This talk was delivered at the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
One of the longest biographies of recent years, the ill-fated Philip Roth by Blake Bailey, runs to 800 pages. It takes a total of 31 hours and 46 minutes to listen to on audiobook. Roth was 85 when he died, so his real life ran to a total of 750,000 hours or so. Even the longest biography is but a tiny fraction of the life it is intended to chronicle.
Robert Caro’s biography of President Johnson is so vast that it makes Bailey’s Roth look like a haiku. Caro has been working on his biography of LBJ since the mid-1970s. Each volume is roughly 800,000 words; he published volume 4 in 2012. The audiobook for that one alone takes 32 hours 45 minutes. Caro is still trying to complete the fifth and final volume, which will take LBJ from 1964 to his death in 1973. Caro himself is now 85. Will he live long enough to reach the end?
John Richardson published the first volume of his biography of Pablo Picasso in 1991. It was 548 pages long, and took Picasso up to the age of 25.
Volume 2 appeared in 1996: Picasso was 35 years old at its close. Volume 111 arrived in 2007: Picasso was still only 50, but his biographer was by now 83. After 1500 pages, Richardson still had 41 years of Picasso’s life to cover. In 2019, the biographer lost his race against his subject, dying at the age of 95, with Picasso still going strong.
Describing Richardson’s biography, reviewers would regularly use the adjective “exhaustive”, which is often a euphemism for “exhausting.” Certainly, his Life of Picasso tells you all you need to know, and perhaps rather more than you need to know, about the exterior circumstances of the life of Picasso. It will tell you, for instance, the exact day he checked into the Savoy Hotel in 1919 (May 25th) and the number of his room (574) and the number to which it has since been changed (536) and the person who booked it for him (Sergei Diaghilev), and so on and so forth.
These day-to-day biographical details, dropping like heavy snow, can often blot out the subject. And what is lost, above all, is the art. Writing the biography of a writer or a painter can be like pulling down a great building in the hope of uncovering the secret of its creation; or like shooting a bird to find out how it used to fly. “Collect all the facts that can be collected about the life of Racine” observed Paul Valery, “and you will never learn from them the art of his verse.”
What to put in and what to leave out? In her memoir The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws (2009), Margaret Drabble devotes a great deal of space to her meetings with her Auntie Phyl.
“I maintain (though she queried this) that it was I who usefully introduced her to scampi and chips at an excellent but now defunct hostelry overlooking the Bristol Channel at Linton.”
A few pages on, we hear that “one of Auntie Phyl’s specialities was whipped evaporated milk.” She then offers us the recipe. Margaret Drabble reveals herself as the maestro of the untelling detail. Listing various old English boardgames she writes of one called Nine Men’s Morris, mentioned by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All very interesting, but do we really need to know that Drabble herself bought a copy of this game in the National Trust shop at Heddon Mouth in Devon and gave it to her grandson Stanley at a lunch party in Hackney in June 2008?
Similarly, when she gets going on the history of jigsaws, she informs us that the earliest one has been dated to 1766 and credited to John Spilsbury, who, by the way, “was the answer to a question on University Challenge on 27 November 2006, when he scored a point for the team who guessed him correctly.” Most of this seems extraneous to the matter in hand. Would it really make any difference, for instance, if the programme had been transmitted on the 26th of November or the 28th, or even in May, June, or July? And would anyone really have imagined that a point would have been given to the team that failed to guess him correctly?
An entirely comprehensive biography would last as long as its subject’s life—or infinitely longer, given all the other lives that would have intersected with it. It would thus be the equivalent of Borges’s complete map of the world, which is, of necessity, exactly the same size as the world itself.An entirely comprehensive biography would last as long as its subject’s life—or infinitely longer, given all the other lives that would have intersected with it.
In 2003, at the age of 45, Mark Lewisohn began researching a history of the Beatles. Ten years later, he published the first volume. The extended version runs to 1698 pages, and only takes the Beatles up to the end of 1962, and the recording of Love Me Do. Lewisohn is now 62, and expects to be well into his seventies before his trilogy is complete. It is, by any measure, an extraordinary achievement, but the detail sometimes threatens to smother the whole. For instance, you may well want to know that George Harrison’s first car was a Ford Anglia. Fair enough. But do you really need to know that it was a second-hand two-door blue Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe, bought by George from Brian Epstein’s friend Terry Doran who worked at a car dealership in Warrington?
There are those of us who will be intrigued to learn that Ringo’s stepfather Harry Graves bought Ringo his first set of drums in Romford for £10 in 1957. But are we as eager to know the exact route taken by Harry (born 1937, favourite football team West Ham, favourite singer Sarah Vaughan) when he was lugging it back to Liverpool (Romford to Liverpool Street, then Circle Line to Euston Square and walk to Euston mainline station for the train to Lime Street, followed by a taxi to Dingle)? Lewisohn is so conscientious that he even includes the details he has failed to find out. For instance, of one of John, Paul and George’s earliest incarnations, Japage 3, he informs us that “History doesn’t tell if Japage 3 sang Three Cool Cats when they performed at La Scala Ballroom in Runcorn on Friday 8 May”.
Quite clearly, however indiscriminate or exhaustive any biographer may be, there is still far more that must be left out than put in. No life can be recaptured in its entirety. It follows that not even one single minute of any life could ever be recaptured as a whole, as there is not a minute in the life of the brain that can be isolated from the rest of its life. We live in the present, but we think in the past and in the present and in the future, and often all at the same time.
Biography as a form is necessarily artificial. In the end, all biography is a form of fiction. As Peter Ackroyd once said, “Fiction requires truth-telling, whereas in a biography one can make things up.” Introducing Burning Man her extraordinary new book covering ten years in the life of DH Lawrence, Frances Wilson writes: “Just as writers of fiction might provide a disclaimer declaring that what follows is a work of imagination not based on real characters, and writers of non-fiction might provide a disclaimer declaring that what follows is not a work of imagination and very much based on real characters, I should similarly state that Burning Man is a work of non-fiction which is also a work of imagination.”
Biography is at the mercy of information, and information is seldom there when you want it. Or occasionally there is a wealth of information, but most of it is window-dressing: the shop itself is shut, visible only through the front window, its private offices firmly under lock and key. This is what makes biography the most sheepish and constrained of the arts, and the least like life.Biography is at the mercy of information, and information is seldom there when you want it.
The deepest part of any life lies within the head. Thomas Wright, author of Oscar’s Books: a Journey Around the Library of Oscar Wilde, wrote: “I felt that his biographers had placed undue emphasis on the dramatic external episodes of his life, and not enough on the inner world of his intellect and imagination. It seemed to me that the great events of Wilde’s biography, to adapt his own phrase, had taken place in his brain.” This is, of course, the trouble with all literary biography, and most other biography besides.
The real life of anyone takes place largely in the mind, yet it is only the secondary, external stuff—people met, places visited, opinions expressed, and so forth—that is accessible to the biographer. Unless they are spoken or written down, an individual’s thoughts evaporate into nothing. The subject’s head is, you might say, a closed book. This has not, of course, prevented certain biographers from counterfeiting entry into the heads of their subjects. In the very last sentence of her vast biography of Mao Tse-Tung, Jung Chang somehow finds access to Mao’s dying thoughts: “His mind remained lucid to the end, and in it stirred just one thought: himself and his power.” To which one is bound to ask: how do you know?
Royal biographers regularly follow the same practice. In her biography of Princess Diana, Tina Brown makes no division between knowledge and conjecture. In fact, she goes one step further than Jung Chang, claiming to reproduce not only what Diana thought she thought, but what she would have thought, had she been honest with herself: “As she entered her thirty-seventh year, Diana told herself she was looking for love. But what she was really seeking was a guy with a Gulfstream.”
Similarly, in the first paragraph of his biography of the Queen, Robert Lacey describes Her Majesty at Balmoral on the Thursday after the death of Princess Diana, reading the newspapers. “Digesting their angry sermons with the long-practised pensiveness which caused her eyes to narrow, her jaw would firm slightly as her thought processes started, shifting her chin forward a fraction—a signal to her staff to think one more hard thought before they opened their mouths.”
This passage raises any number of questions. Was the intrepid Mr Lacey in the Balmoral breakfast room that September morning, perhaps hiding under the table with a periscope to hand? If not, how could he know that the Queen’s reading “caused her eyes to narrow?” And how does anyone, let alone the Queen, set about practising pensiveness? And—since, presumably, Lacey was crouching in her brain, like one of the Numbskull cartoon characters in The Beezer, could he please explain what, if anything, was going on in The Queen’s brain before she firmed her jaw and “her thought processes started”?
This sort of intrusion can be much more pernicious. In 1975 Primo Levi published his great book The Periodic Table as a testament to the primacy of truth. A professional chemist, he saw chemistry as truth, and unverifiable creeds (not least Nazism) as enemies of truth. “There is trouble in store” he writes with his engagingly cool understatement, “for anyone who surrenders to the temptation of mistaking an elegant hypothesis for a certainty.”
This might be a good motto for biographers to pin on their office walls. However recent and well-documented a life may be—and Primo Levi’s life was both—there will always be blank areas where there is a lack of proper information to feed the biographer’s curiosity. Few of us can recall in any detail what we did on each day of last month. How much harder it would be to gather what a friend of ours was doing during the same period—and harder still to find out what a complete stranger was up to. And how can you hope to work out what went on in anyone’s head on a particular day, years ago? The biographer craves certainty, but in its absence will always be tempted by the elegant hypothesis.
It is creepily ironic, then, that one of Levi’s biographers should have such a shifting relationship with the truth. “Where I can, I tell Primo Levi’s story straight” Carole Angier writes in her introduction to The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography. “Where I cannot—because I cannot betray my sources, or because I have felt and imagined the past from a story, or from an encounter—I simply give you the story of the encounter. That is why this book is on two levels: a rationally tested, known or knowable one; and the other. Perhaps I needn’t say that the felt and imagined level seems to me equally true, and even more important.”
This, it soon, emerges, is gobbledegook for “What I couldn’t find out, I made up”. Calling him “Primo” throughout, Angier spends an awful lot of time empathising and emoting (“my heart sank to the dusty floor” “I can feel my heart beating” “half of me wants to burst into laughter, and the other half wants to burst into tears”) but often sounds as though she has learnt psychology from binge-watching the Oprah Winfrey show: “Primo’s mother did not love him either. How could she? He was the fruit of the first terrible days of her marriage, and he was male.”
She re-enacts Primo Levi’s life as a neurotic melodrama, without nuance or shade. “At school” she writes, “he rarely spoke or smiled; he was serious, unsporty and solitary”. Yet, after interviewing many of his contemporaries, Levi’s other biographer, Ian Thomson, formed a very different impression: “Though he was a model pupil, Levil managed to be popular… No-one I spoke to had a bad word for the schoolboy.”
Again, when Angier puts her head around the door of the school changing-room, she finds him: “So pathologically shy that he really did undress with his back to the other boys.”
In my experience, this makes 95% of schoolboys “pathologically shy”. But, then “pathological” is one of her words: at one point, she even notes that she herself has “a pathologically detailed knowledge of everyone he ever met”—an assertion that is not only daft but hateful, given the hundreds of people Levi must have met at Auschwitz who now lie in unmarked graves.
Of course, more scrupulous biographers eschew such conjecture, relying on first-hand accounts: what do those who were there at the time remember? But this method raises problems. Are first-hand accounts reliable? In real life, people change their memories almost as often as they change their minds.Are first-hand accounts reliable? In real life, people change their memories almost as often as they change their minds.
In his book The Irish Story, the historian Roy Foster examines the accounts of Irish emigrants at the time they embarked for America and compares them with accounts given by those same emigrants in retrospect. At the moment of departure, they explained that they were leaving Ireland because of unpleasant neighbours or debts or the weather or various runs of bad luck. But given time their memories altered: decades later, having learnt what Foster calls “the language of exile”, they put their exodus down to the cruel English driving them from their homes.
“One would expect people to remember the past and imagine the future” wrote the historian Lewis Namier, “But in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience… they imagine the past and remember the future.”
What of those who wrote it all down at the time, without a view to public show? Surely they can be trusted? I wonder. Who is to say that Pepys’s memory never played tricks on him, or that he never misheard a conversation, or that his interpretation of events was not warped by his own imagination, or his desire to shape a good story?
The journals kept by the novelist John Fowles, are particularly revealing in this respect, as they sometimes contain their own corrections, added by another hand. Fowles regularly chronicles the rows he has with his beleaguered wife Elizabeth after she has read their contents, but it is not until 1987 that Elizabeth actually starts scribbling her own objections in the margins. Thus, writing about the death of Elizabeth’s aunt, Fowles observes that, as she lay dying, Elizabeth “wouldn’t touch her”. Elizabeth reads this, then writes: “I touched her hands. I fondled her hands. You see nothing. You feel nothing.” On another occasion, when Fowles records that he has made Elizabeth go to the doctor, she scribbles in the margin: “You do not MAKE me. I telephone. I make my own choice… You are inept. But imagine yourself all powerful.”
From time to time, the lives of two diarists coincide, and each describes meeting the other. On Wednesday, November 21, 1990, the evening before Margaret Thatcher resigned, two political diarists bumped into each other. Edwina Currie had voted for Heseltine, Alan Clark for Thatcher. In her diary, Currie records that “Wednesday ended in tears for me, though no one saw them.” She had, she writes, been walking past a group sitting behind the Speaker’s chair. The group consisted of Tristan Garel-Jones, Alan Clark and Richard Ryder. “Everything all right?” Ryder asks her, as she walks past.
“Prat, I thought, vacuous unctuous prat,” she writes. Edwina turns on him. “No, it isn’t,” she snaps. “The party is falling apart and you’re just sitting there grinning.” After a little more banter, she records Alan Clark saying, angrily: “Why don’t you apply for the Chiltern Hundreds right now? Then you can have a different career.”
“Snob, I thought, and turd with it,” she writes, in her blunt style. She then turns on Clark. “I have other things I do now, Alan, and you don’t need to be insulting to me: I’m not going to insult you. But we cannot win the election on the basis of safe seats in the south alone. We have to win my seat, and others like it in the Midlands and the north.” She then exits: “I will not be faced down by these men, I thought, and walked off to the car park, where I cried in my car for ten minutes.”
Oddly enough, not a single word of dialogue in Clark’s diary entry for that same meeting coincides with Currie’s. Clark’s version makes no reference to the presence of Richard Ryder, though he does mention sitting with Tristan Garel-Jones, who “had little to say”.
“Then along came Edwina. ‘Hullo, aren’t you Edwina Currie?” “Now then, Alan, there’s no need to be objectionable.”
“If that is who you are, I must congratulate you on the combination of loyalty and restraint that you have shown in going on television to announce your intention to vote against the Prime Minister in the leadership election.”
“Alan, I’m perfectly prepared to argue this with you, if you’ll listen.” “Piss off.”
“Which she did.”
Tristan said: “She’s not a bad girl really.”
Which of the two diary entries comes closest to the truth? Clark wrote his diary only a few hours after the event, in an Indian restaurant around the corner from the House of Commons. Clark’s account was thus hot off the press. As for Currie, she waited until the following Sunday to write her diary, while sitting in a hotel in Bangladesh. In the same entry, she covered the whole of the rest of the week, including attending an aerobics class and dancing around her flat at the news of Mrs Thatcher’s resignation.
The authenticity of recorded speech is often best judged by reading it aloud. In Clark’s dialogue one can hear his authentic camp acidity and the pert, flouncy tone of Currie, though both could be said to carry a hint of caricature. But I would defy even the most skilled actor to speak the line Currie gives herself—“But we cannot win the Election on the basis of safe seats in the south alone. We have to win my seat, and many like it in the Midlands and the north”—and make it sound natural.
In the end, we will never know which of the two diarists to trust. It can’t be both, and may well be neither. But posterity will favour Alan Clark, for posterity has no means of verification, and so opts instead for style, preferring the good writer to the bad.
In a letter to Arnold Zweig, who had just suggested writing his biography, Sigmund Freud wrote:
“Anyone turning biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were it couldn’t be used”.
This may be too severe, but the artificiality of the genre is helped neither by the slippery nature of memory, nor, indeed, by the slippery nature of biographers. Everyone who has ever written non-fiction will know that, from paragraph to paragraph, perhaps even from sentence to sentence, one is obliged to pick which version of the truth to tell: every available source offers a slightly different version. It would be tedious to present every version of each event, or the finished book would be impossibly long, and impossibly boring. So which to choose? And how do you know if it is the right one?
I have examined the randomness of this selection process at various points in my last three books.
In One on One, I presented a daisy chain of a hundred and one meetings between well-known figures ranging from Leo Tolstoy to Michael Barrymore. In one chapter I set out to describe the meeting that occurred on May 19th 1922 at the Hotel Majestic in Paris between four of the greatest artists of the 20th century – Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust and James Joyce.
The four men had been brought together by wealthy art patrons called Sydney and Violet Schiff. As we all know, encounters at parties are subject to the vagaries of memory, and further obscured by layers of gossip and hearsay and inaudibility, the whole mix often further muddled by alcohol. This meant that when it came to the conversation between Proust and Joyce – who had never met before, and were never to meet again – I found there were at least seven different versions, each of them standing in contradiction to the others.
The briefest version was told by Joyce’s friend Arthur Power. It goes:
PROUST: Do you like truffles?
JOYCE: Yes, I do.
The next version, almost as brief, was told by the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre:
PROUST: I have never read your works, Mr Joyce.
JOYCE: I have never read your works, Mr Proust.
A third version was told by Joyce himself, many years later, to Jacques Mercanton:
“Proust would talk only of duchesses” he said, “while I was more concerned with chambermaids.”
Joyce offered another version to his close friend Frank Budgen. “Our talk consisted solely of the word “No”. Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, “No.” Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, “No.” And so on. Of course the situation was impossible. Proust’s day was just beginning. Mine was at an end.”
According to another friend of Joyce, Padraic Clum, Joyce wished to undermine the Schiffs’ hope for a legendary occasion, so he tried to stay as silent as possible.
PROUST: Ah, Monsieur Joyce, you know the Princess…
JOYCE: No, Monsieur.
PROUST: Ah, you know the Countess…
JOYCE: No, Monsieur.
PROUST: Then you know Madame…
JOYCE: No, Monsieur.
However, in this version, Joyce clearly wrong-foots himself, as his silence becomes part of the legend.
Version six was told by the modernist poet William Carlos Williams:
JOYCE: I’ve had headaches every day. My eyes are terrible.
PROUST: My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me.
In fact, I must leave at once.
JOYCE: I’m in the same situation. If I can find someone to take me by the arm. Goodbye!
PROUST: Charme! Oh, my stomach.
And version seven was told by the author Ford Madox Ford, who had a reputation for tall stories:
PROUST: As I say, Monsieur, in Du Cote de chez Swann, which no doubt you have.
JOYCE: No, Monsieur. (PAUSE) As Mr Bloom says in my Ulysses, which, Monsieur, you have doubtless read…
PROUST: But, no, monsieur. (PAUSE)
Proust apologises for his late arrival, ascribing it to malady, before going into the symptoms in some detail:
JOYCE: Well, Monsieur, I have almost exactly the same symptoms. Only in my case, the analysis…
And from then on, for a number of hours, the two men discuss their various illnesses.
I offered a similar chart in my book about Princess Margaret, this one concerning the gangster and occasional actor John Bindon, with whom she became acquainted on the island of Mustique in the 1970s. Despite a CV encompassing walk-on roles in The Sweeney, Quadrophenia and Softly Softly, and being put on trial for, amongst other offences, murder and grievous bodily harm, at his death in 1993, Bindon was probably best remembered for a party trick with his penis. But the exact nature of the trick, and the scale of his penis, was open to as much historical dispute as the causes of the First World War.
Among the Princess’s previous biographers, Noel Botham stated that what he called Bindon’s “unique cabaret turn” involved “balancing three half-pint glasses on his erect penis”. Tim Heald was more vague, and was convinced that it involved dangling rather than balancing. Bindon was, he said, “best known for a party trick that involved hanging beer tankards from his erect penis.”
Theo Aronson didn’t mention a party trick with glasses or tankards, but just wrote that “Bindon was apparently very proud of his ‘enormous penis’ which he would display in the palm of his hand”. He added that there had been talk on the island that he had once “flashed it for Princess Margaret”. And beyond the enclosed world of royal biographers, accounts also vary: Brewer’s Dictionary of Rogues and Villains claims that Bindon entertained Princess Margaret ‘by balancing six glasses of beer on his penis,” while his obituarist in the Daily Telegraph argued that “He was justly famed for a party trick which entailed the balancing of as many as six half-pint mugs on one part of his anatomy.” In his autobiography Confessions of a King’s Road Cowboy, Johnny Cigarini, a contemporary of Bindon, confidently states that “His party trick in pubs was to put empty pint glasses on it and put his penis through the handles,” before going on to estimate the final count as “ten at one time, or something ridiculous.”
And so it goes on, this whirligig of conflicting accounts. In her autobiography, Christine Keeler, best known for her role in the Profumo scandal, says that Bindon would “balance five half pints of beer on his penis.” Bindon’s own biographer, Wensley Clarkson, agrees with her on the number, but not on the method: he suggests that Bindon would ‘hang five half-pint beer glasses from it.”
In his Private Eye diary for 15 November 1979, Auberon Waugh dismissed this estimate as “ludicrous” and “preposterous”, stating firmly that “sources close to Princess Margaret” had assured him that Bindon “never managed to balance more than one small sherry schooner in this way.”
How to make sense of all these contradictions? In Ma’am Darling, I presented them in chart form:
BOTHAM: 3 half-pint glasses (balancing)
BREWER’S DICTIONARY: 6 glasses of beer (balancing)
CLARKSON: 5 half-pint glasses (hanging)
DAILY TELEGRAPH: 6 half-pint glasses (balancing)
HEALD: Unspecified number of ‘tankards’ (hanging)
CIGARINI: 10 pint glasses (hanging)
WAUGH: 1 small sherry schooner (balancing)
Writing Ma’am Darling, I would spend hours puzzling over the same not-very-interesting anecdote told about the Princess by different people, each one contradicting the next. Should I go for the most likely, the funniest, the most interesting, or even, as part of my noble effort to write a heavyweight work, the dullest? And which was which? I found it increasingly hard to judge. Should I favour one version of events over the other, or should I risk boring the reader by relaying every variant?
To pick just one more example, here are two different versions of a humdrum little story concerning Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret, a cigarette and a cushion.
The first is from Of Kings and Cabbages (1984), a memoir by Peter Coats, partner of Chips Channon, and editor of House and Garden magazine, widely known by the nickname ‘Petti-Coats’: “Tony Snowdon was having a mild argument with his wife, Princess Margaret, and, having lit a cigarette, flicked the match towards an ashtray and it fell into Princess Margaret’s brocaded lap. HRH brushed it off quickly and, rather annoyed, said, ‘Really, Tony, you might have burned my dress.’ To which came the reply, ‘I don’t care. I never did like that material.’ The princess drew herself up and said very grandly, ‘Material is a word we do not use.”
“I admit to having told this story several times, and it always arouses a storm-in-a-cocktail-glass of discussion. What other word? Stuff, perhaps?”
So there we are. Now take a look at this second version of the same event, which comes from Redeeming Features (2009), an enjoyably baroque memoir by the interior decorator and socialite Nicky Haslam: “We joined a party at Kate and Ivan Moffat’s, where the growing distance and determined one-upmanship between Princess Margaret and Tony Snowdon was all too evident. Bored, Tony played with a box of matches, flicking them, lit, at his wife. ‘Oh, do stop,’ she said. ‘You’ll set fire to my dress.’ Tony glowered. ‘Good thing too. I hate that material.’ Princess Margaret stiffened. ‘We call it stuff.”
Who is telling the truth? It can’t be both. The Coats version is milder, the Haslam version more extreme. Coats has Snowdon lighting a cigarette and flicking a single match with the intention of making it land in an ashtray; Haslam has him playing with an entire box of matches out of boredom, and aiming and flicking the lit matches, one by one, at Princess Margaret. According to Coats, the Princess says, “Material is a word we do not use.”
Coats then speculates about a feasible substitute. But Haslam makes no mention of her declaring “Material is a word we do not use”; he simply has her observing, “We call it stuff.”
We will never know which version is true, or truer, or if both are false, or half-true and half-false. If you could whizz back in time and corner both men as they left the Moffats’ house, I imagine that each would swear by his own story, and someone else emerging from the same party—Lord Snowdon, or Princess Margaret, or one of the Moffats, for instance—would say that both of them had got it wrong, and the truth was more mundane, or more civilised, or more complicated, or more outrageous.
Even if we agree on a judicious mash-up of these two accounts, we are still obliged to embark on an investigation of late-twentieth-century royal linguistics. Both accounts agree that “material” was a word offensive to Princess Margaret, and perhaps even to the entire Royal Family. But why? As words go, it has a perfectly good pedigree: it dates back to 1380, and was employed by Geoffrey Chaucer.
On the other hand, though “stuff” may sound more aggressively modern, coarse and general, it in fact pre-dates “material” by forty years. “Stuff” originally meant fabric—in particular the quilted fabric worn under chain mail. It was centuries before it was demoted into a catch-all term applied to anything you couldn’t quite remember the right name for. So the Princess’s etymological instinct turns out to have been spot-on.
But that’s not all. Might her preference for “stuff” over “material” be an unconscious throwback to her family’s Germanic roots? The German for material is “stoff”, so it’s perfectly possible that the Royal Family’s liking for “stoff” has been handed down from generation to generation, its basis lost in time.
And what of all the other words Princess Margaret didn’t approve of? She loathed “placement” and “scrambled eggs”, for instance, insisting on ‘place à table’ and “buttered eggs,” instead. Should the dutiful biographer investigate the deeper meanings beneath all her peculiar preferences?
And so a biography of Princess Margaret—or, indeed, anyone else who ever lived—is set to expand like the universe itself, or, in more graspable terms, like a cheese souffle, every reference breeding a hundred more references, every story a thousand more stories, each with its own galay of additions, contradictions and embellishments. You try to construct a haybale, but you end up with a haystack. And the needle is nowhere to be seen.
In my most recent book, One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time I present a chart of 15 accounts—from both onlookers and historians—of John Lennon’s fight with the Cavern MC Bob Wooler at Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday party at his Auntie Gin’s house in Huyton on 21 June 1963.
Everyone seems to agree that Wooler provoked John by teasing him about his recent holiday in Spain with Brian Epstein, and that Bob Wooler had ended up in hospital. But eyewitnesses differ over the nature of the assault and the extent of the injuries. Tony Barrow, who was present, reports simply that John “punched Wooler.” Tony Bramwell, also present, says he “assaulted Bob,” leaving him with “broken ribs and a bloody nose”. Another eyewitness, Peter Brown, describes it as a “pummelling,” and remembers it taking “three men to pull John off, but not before he managed to break three of the man’s ribs.”
Cynthia Lennon says John leapt on Bob” and gave him “a black eye and badly bruised ribs”. To the Beatles authorised biographer, Hunter Davies, John said, “I broke his bloody ribs for him”. John’s old school friend Pete Shotton recalls John “repeatedly clobbering him in the face with a shovel,” adding that “the damage to Bob’s visage was so extensive that an ambulance had to be summoned to rush him to hospital.” “Extensive damage to his face.”
Rex Makin, the Beatles’ solicitor, who had to deal with the matter, suggested that Bob Wooler had made a pass at John, and that in return, John gave Wooler a black eye and a broken nose.
Versions of the incident offered by Beatles biographers are yet more varied: Ray Connolly gives John a stick to beat Wooler, whereas Bob Spitz says John “leapt on Wooler, beating him viciously with tightly closed fists” before grabbing a garden shovel and whacking Wooler with the handle. Spitz quotes one observer as saying “Bob was holding his hands to his face and John was kicking all the skin off his fingers.” As to Wooler’s injuries, Spitz’s final reckoning was “a broken nose, a cracked collar bone and three broken ribs.”
But even this grand total was surpassed by the most unforgiving of John’s biographers, Albert Goldman, who, miraculously, also seems to have direct access to John’s thoughts at the time: “…seizing a shovel that was lying in the yard, Lennon began to beat Wooler to death. Blow after blow came smashing down on the defenseless man lying on the ground. It would have ended in murder if John had not suddenly realized: “If I hit him one more time, I’ll kill him.” Making an enormous effort of will, Lennon restrained himself.”
No other episode in the lives of the Beatles illustrates quite so starkly the random, subjective nature of history, a form predicated on objectivity but reliant on the shifting sands of memory. As Paul McCartney himself once said: “In an earthquake you get many different versions of what happened by all the people that saw it. And they’re all true.”
Another shortcoming of biography lies in its bias towards coherence. In their drive to create a coherent narrative, biographers are forced to conceal the randomness of life, the contrived nature of “character” and the unpredictability of human beings. “Every schoolboy could understand each thing as it happened” wrote the novelist Robert Musil, “but as to what it all meant in general, nobody really knew except for a few persons, and even they were not sure. Only a short time later it might well have happened in a different sequence, or the other way round, and nobody would have known the difference.”
Biography is written with hindsight: from the start, the biographer knows how the story will unfold. But human beings exist in the present tense. We live our lives without knowing the future. We hurtle forwards, but the front window is blacked out: we are only ever able to see out of the back and side windows.Biography is written with hindsight: from the start, the biographer knows how the story will unfold.
How to overcome these obstacles? When I was a schoolboy, Jackdaw folders were all the rage. They consisted of individual reproductions of original documents about a particular person or event—Alfred the Great, the Gunpowder Plot, the English Civil War—all contained within a colourful folder. You could juggle these documents at will. The documents were self-contained, with no connecting narrative to pull them all together. For a schoolchild, the joy lay in sifting through them at random, before alighting on one—say, a copy of King Charles 1’s death warrant—that seemed particularly captivating. In a strange way, this made Jackdaws closer to real life than many a grander, grown-up history: they were free from the constraints of chronology, free from embellishment, free from bogus threads linking one event to another.
Every few years since that time, I have read a biography that presented an original way of piercing through the artificiality of the conventional form. Brief Lives by John Aubrey, written at the end of the 17th century, is a celebration of the colourful detail that orthodox historians prefer to pooh-pooh. The dogged trawl through achievements and appointments is banished in favour of gossip, impure and simple. Who can forget Aubrey’s description of sex up against a tree between Sir Walter Raleigh and a young lady friend? At first, “fearful of her Honour, and modest” she says: “Sweet Sir Walter.” But then: “As the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher, she cried in ecstasy, ‘Swisser Swatter, Swisser Swatter!”
Or, again, Aubrey writes of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford: “The Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel, 7 years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.”
Was Aubrey accurate? He offered no learned references to authenticate his claims, but, then again, he would have expected his readers to take his anecdotes in the same free-wheeling, comical spirit in which they were offered. Similarly, Lytton Strachey eschewed the sombre and the judicious for something sharper and more overtly subjective. He may have swapped fairness for laughter, but he always got a terrific exchange rate. Bertrand Russell read Eminent Victorians in Brixton prison and laughed so loud that an officer felt obliged to remind him that prison was a place of punishment.
In one of the most beautiful and memorable passages of his biography of Queen Victoria, Strachey imagines the thoughts running through the mind of the old Queen on her deathbed: “She herself, as she lay blind and silent, seemed to those who watched her to be divested of all thinking—to have glided already, unawares, into oblivion. Yet, perhaps, in the secret chambers of consciousness, she had her thoughts, too. Perhaps her fading mind called up once more the shadows of the past to float before it, and retraced, for the last time, the vanished visions of that long history—passing back and back, through the cloud of years, to older and ever older memories—to the springwoods at Osborne, so full of primroses for Lord Beaconsfield, to Lord Palmerston’s queer clothes and high demeanour, and Albert’s face under the green lamp, and Albert’s first stag at Balmoral, and Albert in his blue and silver uniform, and the Baron coming in through a doorway, and Lord M. dreaming at Windsor with the rooks cawing in the elm-trees, and the Archbishop of Canterbury on his knees in the dawn, and the old King’s turkey-cock ejaculations, and Uncle Leopold’s soft voice at Claremont, and Lehzen with the globes, and her mother’s feathers sweeping down towards her, and a great old repeater-watch of her father’s in its tortoise-shell case, and a yellow rug, and some friendly flounces of sprigged muslin, and the trees and the grass at Kensington.”
It might be argued that, just as Jung Chang presented us with the dying thoughts of Chairman Mao, Strachey has here strayed into areas out-of-bounds to the biographer. Yet there is a clear difference between the two. Jung Chang simply asserts that Mao’s dying thoughts were solely about himself and his power. Strachey, on the other hand, heralds his imaginative leap into the unknown by saying “Yet, perhaps, in the secret chambers of consciousness, she had her thoughts, too…” He then self-consciously summons forth a stream of poetic images from the life—and The Life—he has just created. This is biography at its most playful and imaginative, biography that stresses, rather than hides, the inarguable but so often unacknowledged link between the mind of the biographer and the mind of the subject.
There are numerous examples of other biographies that have broken through the genre’s dull and dogged obeisance to available information.
These biographies pursue a sense of pattern and aesthetic purpose more usually to be found in the novel. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month (1965) focuses on a single month—June, 1846—in London. Within a mile or two, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Dickens, Wordsworth and Tennyson are all milling around; meanwhile, the depressive Benjamin Haydon, painter of increasingly unfashionable historical canvases, has his latest exhibition upstaged and outsold by General Tom Thumb’s show next door.
In The Quest for Corvo, subtitled, “An Experiment in Biography” (1934), A.J.A. Symonds pursues his subject, the deeply eccentric and unreliable Frederic Rolfe, as a detective might pursue a prime suspect, describing all the witnesses he interviews along the way. In Out of Sheer Rage (1997), Geoff Dyer created a book about not writing a book. Ostensibly a biography of D.H. Lawrence, it is really a book about never quite getting round to writing a biography of D.H. Lawrence.
In his attempt to break through the barrier of available fact and into Oscar Wilde’s inner world, Thomas Wright set about reading all 2000 books in Wilde’s library. Fifty of them he read in their original volumes, some of which had Oscar’s own marginalia, marks and stains still on them. A number of them were torn here and there, testament to Wilde’s eccentric habit of tearing off the top corner of a page as he read it, rolling the paper into a ball and then popping it into his mouth.
Reading one volume, Wright came across a jam stain on its pages, and laughed with delight: “I imagined Wilde… holding the volume in one hand and a slice of bread and jam in the other.” Other volumes, from his time in prison, had dirt-smudges still on them, poignant fingerprint memorials to two years of hard labour. The result of Wright’s labour, Oscar’s Books, is, like those others I have mentioned, an exhilarating experiment in biography. But, like the others, it is an experiment so perfectly suited to its subject that it would be impossible to emulate.
This suggests that, to be entirely fresh, each new biography must create a template of its own. The tidily chronological, omniscient, cradle-to-grave biography, however dutifully rendered, may well serve a purpose as a sort of magnified CV, but, in the words of John Updike, it will always struggle to “convey the unearthly human innocence that attends, in the present tense of living, the self that seems the real one”.