care and fostered), and the fierce racism that dominated American civil and political life at the time, his attitudes were not surprising. What was out of the ordinary was the unrelenting determination that Malcolm brought to the business of galvanising black America. Lacking a formal education, he became a voracious reader and an inspired debater. Manning suggests that Malcolm's youthful appreciation of jazz helped create a vocal rhythm that broke from convention and propelled his speeches with a kind of bebop daring.

While Malcolm correctly predicted that black culture would assume a central role in American life, he would never have foreseen the election of a black president. And as is true of many militants, there was no tyrant, however murderous, that he wouldn't praise in the name of anti-imperialism. Yet in truth, he outgrew the NOI strategically and intellectually some years before the final breach, and stayed within the organisation, parroting lines for which he felt increasing contempt, out of blind allegiance. Perhaps he knew that to leave was to sign his death warrant.

In the NOI's newspaper, a few weeks before Malcolm's murder, one of the group's leading ministers declared: "Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death." They were the words of Louis X, who had been Malcolm's most promising disciple. He is now better-known as Louis Farrakhan, the current and long-standing head of the NOI.

Malcolm's killing on 21 February 1965 in front of a Harlem audience that included his wife and young children has been the subject of sometimes deluded speculation. He was shot down by three men, one of whom, a NOI member, was caught and disarmed by the crowd. The two others – whose identities have long been known – escaped, and two entirely innocent men were found guilty and imprisoned in an appalling miscarriage of justice that, ironically, served only to confirm Malcolm's opinion of America's prejudiced legal system.

Manning presents a strong case that there was some form of FBI collusion in the murder, if only to the degree that the bureau, which had spies all over the NoI, failed to prevent the plot. He also floats the probability that at least one of the killers was an FBI informant.

Whatever the truth, there is no disputing that Malcolm was shot dead by men who largely shared his beliefs. Nor that 30 years after his murder more than half a million black men would converge on Washington DC to protest, in the language he made popular, the demonisation and criminalisation of African-American males. The keynote speaker at that "million man march" was Louis Farrakhan. Malcolm, no doubt, would have appreciated history's gift for farce.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:12 am



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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:17 am

Life by Keith Richards

Forget the sex and drugs – only rock'n'roll can still get Keith Richards up in the morning, writes Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan The Observer, Sunday 31 October 2010


Rock and roll was Keith Richards' escape from the drabness of post-war suburbia. Photograph: Getty Photograph: Graham Wiltshire/Redferns

The survivor's story is one of the predominant narratives of our time. It usually traces a familiar arc from excess through despair to redemption, and, as such, allows us to enjoy the vicarious thrill of voyeurism within the framework of a cautionary or salutary tale. Life by Keith Richards, the most famous survivor of them all, breaks with this tradition insofar as it contains excess aplenty but hardly any despair and very little redemption. Keith did it all, had a hell of a good time, and survived to brag about it.


Life: Keith Richards by Keith Richards

Life has the macho swagger that rock'n'roll in general – and the Rolling Stones in particular – once possessed. This is both its strength and its weakness. It often reads like a historical document of another time: a lost world in which women were always "chicks" or "bitches", an inflatable giant penis was a non-ironic stage prop, and a bottle of Jack Daniel's was the de rigueur rock'n'roll accessory.

It is a drug memoir of sorts, albeit without the hardcore confessional descriptiveness of the genre. Instead, it is almost casual in its cataloguing of excess: heroin, cocaine, Tuinal, Nembutal, STP, LSD, speedballs, Moroccan hashish, Jamaican ganja, and, inevitably, methadone, are just some of the substances mentioned – often in passing. Consider, for instance, the following passage from the book, which describes his daily breakfast routine during the 70s: "I would take a barbiturate to wake up … a Tuinal, pin it, put a needle in it so it would come on quicker. And then take a hot cup of tea, and then consider getting up or not. And later maybe a Mandrax or a Quaalude… And when the effect wears off after about two hours, you're feeling mellow, you've had a bit of breakfast and you're ready for work."

The word "mellow" here is, of course, relative. This is someone, after all, who took downers to wake up and start the day – albeit slowly. While reading Life, it is worth keeping in mind that mellow for Keith means comatose for the rest of us. Even John Lennon, no stranger to excess, tried and failed miserably to keep up with Keef, ending up, as the latter puts it, "in my john, hugging the porcelain".

Keeping up with Keef became a deadly game in the early 1970s, when heroin – usually mixed with cocaine and injected as a "speedball" – became Richards and his partner, Anita Pallenberg's, drug of choice.

Pallenberg, alone, seems to have kept up with Keef by being both more ruthless and more reckless. She was originally the girlfriend of Brian Jones about whose death Richards is cold-blooded. Jones, a desolate individual, temperamentally unsuited to fame, drowned in his swimming pool in July 1969, a few weeks after being fired by Jagger and Richards. He is described here as a "whining son of a bitch" whose death occurred "at that point in his life when there wasn't any".

Richards is cavalier about death – his own and others' – seeing it as a kind of occupational hazard best avoided by "pacing yourself". This from a man who scored cocaine and heroin by the pound. It was, he insists, the very best heroin and the purest cocaine, which undoubtedly helped, as did the array of top-class lawyers who were on call every time he ran foul of the law.

The main problem with Life, though, is that too many of these tales have been told before, most evocatively in two classic on-the-road-with-the-Stones chronicles: Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones and Robert Greenfield's Stones Touring Party. For me, the writing comes alive when Richards broaches the subject of the great music he once made and the heroes that inspired him to do so.

He is surprisingly illuminating on chord structures and the like, the kind of thing that in most rock memoirs has me skipping pages to get to the next drug bust or wrecked hotel room. He brilliantly summons up the suffocating drabness of postwar English suburbia and the cathartic effect of hearing raw blues and rock'n'roll on imported albums. With Jones and Mick Jagger, he listened to those records over and over, then tried to replicate their sound with the fierce dedication of the true religious devotee. "It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter … Every moment taken away from it was a sin."

From time to time, you sense that Richards loved his guitars even more than he loved his "chicks". He sometimes writes about the lure of the Gibson and the Fender with undisguised eroticism. In this, he is the polar opposite of his musical partner, Jagger, with whom he maintains what might in therapy-speak be called a long-term dysfunctional relationship. He has not, he confesses, visited Jagger's dressing room in 20 years.

For Richards, one senses, old wounds are slow to heal. One of the most extraordinary passages in Life describes the writing of "Gimme Shelter" in 1969. It is perhaps the Stones' darkest, most apocalyptic song, but it was spawned, not by the spiralling political turbulence of the times, but Richards's intuition – correct as it turned out – that Jagger was bedding Pallenberg on the set of Donald Cammell's film, Performance.

Richards's relationship with Jagger, though, has outlasted every other relationship either of them has ever had. Neither Richards's heroin addiction nor Jagger's dalliance with the dreadful Studio 54 disco crowd could undo it. The Rolling Stones, too, survive and thrive in ways that it would have been impossible for either of them to have imagined. Now pensioners, they peddle an astoundingly successful global brand of sponsored rock nostalgia – their last tour was the highest-grossing ever. The group's career path perfectly traces the trajectory of the rock form from rebellion, to assimilation by the mainstream, to corporatism; from meaning to empty spectacle.

Nevertheless, Keith Richards, now a tax exile and a granddad, remains fixed in the public consciousness as a rock'n'roll outlaw. "People love that image," he muses. "They imagined me, they made me … Bless their hearts. And I'll do the best I can to fulfil their needs. They're wishing me to do things that they can't. They've got to do this job, they've got this life, they're an insurance salesman … but, inside them, there's a raging Keith Richards." That Keith has not raged, nor indeed written a great song, in three decades, hardly matters: he's still here to tell the tale.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011


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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:22 am



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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:29 am



Penguin no. 291: The Quest for Corvo
by A.J.A. Symons

"His favourite image for himself was the crab, which beneath its hard crust has a very tender core, which approaches its objective by oblique movements, and. when roused, pinches and rends with its enormous claws; but the tarantula spider seems an apter comparison for him as he watched and waited, expectant of the next benefactor. Unsuspecting, Mr. Justin walked into his web."

I have to start by saying this is a fascinating and entertaining book. I couldn't recommend it more highly; it is the kind of gem that makes a random walk through this collection of old books seem like an adventure. I know that if my book buying was more title- or author- focused, I would never have discovered it: I had never heard of Baron Corvo, or of Symons, who died young without producing any other major work. It is only the undiscriminating purchase of every old Penguin I come across that delivered it into my hands.

This quest concerns the search for information. It begins unexpectedly when Symons is lent a book, Hadrian the Seventh, written by Frederick Rolfe, an author of whom he had never heard, and who also went by the name Baron Corvo, amongst others. He found the book remarkable:

"It seemed to me then, it still seems to me, one of the most extraordinary achievements in English literature: a minor achievement, doubtless, but nevertheless a feat of writing difficult to parallel; original, witty, obviously the work of a born man of letters, full of masterly phrases and scenes, almost flabbergasting in its revelation of a vivid and profoundly unusual personality."
His interest was quickened, and he felt amazed that he had never heard of this man who was capable of writing such a book. This was the puzzle he set out to solve.

In the author's words, this book is 'an experiment in Biography'. The conventional linear approach, in which the subject's story is synthesized from various sources and told chronologically, is eschewed in favour of a format which focuses on the research itself. So instead of telling us the story of Baron Corvo's life, his story is of the search: a portrait of the man as he came to understand him, and how he found his information.

He begins his quest knowing very little, but eager to discover more. He writes a few letters; some of the replies supply a few pieces of the puzzle or suggest directions for further enquiries. He assiduously follows all leads, sometimes through letters, sometimes in person. The story is revealed haphazardly, new pieces of information lack the explaining context, and this only heightens the intrigue. Slowly, and with persistence, a substantial part of the picture is revealed, the fundamental pattern of the writer's life is exposed, and his forgotten manuscripts are tracked down. It is research and biography-writing structured as detective fiction.

We know from early on that the emerging picture will be heartbreaking, for Rolfe is revealed as a flawed genius, and his own worst enemy. Each successive chapter simply builds this picture up, layer by layer. He was a man with a genuine and unique talent, who laboured under delusions of plots and persecutions, and who invariably quarrelled with almost every friend, patron and collaborator he ever had, and then vindictively wasted his talent on bombarding them with haughty satirical letters or maligning them in correspondence directed to employers, friends, neighbours . Each of his novels had a strong autobiographical element, either as a fictional re-writing of his life according to his dreams, or in the settling of old scores.

As a counter, there is something heartwarming about the way so many trusting individuals were willing to help him, and to continue helping him even as he verbally attacked them. But he took advantage of these trusting souls, unquestioningly believing that an artist is entitled to the support of others. And so the allusion in the quote above to the tarantula spider awaiting his victims. These fundamental flaws in his makeup bequeathed to Rolfe a sad and bitter life of failure and penury, and an early death alone and friendless in Venice.

That we know the ending from the start doesn't in any way mar the enjoyment of the book. The story is in the detail, the repeated pattern. And so it becomes a book not only about Rolfe and his life's work, and not only about the process of research, but also about Symons, his quest and his deepening understanding of his subject, and about human nature and psychology. Much of Rolfe's story is told in excerpts from letters, and so we get a series of fragmentary first-hand accounts of the writer. Many of the individuals mentioned have interesting stories of their own, including Vyvyan Holland, Maundy Gregory and Shane Leslie.

In the end Symons' quest was more successful than could be anticipated:

"It was a deeper satisfaction still to know that every one of the works which had been left and lost in obscurity when Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe died suddenly and alone at Venice had been collected together by sympathetic hands, and that, alone of living men, I had read every line of every one. Nothing was left to be discovered; the quest was ended."

There is much more in this book than I have even hinted at here. It was a fascinating book to read.



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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:32 am

Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg – review

Bismarck, 'a man of appetites', makes for a compelling biography

David Blackbourn The Guardian, Saturday 19 March 2011


A 'singular genius' ... Otto von Bismarck, in the uniform of the regiment of Cuirassier named after him, 'Bismarck-Cuirassiers'. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Otto von Bismarck became minister-president of Prussia in September 1862. His appointment was a desperate roll of the dice by King Wilhelm I, who faced constitutional crisis when parliament rejected a bill that increased the length of military service and reduced the role of the civilian reserve. After contemplating abdication, the king instead summoned the 47-year-old Junker, a man reviled by liberals because of his violently reactionary statements, yet deeply distrusted by orthodox conservatives as an unprincipled political schemer. Jonathan Steinberg's readable new biography quotes a Prussian diplomat, Councillor von Zschock in Stuttgart, who wrote that Bismarck's very name caused "profound hatred in the depth of the soul of every true friend of Prussia". Few thought he would last long; some believed he had been appointed only to provoke a reaction that would open the way to military dictatorship.


Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg

Nine years and three wars later Austria had been excluded from German affairs, France defeated and a Prussian-dominated German nation state established with Wilhelm I as its emperor. The liberals who still denounced Bismarck on the eve of Prussian victory over Austria in 1866 now celebrated his political genius. They passed an indemnity bill that retrospectively sanctioned Bismarck's earlier breaches of the constitution. Lothar Gall's outstanding biography 30 years ago called Bismarck a "white revolutionary", who placed himself at the head of nationalist sentiment, destroyed the German confederation and subverted the international order to preserve the fundamentals of the Prussian monarchical state. Like Lampedusa's Tancredi in The Leopard, Bismarck took the view that "for things to remain the same, everything must change". In his own words, if there was to be revolution, better to make it than to suffer it.

He remained in power for another 20 years, increasingly irascible and dictatorial, denouncing political opponents and sulking on his estate when things became too much. The problems were partly of Bismarck's making. The hybrid political system created in 1871, in which he served as both Prussian minister-president and chancellor of the new German empire, required a difficult balancing act. It was harder still because Bismarck, making a wager on popular conservatism like his contemporaries Louis Napoleon and Benjamin Disraeli, introduced universal manhood suffrage for German national elections. This ended up benefiting opposition parties. The persecution of the Catholic church in the 1870s and of Social Democrats in the 1880s also backfired. Bismarck ran through his whole bag of tricks in these years – repression, the politics of divide-and-rule, patchwork coalitions, appeals to national security. Then Wilhelm I and his successor Friedrich II both died in 1888, bringing Wilhelm II to the throne. Mounting political conflicts and a battle of wills with the kaiser led to Bismarck's dismissal in 1890. He retreated for the last time to Friedrichsruh. But the rest was far from silence. In the years before his death in 1898, while the Bismarck legend was being created, he wrote his mendacious, score-settling memoirs and relished his role as unofficial leader of the disloyal opposition.

Steinberg takes the reader expertly through the life of this outsized figure, starting with the unhappy child caught between a weak father and a cold mother ("as a small child I hated her, later I successfully deceived her with falsehoods"), and ending with the raging, vindictive old man. The early and middle reaches of the life are beautifully managed. We meet the rackety student who clashed with university authorities in Göttingen, the bored bureaucrat who left the civil service to run a family estate and was known among fellow squires as the "Mad Junker", the lover who had a string of broken affairs (not least with English women) before marrying pious Johanna von Puttkamer on the rebound, and the political tyro who finally found an object worthy of his gargantuan energies. Bismarck first entered politics in 1847 and became the darling of conservatives after his hard-line stance during the 1848 revolution. He then spent the 1850s, when he was a Prussian diplomat, gradually distancing himself from straightforwardly conservative views as he developed the "monstrous maxims and savage expressions" (Crown Prince Friedrich) that horrified early patrons like the brothers Leopold and Ludwig von Gerlach.

Bismarck was a man of appetites, for food, drink and tobacco as well as political power. Even his chamber pots were enormous, a fact solemnly recorded by the nationalist historian Heinrich von Sybel as a sign of greatness. Steinberg has an eye for details like this and a talent for reconstructing the political drama of the period. He sets Bismarck within a richly drawn world of interrelated Prussian nobles, the Kleists and Manteuffels who turn up again and again in the book and give it the texture – even some of the affectionate tolerance – of a Theodor Fontane novel. Steinberg has some interesting accounts of the political process, both in parliament and behind the scenes (although, oddly, the landmark social insurance legislation and Germany's acquisition of colonies in the 1880s both receive perfunctory treatment). There is a fine account of Bismarck's relationship with Wilhelm I, the most important in his political life. Steinberg also has sparkling vignettes of secondary figures such as Bismarck's close friend from student days, the American historian John Lothrop Motley, who wrote a novel featuring a thinly-disguised "Otto von Rabenmarck", and Albrecht von Roon, the general and war minister who first met the 19-year-old Bismarck in 1834, helped to put him into power nearly 30 years later, and remained loyal for the rest of his life despite many provocations.

Steinberg paints an all too believable picture of Bismarck's "volcanic temperament" and brings out the contradictory qualities of a man who was both cruel and sentimental, capable of devoting immense and deliberate effort to destroying the career of Harry von Arnim yet inconsolable over the death of his dog Sultan. The contradictions run through his writings, which contain both subtle wit (especially in younger years) and coarse abuse. One is sometimes reminded, in fact, of Bismarck's contemporary, Karl Marx, with whom he shared a commitment to sarcasm as a political weapon and a taste for the same authors (Shakespeare, Chamisso, Heine). Steinberg, I think, seriously overstates Bismarck's indifference to literature, both classical and modern. He is, on the other hand, wonderfully good on Bismarck's illnesses, real and imagined. On the evidence of this book, Bismarck was one of the great hypochondriacs. As Steinberg puts it, "no statesman of the 19th or 20th century fell ill so frequently, so publicly, and so dramatically as Otto von Bismarck".

Bismarck's illnesses and hypochondria, like his rages and bouts of insomnia, represent for Steinberg the pathology of power. The central thesis of the biography is that Bismarck's singular genius lay in the exercise of his "sovereign will". Bismarck consumed himself in its exercise, and opposition literally made him ill. Like Lothar Gall a generation ago, Steinberg sees that Bismarck had no obvious power base, whether as courtier, bureaucrat or party leader. This led Gall to describe Bismarck as an early exemplar of the modern professional politician, the pure political animal. It leads Steinberg to argue that Bismarck's power lay ultimately in personal magnetism, in his ability to enchant and bind others. I mean it as a compliment when I say that Steinberg makes this case more plausible than I would have thought possible. In doing so he gives readers perhaps the greatest single pleasure of this book, and its signature quality – the unusually generous helping of quotations from those who came under Bismarck's spell. In the end, though, I think Steinberg plays down too much the political institutions and social movements, what Von Roon once called the "parallelogram of forces", within and through which Bismarck moved.

There is occasional hyperbole (Bismarck was "the most famous statesman of his or perhaps any age"), but this is an astute and thoughtful book. The events described in its central chapters, which led to German unification, were part of a larger recasting of global power relations in the 1860s. Steinberg has given us a major biography of the figure who placed his stamp on those events. This is the best one-volume life of Bismarck in English, much superior to older works by Alan Palmer and Edward Crankshaw. It brings us close to this galvanic, contradictory and ultimately self-destructive figure.

David Blackbourn's The Conquest Of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany is published by Pimlico.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011



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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:35 am

Starman: David Bowie by Paul Trynka; Any Day Now by Kevin Cann – reviews

Two Bowie biographies shed new light on the career of pop's greatest chameleon, but the man himself remains elusive

Sean O'Hagan The Observer, Sunday 13 March 2011


Angie, Zowie (aka Duncan Jones) and David Bowie at a press conference in Amsterdam, 1974. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

In 1971, David Bowie's bullish new manager, Tony Defries, walked into the office of RCA in New York for a meeting with the heads of a record label whose biggest star was Elvis Presley. "You've had nothing since the 1950s," Defries informed them, employing a confrontational stance that may well have been borrowed from one of his role models, Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, "but you can own the 1970s, because David Bowie is going to remake the decade, just like the Beatles did in the 1960s."


Starman: David Bowie - The Definitive Biography by Paul Trynka

Defries, for all his bluster, was right. David Bowie's golden years lasted from November 1970, when he released his first cohesive album, The Man Who Sold the World, until September 1980, when he released Scary Monsters...and Super Creeps, which is generally regarded as the last great album by an artist who, despite the relentless attention-seeking of Lady Gaga, remains the greatest shape-shifter in pop music. In between came a run of albums that saw Bowie adopt and, just as quickly, cast off a range of personas that kept both fans and critics guessing about the nature of his identity, his sexuality, and his complex relationship with pop stardom.

Bowie's breakthrough album, the glam sci-fi fantasy that was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), precipitated a wave of fan hysteria that, indeed, harked back to Beatlemania, but also signalled the darker, often sexually ambivalent, energies of the punk-rock revolution of the late 1970s. By then, Bowie had explored the contradictions of celebrity (Aladdin Sane, 1973), made a dystopian concept album based on George Orwell's 1984 (Diamond Dogs, 1974), reinvented himself as a blue-eyed soul singer (Young Americans, 1975), tentatively embraced electronic experimentation on Station to Station (1976) and emerged, on Low and Heroes, both released in 1977 as punk challenged rock's old guard, as an experimental art-rocker without peer.

Nothing that Bowie has done since has come close to equalling the artistic momentum and relentless reinvention he achieved during that decade, but he remains one of the key, and defining, figures in pop, and one whose influence can be detected in most of the groundbreaking music that has been made since, from the U2 of Achtung Baby and Zooropa to Arcade Fire on their most recent album, The Suburbs, from Joy Division to Lady Gaga in all her guises. Yet, David Bowie, the great chameleon of pop, as both these books attest, remains somehow unknowable.

Paul Trynka has done a stalwart job of tracing Bowie's many musical shifts and performing personas, but the man himself remains alarmingly elusive, just as he did in the last major biography, Marc Spitz's David Bowie: A Biography, published in Britain last year. Like Spitz, Trynka did not have direct access to his subject, nor to some important Bowie friends-come-collaborators such as Brian Eno, who helped shape Bowie's vision on Low and Heroes.

For Starman, the press release asserts, Trykna interviewed "over 200 friends, ex-lovers and fellow musicians". As befits an erstwhile editor of Mojo, a magazine that tends to approach rock music as first and foremost a heritage industry, he is good on the musical development of a pop star whose early albums, David Bowie (1967) and Space Oddity (1969), were both little more than confused collections of ill-matched songs, and showed little hint of the confidence and brilliance that was to follow. Beginning with Bowie's childhood as plain David Jones in post-war Brixton, Trynka tells a tale that has perhaps been told too often to surprise anymore, but that nevertheless intrigues in its mixture of ruthlessness, shifting loyalties, monumental drug taking, decadent behaviour and, for a while, undiminished musical invention.

The cast of characters is colourful-going-on-exotic, and includes Lindsay Kemp, the mime artist whose hold on Bowie was such that he almost forsook pop music for interpretative dance; Iggy Pop, Bowie's long-time friend, rival and a performer whose unlikely artistic resurrection in the late-70s was orchestrated by Bowie as well as Angie Bowie, nee Barnett, his first wife, would-be manager and fellow sexual adventurer. There are also several less well known but no less intriguing walk-on characters such as Daniella Parmar, an androgynous beauty whose cropped and dyed hairstyle seems to have been the template for Ziggy Stardust's barnet, and Vince Taylor, the 50s rocker whose fall from grace underpinned the album's overall concept.

Trynka also delves deeply and illuminatingly into Bowie's prolonged cocaine addiction, which, at its height, shocked even Iggy, whose own appetite for destruction was legendary. You can catch a glimpse of Bowie at his most strung-out in Alan Yentob's film Cracked Actor, first shown on the BBC in 1974 and now available via YouTube. Trynka trails an unravelling Bowie though his cocaine-fuelled obsession with the occult and his cocaine-addled outburst of megalomania during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, in which he name-checked Hitler and said, "I'd adore to be prime minister. And, I believe very strongly in fascism... I dream of buying companies and TV stations, owning and controlling them." (That same year, Bowie was captured on camera giving what looked like a Nazi salute, but which was more likely an innocent wave, to a crowd of fans at Victoria station. The photograph, alongside Eric Clapton's drunken onstage eulogy to Enoch Powell, precipitated the formation of the Rock Against Racism movement that same year.)

One of the inbuilt problems with any David Bowie biography is how to broach the long decline that began with the mediocre Let's Dance album in 1983 and continues to this day. Trynka fares no better than Spitz in his attempts to make sense of what is, after all, the natural order of things in pop apart from a few exceptions such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Bowie's last notable appearance was a walk-on part in an episode of Ricky Gervais's comedy-of-cruelty sitcom, Extras, in which he played a heartless manipulator unaware of his own monumentally self-centred personality. As Trynka acidly notes, "'The Little Fat Man (With the Pug-Nosed Face)' would be the most significant new Bowie song of an entire half-decade". Perhaps, though, David Bowie, now 64, is simply ageing gracefully, having successfully reinvented himself, after his marriage to erstwhile supermodel Iman, as a family man.

Conversely, Any Day Now by Kevin Cann casts an obsessive eye over Bowie's early years and, thus, is very much a Bowie fan's dream book. Ranging from the year of his birth, 1947, until the release of Diamond Dogs in 1974, it is a diary-come-scrapbook of information and trivia. The photographs alone are extraordinary, a pictorial history of the young David Jones's dalliances with Mod subculture and hippiedom, and the renamed David Bowie's embrace of glam, gender-bending and sci-fi fantasy. Tour posters, ticket stubs, magazine covers and myriad snapshots of the fledgling star add to the general sense that this is a book for Bowie obsessives made by a Bowie obsessive. Entertaining, then, and oddly illuminating in its own completist way. A book for anoraks – if your anorak was geometric, glitter-encrusted and sequin-studded.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011



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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:38 am

Peter Ackroyd's London: the Biography:




Reviews of London The Biography



'Peter Ackroyd was born to write the biography of London...a brilliant book'
Sunday Telegraph

'It would be no exaggeration to say that Peter Ackroyd's 'biography' of our capital is the book about London. It contains a lifetime of reading and research...but this huge book is light and airy and playful...[He] leads us on a journey both historical and geographical, but also imaginative. Every street, alley and courtyard has a story, and Ackroyd brings it to life for us...Marvellous'
A N Wilson, Daily Mail

'Nothing can quite match the huge strange echo chamber of life-stories, folktales, and urban myths conjured up in Peter Ackroyd's epic vision of his native city. Sparkling, witty scholarship is constantly transformed into smoky mystical street-history, with dark hypnotic meditations on fog, fire, sewage, suicide and civic resurrection'
Richard Holmes, Books of the Year, Daily Telegraph

'Ackroyd is the most effortless guide. You wander by his side through the streets of the old city, savouring its bustle, colours and its smells, the stink of living. This is much more than history; it is a tapestry of inspiration and love. You will not find a better, more visionary book about a place we take for granted'
Observer

'His masterwork...A rich torrent of remarkable lists, bizarre anecdotage, stink, press and clatter, the gestures of the street, the violence and the cruelty, the beauty and the energy of this greatest and most horrible of cities. It is just fantastic'
Andrew Marr, Books of the Year, Daily Telegraph





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Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:43 am



Extract from TIME magazine review:

Most movie actors lavish on us the gift of their charisma. That is star quality: the mass production of ego. But there is another, circuitous route to film immortality. An actor who would follow this course must be more daring. He must hide in front of the camera, collapse his personality and confound our expectations, remake himself with each role. He knows there are blessings in disguise. It is the opposite of star quality: black-hole quality.

"Alec Guinness," wrote critic Kenneth Tynan admiringly, "has no face." So true. Sir Alec, who died this month at 86, was the most self-effacing screen actor imaginable, often retreating under a mountain of makeup. He borrowed the props of anti-Semitism to create a monstrously engaging Fagin for Oliver Twist. He found the proper wigs and noses and shadings for each of the eight doomed D'Ascoynes, one of them a woman, in the elegantly misanthropic high comedy that was Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Guinness would search the globe for new accents and characters: Japanese (A Majority of One), Bedouin (Lawrence of Arabia), Russian (Doctor Zhivago), Indian (A Passage to India). His transparency made it easy for him to incarnate specters; he was Marley's Ghost in Scrooge and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars--the role that heaped on him the annoyance of multigenerational fame. But "the force" was not with Guinness; delicacy and subversive wit were.

Should we look for the "real" Guinness in any of these beguiling, watchful creatures? Or in the hint of melodramatic mystery in his childhood as the illegitimate son of a man whose identity he didn't know? No. Guinness's art is beyond the reach of psychoanalysis or stargazing. His 1985 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, begins with these words: "Enter EGO from the wings, pursued by fiends. Exit EGO."

In his memoir he spoke of himself in the third person, as if Alec Guinness were another, lesser role: "He is well aware he is not in the same class as Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson." Guinness is certainly in the class of these great actors, but he is not of their species. They were always out front, filling a stage or a screen with their presence. Guinness was an inside man, guileful--a master spy, all the more imposing for his invisibility. And more than any other British actor of his stature, Guinness had a miniaturist style that was made for movies. He knew the camera would find him. But not find him out.

The camera was delighted to find the young Guinness popping into Great Expectations as the giddily genial Herbert Pocket. It embraced him, in Guinness's grand postwar decade of Ealing Studios comedies--both as that Candidean innocent, the creator of a miracle fabric in The Man in the White Suit, and as the mousy banker who nearly pulls off the legendary Eiffel Tower paperweight caper in The Lavender Hill Mob. It saw him locate the suicidal pride of the colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The camera may even have captured an on-the-fly self-portrait when the older Guinness sat, purring and omniscient, for the role of George Smiley in the two '80s mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. Perhaps, in the sum of these men, we caught a profile of the composite Guinness character: he defined what it meant, at the sunset of the empire, to be an Englishman.





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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:47 am

The sound and the fury

Shane MacGowan isn't the only pop phenomenon in terminal decline, laments Ian Penman after reading Shane's biography A Drink with Shane MacGowan

The Guardian, Saturday 14 April 2001 00.32 BST



A Drink With Shane MacGowan
Victoria Mary Clarke and Shane MacGowan
360pp, Sidgwick & Jackson
£15.99
Buy it at a discount at BOL

Shane MacGowan - in his own devil's-tune, dishevelled way - is as much a part of postmodern pop as H from Steps. If the boyband universe represents the triumph of product over personality, then MacGowan represents a strange Adults Only version which is all personality and - polite cough - never mind the music; his floggable persona has become the product, replacing anything so quaint as an actual CD of new material.

Even a generous reading of MacGowan's career can't sidestep the fact that his best work was a long, long time ago. His true role is to keep all us old rock bores diverted - "Ooh, did you hear the latest about Shane!" - while the real business of pop business goes on. Is Shane a rebel heart way "outside the system" or one of its worst manifestations? The last bard in town or a lyric souse increasingly nearer late Jeffrey Bernard than mid-period Gram Parsons?

It is probably safe to say that if MacGowan - a self-described "alcoholic junkie Republican" - didn't exist, the music industry wouldn't go out of its way to invent him. But he has done pretty well off the back of his role as ravaged ghost at pop's sushi feast. A gift for a dirt-hungry media with urgent space to fill, Shane is good X-rated copy, a 21st-century blarney stone for whom the pub- bound Q&A has become an easy supper song. (In his shaky confessional hands, sex and drugs and rock'n'roll has been reduced to drugs and drugs and more drugs.) If you want to be bright-side pretentious, he's taken on a kind of shamanic/storyteller role; if you want to be cynical, he's just a proxy low-life Calvary for all the little middle-class hacks.

From John Lennon to the Gallagher Brothers, taking in John Lydon, Shaun Ryder and MacGowan, little England has had a weird on/off love affair with bolshy Irish boys: junkies, misogynists and thieves, anarchists and IRA supporters. The best and most revealing part of A Drink With . . . concerns the Irish in Britain: the early chapters covering MacGowan's upbringing on an Irish farm and his parents' subsequent unhappy move to Brighton have the vividness of good fiction. (Or of old Shane MacGowan songs.)

It's also the only part that adds anything new to our perception of the man. Only latecomers will be shocked by well-read MacGowan, just one of the many selves he stores behind that perma-slur exterior, which may itself be the ultimate - and fussily contrived - snow job. (As in Willie Nelson's cogent line: "Hell, I only drink so much so people won't think I'm a dope fiend.") MacGowan's flock will find little that's new - and would anyway prefer stormin' new work from your man rather than one more helping of an increasingly stale gonzo mythology.

MacGowan is still an involving - if inconsistent - anecdotalist. In the space of a few pages he remembers himself as greasy rocker, punk, soulboy, freak, faux -rentboy and self-proclaimed enemy of all of the above. A canny (or simply awake) editor would have excised a central section which is hapless repetition, pub trivia and a large helping of interruptive vanity on Ms Clarke's part. Even her quasi-marital status doesn't stop MacGowan losing his temper when her questions slip below an acceptable baseline of dim-wittedness. Her intermittent "scene setting" is truly gruesome in its ineptness and, more crucially, she can't interview to save her (or his) life. There are moments when MacGowan's mask begins to slip, revealing a world of pain and perplexity, but Clarke (deliberately?) fumbles them, apparently more concerned with showing herself in a good Rock Girlfriend light. As such, A Drink With . . . is as nauseatingly cosy as any Hello! interview. I mean: how would we react to any other rock star being "profiled" by their live-in lover?

There are hints that MacGowan is less than happy with either the book or his wider station, and flashes of a truly fearsome anger that suggest a substantially different Shane from the one Clarke prepared earlier, and offers us here. Still, by choosing not to exercise his seigniorial veto, MacGowan shows in A Drink With . . . that he is happy to carry on with his attenuated role as rock's jaundiced jester: a role he plays, if not with good grace, then with a kind of weary alcoholic stoicism. "They all buy me drinks - what can I do?"

Well, he could lock himself away in a cottage somewhere and come up with a truly redemptive comeback, like his friends Nick Cave and Steve Earle, or his hero Tom Waits. Except that there are people like Clarke ready to facilitate the myth, while the media is happy to accept his bleary disingenuousness at face value. Everyone just shrugs and says, ah well: that's Shane!

Or you might just wonder at how dehumanised both he and we have become if our idea of entertainment is overseeing the macabre spectacle of this man burying himself alive. You need only compare the ferocious industry of Charles Bukowski, say, with the befuddled last words of Kurt Cobain to realise how crucial, still, is the demarcation between art "about" privation and real, lived despair. With Shane MacGowan, the Orphic function seems to have been shucked off a way back, leaving only a faintly terminal form of jive.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011


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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 13, 2011 6:51 am



Review from The Independent

13 July 2007

Reviewed by Charles Shaar Murray

Never has the word "goatee" seemed more appropriate than when describing the beard worn by the singer, composer and actor Tom Waits in the first few years of his career. There was something incontrovertibly goatish about Waits in his earliest 1970s manifestation: the lanky, hirsute body and elongated, lantern-jawed face made him seem like the Great God Pan, crash-landed to earth and incarnated as an amnesiac wino poet in thrift-shop threads, half-awakened from an alcoholic stupor in the gutter outside San Francisco's celebrated Beat bookshop City Lights sometime in the early 1950s. His personal hygiene may well have been immaculate, but he looked like he smelled really, really bad.


While never unduly troubling the pop charts, Waits has built a formidable body of work over the past three and a half decades, as a low-life laureate whose voice and sensibility are as unique and unmistakable as those of Bob Dylan or Lou Reed. His musical career has been paralleled by a notable sideline as a character actor in movies by directors as prestigious and varied as Francis Ford Coppola (Waits's Renfield to Gary Oldman's Dracula was to die for, dwarling), Terry Gilliam and Jim Jarmusch.

Born in 1949 in the same Southern Californian environs as Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder and Don "Captain Beefheart" Van Vliet, the young Waits couldn't have been further from the average Sixties-raised rock boy. His tastes inclined more towards Leadbelly, jazz and classic Tin Pan Alley songcraft. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the creation of his raffish-boho persona: dressing, singing and writing like a minor character from a Kerouac novel and utilising his impressive gift as a raconteur for self-mythologising shaggy-dog stories ("I was born in the back of a Yellow Cab in a hospital loading zone and with the meter still running. I emerged needing a shave and shouted 'Times Square and step on it!'") and the one-line zinger. Waits is widely credited for originating "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."

He spent the 1970s in the unlikely setting of David Geffen's Asylum record company for the succession of Beat Noir albums which founded his cult - alongside the cocaine-cowboy Mellow Mafia of Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles (who recorded one of his early songs). He toured incessantly, while residing in an LA motel and subsisting on a diet of whiskey and cigarettes. The next phase of his musical career - considerably more complex and substantial - found him mutating into what Howlin' Wolf would have sounded like if the Wolf's favourite songwriters had been Brecht and Weill and his recording sessions orchestrated and produced by Harry Partch. Collaborating with his wife and songwriting/producing partner Kathleen Brennan on albums like Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years, Waits found his best and truest voice.

As has his biographer, Patrick Humphries. The author of several other books, including the definitive works on Nick Drake and Fairport Convention, Humphries has always been a perceptive, literate and conscientious writer. Nobody who has had the misfortune to read far too many rock and pop biographies could possibly construe that assessment as damning with faint praise.

However, this book says bye-bye to sobersides: under the influence of his subject's penchant for tall tales, low life and wisecracking wordplay, Humphries channels his inner Chandler for the snappiest prose of his career. "Like desolation row with a zip code... here's where bedlam gets into bed with squalor... where the hoods from West Side Story slunk off to open all-nite drugstores so that when times got really hard they could rob themselves". At its best, it's almost as much fun to read Humphries's book as to listen to Tom Waits.



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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Thu Apr 14, 2011 9:52 am

The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History by Mary S Lovell – review

A deft history traces the family from the first Duke of Marlborough to Winston Churchill

Kathryn Hughes The Guardian, Saturday 2 April 2011


A tactful view ... Clementine and Winston Churchill at Hendon Air Pageant. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

The Churchill family must be one of the most picked over, ever. All its major stars, from the first Duke of Marlborough, via the dollar princesses Jennie Jerome and Consuelo Vanderbilt to Winston himself, have inspired multiple biographers in their own right. There is, then, little in this epic group study that you cannot find elsewhere. Chances are, though, that until now you will have been hazy about how all these lives link up.


The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History, from the Duke of Marlborough to Winston Churchill by Mary S Lovell

Mary Lovell's deft synthesising narrative succeeds not simply in walking us through the succeeding ducal generations at Blenheim, but also in showing us how all those branch lines – assorted Grenfells, Guests, Mitfords and Felloweses – hook on to the main story. The plate-spinning is extraordinary, even if Lovell's weaker chapters occasionally sound like a round robin sent by a posh if rather rackety family: "This year Arabella enjoyed a good hunting season, Sarah finally tackled her drink problem and Esmond annoyed everyone by becoming a communist."

Lovell's story starts, almost inevitably, with the hero of Blenheim. John Churchill was born into the minor gentry in 1650, his clodhopping origins a reminder that, even now, there are those who like to think of the Churchills as nouveaux. His great triumph of 1704, by which Britain was made safe from French ambition for the next hundred years, clearly demanded a marker. John's pushy duchess, Sarah, hired Vanbrugh to build "an English Versailles" in the Cotswolds and then spent the next 15 years being cross about it. By the time the elderly couple took possession of Blenheim Palace in 1719 they were sick of the whole project, with Sarah raging at "that wild unmerciful house". The duke made his feelings clear by promptly dying.

This churning distaste for Blenheim was not shared by Winston Churchill, who loved the place with all the wistful longing of someone not entitled to live there (his father was only a second son). If the jump between 1719 and the birth of Winston in 1874 seems a big one, then that's because the Churchills fielded no real stars in between. Lovell dispatches the second to the seventh dukes of Marlborough in barely a page, before landing with a pleased thud on Lord Randolph, Winston's father and brother to the eighth duke. Now, you feel, we can take our coats off (the heating at Blenheim has always been dicey) and start to have a proper look round. Lovell's story really begins in the middle of the 19th century and stretches until Winston's decline into ailing old age a hundred years later.

The focus throughout is on the domestic, intimate, private side of the Churchills, which means lots of pretty girls in splendid dresses, love at first sight, assignations on the Côte d'Azur, and plenty of detail about the rock gardens at Blenheim. Lovell's narrative feels at its freest in the late 19th century, a period that is now becoming so distant that there is less and less chance of causing offence by repeating the old canards about Randolph and his syphilis, Jennie and her toyboys, and that Winston may have been conceived before the wedding day.

Particularly enthralling is Lovell's retelling of the story of poor old Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Edith Wharton-ish innocent who sobbed behind her veil as she was led up the aisle to marry the ghastly ninth duke in 1895. The marriage lasted 11 years, and Consuelo's successor took the sensible precaution of carrying a gun in with her to dinner in case she felt the need to shoot the duke. By the time the book ends, there are an awful lot of nice women who rue the day that they ever got mixed up with the Churchills. The more enterprising used to make early exits from Blenheim house parties by biking into Woodstock and sending fake telegrams to themselves urging a swift return home.

The closer the narrative gets to our own time the tighter we feel Lovell's voice becoming, as if she were anxious not to hurt any of her informants who are still living, such as Mary Soames, Winston's youngest child. Nothing wrong with tact, but it does mean that certain subjects, particularly the relationship between Winston and his wife Clementine, feel filmy, as if viewed through a lace curtain. For instance, Lovell tells us that halfway through preparations for her marriage in 1908, Clementine considered calling the whole thing off, but was sternly reminded by her brother that she'd broken one engagement in her short life already and this was starting to look like a bad habit. Why, though, did Clementine want to back out? Lovell moves us briskly on, like an anxious family retainer keen to avoid dwelling on any unpleasantness. The same thing happens later, when she tells us that Clementine talked about divorce. This sounds like something worth investigating, but Lovell hurries us through the cordoned-off area with an emphatic "Clementine was soon back at home".

Mary Lovell has form when it comes to writing about the aristocracy. Her most recent book was a well-received biography of the Mitford sisters by whom she managed to be tickled but not stupidly overawed. Here her decision to stick to the "private side" of the Churchills might feel frothy were it not for the fact that, when she needs to, she can give us all the heft we need about Westminster, war and Winston's often overlooked writing career. Any tendency towards frivolity is also offset by respect for the facts. Lovell's points are diligently footnoted, she is strict about speculation and courteous towards her subjects. The result is a book that may not break new ground but still manages to tend its own garden with considerable grace and style.

The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes is published by Harper Perennial.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Thu Apr 21, 2011 10:12 pm

The Fetish Room: The Education of a Naturalist by Redmond O'Hanlon and Rudi Rotthier – review

Naturalist Redmond O'Hanlon's travels round the England of his boyhood make charming if poignant reading

Stephen Smith The Observer, Sunday 17 April 2011


Redmond O'Hanlon: 'a journey to the dark heart of his interior'. Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe

In Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, nature writer William Boot was bottom of the food chain at the Daily Beast. He had the unsexy countryside beat all to himself when he wrote the "Lush Places" column: "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole". But thanks to a boom in writing about the great outdoors, the questing vole can barely move for prosperous naturalists these days. And now the publishing business has woken up to the fact that one of the masters of the genre has not been heard from during this bonanza – not for seven years, in fact. He is Redmond O'Hanlon, explorer of the Amazon, Borneo and Congo. This is a man acquainted with head-hunters, boiling rapids and even a "globulating necklace of leeches".


The Fetish Room: The Education of a Naturalist by Rudi Rotthier, Redmond O'Hanlon

Remarkably, O'Hanlon hasn't disappeared in a jungle. No, he's got lost at his base camp in an Oxfordshire village, missing beneath a smothering canopy of books, in a sucking bog of dirty dishes and cat sick. In his masterpiece, Congo Journey, O'Hanlon went in search of a monster called Mokele-mbembe, a throwback to the dinosaurs. But the beast that has been haunting his imagination of late is the black dog.

In therapy, and distracted by bereavement and family illness, O'Hanlon can't or won't write. An indefatigable firm of publishers solve this problem by pairing the 61-year-old with a young Flemish journalist, Rudi Rotthier. He accompanies O'Hanlon on a tour of places from his long-lost past in the south of England, and records the older man's stories. Like the exotic specimens that O'Hanlon once pursued, these are highly colourful, and flit by on wings of gossamer. They cry out to be pressed between the pages of a book. The two travelling companions are bent on game greater and more elusive than anything the ageing naturalist has encountered before. He is trying to find himself. This is Jurassic Park script-doctored by Samuel Beckett.

The publishers go out of their way to emphasise that this is a journey to the dark heart of O'Hanlon's interior. He is "depressed… a stream of jokey anecdotes… offset the bleakness of almost all his memories". You would never guess that they were talking about this funny and charming book. There are good things on almost every page. That said, O'Hanlon clearly suffered during his school days, and it's all he can do to force himself over the threshold of his old halls of learning. His sadistic teachers were no slouches with the cane.

If Graham Greene was right that an unhappy childhood is money in the bank for a writer, O'Hanlon was amply provided for in this respect. He tells his counsellors that he dreams of firing a Magnum .45 at his mother's grave: "I thought that was funny but nobody laughed." He isn't on much better terms with his father, an Anglican clergyman. The life of the unbelieving O'Hanlon has been dominated by two men who studied for holy orders: his father and Charles Darwin. The O'Hanlon family were thoroughgoing creationists, although they added a wrinkle or two all of their own. Redmond's father believed that God had several bashes at making heaven and earth before he got it right, giving up on experiments which had gone off at half-cock, such as dinosaurs and fossils. The vicar and his wife thought that the theory of natural selection was blasphemy. In the garden of an English country rectory, they made a bonfire of their son's science books.

The respectable and the shocking are plaited together as tightly as the blood-sucking neckwear of the rainforest. In agreeable Holland Park, London, O'Hanlon picks up a blackened foot and keeps it in an urn. It's all that's left of his best friend, who has tragically burned himself to death at 21. So begins a lifetime of collecting the charms and familiars that furnish O'Hanlon's gamy den, the fetish room of the title.

But it's not all bad news. O'Hanlon has a bug named after him, and Congo Journey becomes a Penguin Classic. There are good stories about fellow writers, including a row over money between James Fenton and Craig Raine, a pair of gold-plated poets. "Craig once exclaimed at the ugliness of a pylon on Fenton's estate. James answered that he had looked into the matter and that it would cost a million pounds to remove the pylon. He went on to remark airily that he could afford to remove two pylons, which got Craig's back up."

Too much travel literature consists of dry men writing about dry places, drily. The mutton-chopped O'Hanlon, with his unfakeable enthusiasm for the pure beauty of science, is sorely missed. What we need is a wise man, a skilled shaman, to fight his way through the choking undergrowth of O'Hanlon's home, and talk him into making a proper comeback. Does anyone know a good head-hunter?

Stephen Smith is Newsnight's culture correspondent and the author of several travel books, including Cuba, The Land of Miracles and Underground London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Mon May 09, 2011 6:06 pm

Behind Closed Doors – review

Rosemary Hill wonders whether Wallis Simpson's tale a tragedy or a damp squib

The Guardian, Saturday 7 May 2011

"When does a story end?" Hugo Vickers wonders halfway through this mesmerisingly awful book about the last years of Wallis Simpson (pictured), adding "Perhaps it never does." For Vickers, who has been obsessed for decades with every detail of the Duchess of Windsor's life and long-drawn-out death, this is clearly true. For most people, however, the story of Edward VIII's abdication and its aftermath is fixed in a handful of phrases and images. "The woman I love", "impossible to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do", with the striking emphasis on the "I", the rigidly posed wedding photograph showing Wallis with her snake hips and heavy, jolie-laide features all shadows and angles, the epitome of art deco elegance. After that come the long years of exile and speculation, his death, her haunted and much lifted face at the window of Buckingham Palace and then a slow fade, bed-ridden in the Bois de Boulogne, to her own end.


Behind Closed Doors by Hugo Vickers

It is a story with a certain glamour and narrative rightness about it. The Windsors can be cast as the wrong but romantic counterpoint to their replacements, the dutiful but dowdy George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Or Wallis can be demonised as the femme fatale, the wicked American divorcee who "pinched our king". Neither of these variants will do for Vickers. He wants to get behind the image, feeling that his subject has been maligned, particularly by those previous biographers whom he characterises as "the intelligent and Establishment" writers. These people, he explains in aggrieved tones, "are well educated, they read serious books and some enjoy the arts in their highest form"; they are therefore, he believes, unable to understand a person who "did not involve herself in cultural activities".

In attempting to redress the balance Vickers has succeeded up to a point. Nobody could call this book intelligent. His method is to accumulate an immense amount of detail, mostly from the duchess's hostile staff, from which he selects such nuggets as that her nurses once requested single yoghurts for lunch and that in her last years she no longer had monogrammed sheets on the bed. Every dog she ever had is named and a great many brooches are listed. But on the bigger questions, he is vague, and of the Windsors' attitude to Nazi Germany at the time of the fall of France, it will not "suffice it to say" that they were "not disloyal".

Vickers himself looms large in the story despite never having met his subject. The closest he came was once to be in the room when her secretary took a phone call from her. For the rest of the time he was happy to hang out with the hangers-on and unblushingly records regular visits to peer over the garden wall which enable him to tell us that in 1985 "the lawn was very green". When the reader can see past her Pooterish champion, the picture of the duchess that emerges is not attractive. The best even Vickers can say of her is that she was stylish and elegant and, by his reckoning, descended from Henry III. The "friends" he quotes are not noticeably warm in their recollections. Cordelia Biddle, who had known Wallis since schooldays, remembered that "she was always a flirt . . . If she wanted something she went after it." Cecil Beaton later described her ambiguously as "intelligent within her vast limitations" and Vickers can do no more about her acknowledged tendency to manipulate the truth than to describe her variously as "a great actress" and "a typical Gemini".

The "untold story" of her last years is not tragic but sadly familiar: a frail old woman, exploited by those who were paid to care for her. Vickers's main impetus in this part of the book is a hatred of the duchess's lawyer, Suzanne Blum, with whom he seems almost as obsessed as with the duchess herself. Yet much of what he says is based on gossip. There is still less to support his unpleasant allegations against her long-serving butler, Georges, whom Vickers calls a "crook", "believed" to have taken a bribe and colluded in forgery.

It is hard not to think that Vickers's real grudge against Blum is jealousy. He cannot bear the fact that the frumpy lawyer with the ill-fitting wig was the duchess's close companion. After her health collapsed, the last 11 years of the duchess's life were dragged out in the midst of an accelerating danse macabre of acolytes, biographers and Blum jostling for the spoils and a seat at the funeral. For this Vickers was finally on the spot and so excited to be at the duchess's "last party" that he finds nothing tasteless about giving the guest list, the placement (with diagram), the price of the bouquet from Estée Lauder and the fact that the ex-wife of the Earl of Dudley was annoyed to see the present countess, "the former film star Maureen Swanson", wearing the Dudley pearls.

By the end the "poor little person" – as Diana Mitford called the duchess – far from being vindicated, is shown as stupid and venal, the moment of glamour in the 1930s just that, a chance whereby she caught the light of history. As for her biographer, our last sight of him is consistently bathetic as he leaves the sale of the duchess's effects, having successfully bid for a monogrammed bathmat.

Rosemary Hill's God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain is published by Penguin.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  ISN on Wed May 11, 2011 12:34 am

sorry - just opened this thread and read the first few lines......

had to comment at what is close to blasphemy

Malcolm X's
popular legacy is greater than Martin Luther King's

that is complete rubbish as far as I am aware......

there are few people in recent history that have had such an effect on society as Dr Martin Luther King........

Malcolm X doesn't even come close

now to read the rest of the thread......

sorry - just noticed the word popular

if you're talking about popular legacy, then I suppose it is true

what Martin Luther King effected has dug in and excavated the mores of society much deeper than simply being popular

in fact, I'm quite relieved to see that he's not popular......

like someone at work said today.....in the tail-end of a conversation I heard.......he doesn't believe in democracy because of the stupidity of most people (as far as I could make out) - I think I was included in the stupidity group

and I shouted out that Churchill had already said that - I think I read that on here last night (things you learn on ATU)

although I love viral videos and other things that are fashionable......

I really think popular opinion is a load of crap


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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  Nah Ville Sky Chick on Wed May 11, 2011 12:44 am

In the pantheon of black American protest figures only Martin Luther King occupies a more exalted position, but it is Malcolm X whose legend has the greater street credibility and aura of cool. It's he who was the subject of Spike Lee's biopic starring Denzel Washington, and it is Malcolm, not Martin, who today is cited by radicals and rap stars.


I agree with that ^^

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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  ISN on Wed May 11, 2011 12:51 am

naturally, I disagree

I think Dr King left an indelible mark on the conscience of America (if not the world)

the legacy of being significant to rap stars and Denzel Washington's turn at it is almost an argument against it being in the same league (to borrow an American phrase) as the genuine, deep, lasting differences that Dr King inspired/made (most of which have become so normal in our lives as to be practically invisible - and that's the reason I think his legacy is greater)

like I said - I haven't read the thread yet......

but to be honest (which I'm doing a lot of lately) I know far too little about either of them to make such bold statements apart from the patina of knowledge that my sorrowful/rejoicing interest in the civil rights movement left me with

but I guess - I've always had the hots for Dr King and his legacy

Malcolm X - just another hater

now I'll go and read up on them a bit


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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  ISN on Wed May 11, 2011 2:19 am

just from a dip into his biography, I can see that he had a complex and divided personality

and the kind of compelling (guacamayo, take note) and aggressive attitude about the 'issues' that I can relate to......heheh

exactly because he was expounding divisive and inflammatory ideas and when he was bored with the original ideas - he discovered different divisive and inflammatory conceptions to make him a real kind of gung-ho cause in himself......I think his legacy is greater than any original sentiments or lasting effects mostly because his troubled psyche cast a huge shadow......and there were also some real changes

he seems to have become memorable for his actions......his words are probably so convoluted and personal that people didn't really understand them, but appreciated them for their shock value

Dr Martin Luther King Jr (my personal attempt at posthumous respect is always using his full title)

was obviously not as controversial a figure among black people as Malcolm X was

on the other hand he started, gave impetus to and finally carried out (possibly posthumously) every single change of heart in whitey

I admire him for his intelligence, for his compassion, for his profound understanding of the beauty of humanity (not from a black person's point of view but from everyman's)...and for his delicious skill in inspiring hordes of men and women to this day (perhaps not in the glamorous world of rap or cinema) but in every white person's (whether conscious of the origin or not) respect for black people.....or attempts at respect

none of those rappers or actors (Denzel Washington, Will Smith and the female beauties that escape my memory) would not even be around now if it weren't for Dr King

(just adding something in an edit - although he is largely responsible for the consciousness of injecting peace, love and fraternity into a horrible world, I am pretty sure that someone else would have sprung up at some time to make the necessary changes - there is a poetry about the way things happen that precludes assumptions in hindsight)

he is one of my heart-throbs.....hehehe....... I love you
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  felix on Wed May 11, 2011 4:54 am

Catherine wrote: The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr (my personal attempt at posthumous respect is always using his full title)
Well, that's what it says on my Renny Records 45rpm of 'I Have A Dream'. study
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  ISN on Wed May 11, 2011 5:00 am

Dr and teh Reverend are often interchangeable in some kind of American idiotic hierarchy

as far as I know

sorry, my mistake.......the Reverend is some kind of emotional, unofficial appurtenance...some kind of collegiate or religious designation

without me going too far down teh rabbit hole of lexicography......my particular peculiarity

which finds me driveling and drooling with madness and a dictionary as my guides into the long dark night

and not much hope of escaping.........

really, Felix - is that all you can add to the discussion.......?

seriously - I've dipped into the romance, the controversy, the history and the truth

and all you can say is 'Reverend'........not impressed

you pernickety fool.........

edit - reading this a couple of days later - it seems like I'm being rude to Felix.......when I wrote it I was conscious of some friendly playful kidding around.....


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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  Nah Ville Sky Chick on Wed May 11, 2011 5:27 am

He was a Doctor of Philosophy and a Reverend as far as I know?

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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  Doc Watson on Wed May 11, 2011 11:04 am

Catherine wrote:Dr and teh Reverend are often interchangeable in some kind of American idiotic hierarchy

as far as I know

sorry, my mistake.......the Reverend is some kind of emotional, unofficial appurtenance...some kind of collegiate or religious designation

without me going too far down teh rabbit hole of lexicography......my particular peculiarity

which finds me driveling and drooling with madness and a dictionary as my guides into the long dark night

and not much hope of escaping.........

really, Felix - is that all you can add to the discussion.......?

seriously - I've dipped into the romance, the controversy, the history and the truth

and all you can say is 'Reverend'........not impressed

you pernickety fool.........
Reverend is a title given to ministers and priests after they have been ordained usually after a lengthy period of study.
It is wrong to address some one for example as Reverend Brown it should be Reverend Mr or Mrs Brown if he or she is also a Doctor , Reverend usually precedes Doctor , but not always. I write this as the son of a preacher man.
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  Constance on Fri May 27, 2011 8:19 am



An autobiography of the author's battle with bipolar illnenss. Harrowing. Beautifully written. The author is on the Faculty of Johns Hopkins University as Professor of Psychology. She has written the industry's major professional book on manic-depression.
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Sun May 29, 2011 9:44 pm

George Best's widow and his lover unite against 'totally unfair' memoir

Celia Walden's book would have made the Manchester United star 'absolutely livid', say women who knew him best

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent The Observer, Sunday 29 May 2011


George and Alex Best in 1999: Gina Devivo says 'I am so angry for George because he is not here to defend himself.' Photograph: Mark St George /Rex Features

The former mistress of George Best, Gina Devivo, has joined forces with the footballer's widow to claim that a new book about the period leading up to his death is largely fiction.

Devivo is so upset by what she describes as the work of someone "with a very good imagination" that she has told the Observer she has contacted Alex Best to support her in a legal claim against the publishers of the book, by journalist Celia Walden, the wife of Piers Morgan. Extracts from Walden's book, Babysitting George, have been serialised in the Daily Telegraph and last week it featured as BBC Radio 4's book of the week.

"I am most angry for George, because he is not here to defend himself," said Devivo. "It just didn't happen that way. George would be absolutely livid. He only ever spent a few days with Celia and had no rapport with her at all."

Publishers Bloomsbury Press in London said they were unable to comment about the book or the legal action when asked about Devivo's claim that basic facts in the book were changed several times by Walden in the run-up to publication this month, and that much of her version of events remains inaccurate in the final version.

"I did tell Celia it was wrong before publication and she told me she would put something in the front of the book saying it had all happened 'to the best of her memory'," said Devivo. "In the end, though, she thanks me for my 'continuing friendship' in the first pages even though she hadn't seen me for eight years."

Devivo says that Walden was with the couple for a much shorter time than she suggests in the book. "The way she has portrayed me is really bad too. I did my best to help George. I would never have in any way encouraged him to drink. It is totally unfair. And it is not fair on my children either. They are grown up now and know what they are reading is not true."

Walden met Best when her Sunday newspaper sent her out to Malta in August 2003 to "babysit" the football celebrity, who was struggling with alcoholism and had reportedly started drinking heavily again. Arguing with his wife of seven years, Alex, Best later began a relationship with mother-of-two Devivo which is described at first hand in Walden's book.

The Mail on Sunday was immediately concerned that a rival publication might get the story of the break-up, although the footballer had an exclusive contract with it. The paper wanted Walden, then a young aspiring journalist, to keep its errant star columnist away from other newspapers, which were staking out the hotel where Best was staying.

Alex Best's mother is also supporting her daughter and Devivo in their allegations about the book. Cheryl Pursey denies she ever argued publicly with her son-in-law, as Walden's book describes.

"I never had an argument with George. He was ill, we all knew that," she said. "Alex should never have left him alone in Malta, but she was a young woman then and we make mistakes. We all understood his illness and we had a very good relationship."

Pursey believes that Walden abused a position of trust. "It was such a horrible time in our lives. I remember everything absolutely vividly and it is not just timings that she has got wrong, it is lots of the events she describes," she said.

"George was just a member of the family to us and we actually had to move out of our house for three months because of all the press attention. You don't do that lightly."

"Celia came into our house with George's ghost writer on the column and so I thought she was trusted."

Devivo hopes to prove that an account of a fight that Walden said she witnessed between Best and a man in a bar did not happen: "I was never in the pub with both Celia and George. She says that Manchester United was playing on the pub television screens, but it wasn't even supposed to be during the football season. It is a totally unbelievable version of the summer of 2003. I really can't stress enough that I just wasn't in those places."

Devivo is planning to support Alex "in all she is doing about this book". She said: "I have spoken to her. We were only guilty of loving the same man and are both intelligent enough to know that." Best's widow has instructed solicitors because she feels Walden's suggestion that she might have enjoyed being hit by her husband is a defamation of her character.

In the book Walden writes: "There was a streak of perversity in George and I couldn't help wondering if his wife shared it. It was easy to imagine that a woman I didn't know might get off on the physicality of those wrangles."

"The book has upset everyone," said Devivo. "And the worst thing is this is all going to go down as a piece of history. What if my grandchildren get to read that version of me? It scares the life out of me. I have never objected to anything Alex has said about me or anyone else, but I have to make a stand now. It hurts but I can't even say it brings back painful memories because it never happened."

Walden said that she was unable to comment.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Re: Biography and Autobiography

Post  eddie on Mon May 30, 2011 3:01 am

The Horseman's Word by Roger Garfitt – review

An evocation of country life proves to be a lyrical and frightening memoir

John Burnside The Guardian, Saturday 28 May 2011


A country police constable on bicycle duty in the Surrey village of Shere. Photograph: T. Marshall/Getty Images

On first acquaintance, we might be forgiven for reading The Horseman's Word as a lyrical evocation of a lost England, a poet's careful, often exquisite elegy for the landscapes that formed him. Those landscapes (coastal Norfolk, the semi-rural hinterlands of Surrey) are evoked with tenderness and care; the people, especially Garfitt's grandparents, are vividly drawn, and the attention to fine detail (the sensual feast of opening up a beach hut at the start of the season, for example) is close to Proustian. Yet this book is no idyll: hardship is recognised and given its due, while the clannishness and feudal nature of village life, familiar to anyone who has ever dwelt in the countryside, is mercilessly rendered: "One of the squires of Sedgeford, Sir Holkham Ingleby, wrote an affectionate little book called The Charm of a Village: but the charm rather depended on where you stood in the social scale. [His aunt] Ruth remembers another member of the squire's family calling at the house and asking, 'Is this Garfitt's cottage?' [Uncle] Frank answered her with the courtesy she expected, 'Yes, Ma'am,' but Ruth thought, 'Why can't she say Mr Garfitt? We have to show respect. Why can't she do the same for my father?'"


The Horseman's Word by Roger Garfitt

The casual harm done by the rural class system is not confined to disrespect, however: when a local schoolmaster makes a false accusation against Garfitt's uncles, the magistrates find themselves "in a dilemma: they should have dismissed the case but that would have made the schoolmaster look foolish. In the feudal society of the village as it was then, his position had to be preserved. They compromised by finding the boys guilty but giving them an absolute discharge." As a local gamekeeper points out, "gentlemen don't give a damn about our class of people. I've been with them so long I know just what they are."

In Surrey, however, Garfitt's father has risen to the position of lawyer, dedicating his spare time and most of his energy to the horse-breaking stables and riding school he has set up near Hersham, so that the family, especially Garfitt's mother, are keenly aware of belonging to a higher social stratum – and this has a very particular impact on young Roger's love life. Torn between intense, and rather peculiar religious impulses and an Augustinian attachment to the flesh, the teenager is attracted first to a stable girl, and then to an au pair who works for the family, but his class-conscious parents intervene at every turn, dismissing one girl and doing all they can to keep the other out of reach.

Not surprisingly, the young man grows up emotionally conflicted. The central part of the memoir, covering the author's teens and early 20s (coinciding, more or less, with the period when, according to Larkin, "sex began") is much taken up with romantic and sexual matters, as well as his emergence as a young poet in the Oxford of Peter Levi and John Wain, bringing in distinguished visitors such as Ted Hughes and WH Auden (who asked the dandified young Garfitt, when they were introduced, "How much a year do you spend on your hair?").

The description of Hughes is both funny and poignant: "Any student of animal behaviour would have been able to read our stance, the submissive, forward lean with which we asked our questions, and the distance we kept, holding to our little round tables while Ted Hughes leaned against the bar. He had just read to the University Poetry Society, his broad shoulders hunched over the book, his introductions terse to the point of impatience: "'The next poem is called "Otter". It's about . . . an otter.' The poems seemed to build like floodwater and break over the room, so that it came as something of a surprise when Craig Raine ventured, 'You don't actually read them very well, do you?' Hughes must have been surprised too but he didn't show it: 'Well, you get fed up with them towards the end.'" It's an exchange that strangely echoes the visit of the squire's kinswoman earlier in the book, but Hughes remains a rich and dignified presence, whose humility and sense of equality leaves Garfitt with the sense that "there might be some sense to us after all, some relationship between the elemental music we had just heard and our rushes of words to the head."

The Horseman's Word is full of such precise and tender portraits, both of incidental characters – the visiting poet, the chance encounter on the road, the latest in a series of beautiful, intriguing girls – and the author's family and closest friends. Garfitt's eye for the telling details of character, and his economy in relating them, evidence great skill and fine judgment, but it is in the second half of the book, when he recounts his descent into madness, that the full range of his narrative gifts emerges.

Madness is difficult to write, particularly from the inside, and the kind of madness from which the young Garfitt suffers – a walking-wounded, more or less functioning insanity that allows the sufferer to wander haphazardly from one terrifying situation to the next – is both the most dangerous to the sufferer and the hardest to convey. Yet Garfitt relates it so vividly that the reader enters into the madman's mind and sees the world from his point of view: the hallucinations, the illusions, the paranoid calculations, all are set out in the clearest prose.

This section of the book, one of the finest first-hand accounts of madness I have read, is a superb achievement; just as Garfitt is careful to sidestep the merely pastoral in his evocation of the English countryside, he scrupulously avoids the temptations attendant on writing about madness, so that, when we come to the point where the patient is reduced to the most basic level of existence, we go with him to his padded cell, to be broken, and to be healed.

John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning is published by Jonathan Cape.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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