Vivien Perkins gets her book reviews out in time for the Christmas rush
Walk into any bookshop or WHSmith from now to Christmas and you’ll be welcomed by smiles – they belong to authors whose photos appear on the covers of the new crop of Autobiography and Memoir. At the moment they face the public confidently but, come January, they will be relegated to Sport or Music or Showbiz or Politics, their spines turned outwards. The least loved will be dumped in a pile, rejected and reduced.
Who benefits from this avalanche of self-revelation? If celebrities can write down their life stories as therapy, can’t we all self-publish and feel better?
Memoirs by the famous are essential fodder for TV chat shows, magazine interviews and book columns; and, to be fair, it does resolve some gift-buying dilemmas. I’ve just bought a copy of Ivory, Apes and Peacocks, a newly-published memoir by the outstanding Kenyan naturalist and film maker Alan Root, as a present to an admirer of his pioneering work.
Some of these authors (Jessie J., Justin Bieber, Tulisa) are still under twenty-five! Surely they prefer hanging out with friends to slaving over ‘autobiography’ homework, even if someone else has offered to write it for you.
Sport is rather different: age thirty-five may signal an end to professional competition, but look at ‘retired’ Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton’s Between the Lines beaming from the shelf – she’s only thirty-two and apparently her career is downhill from now on.. I can’t quite believe that.
Soldiers and politicians wait until comfortable pensions allow them the leisure to write extensive memoirs, with indexes, and their eyewitness accounts can be gripping. Jack Straw’s (Last Man Standing) is the only political face that I’ve recognised, but a browse through his new book is not nearly as engaging as John Major’s memoir of his father My Old Man, told through the history of Music Hall’s golden years, when his Dad was a performer – a lot more fun than a political autobiography.
A monochrome photo of a bold young woman, defiant cigarette in mouth, looks out from the cover of Edna O’Brien’s new memoir Country Girl, not seeking our approval at all. The novelist resisted writing it for several years, but having reached her eightieth with no break in creativity, she wanted to describe her experiences and inner feelings herself, since that is what writers do. Now that we have her vivid recollections set in jewelled prose, the bar is raised far beyond the reach of those sports and showbiz figures who ‘write’ their stories for the Christmas trade.
Edna O’Brien prepared herself by reading several memoirs, including those of Nabokov and Bob Dylan, and realised that she must write honestly, provocatively, but also in burnished prose. She confesses to finding it harder to write than fiction. Dylan’s way with words – she didn’t care whether truthful or not – puts his Chronicles in a different league from conventional rock ‘n roll diaries.
Sixties Britain comes to life in Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ autobiography Life– narrated to a writer friend without Dylan’s polish, but with plenty of spit. The index of names is like a hall of fame, but the real surprise is the wealth of social detail: the texture of postwar South East London, his social background and the big family he grew up in – working class, eccentric aunts, Labour Party stalwarts – and genealogy of the kind that enriches oral history. Snapshots of early seaside holidays, or a family group in the back garden, attach Keith’s ‘Life’ to the era in which many of us grew up. How on earth could we have written a life story aged twenty-one!
The great, now late, historian Eric Hobsbawm pioneered the study of social history in Britain, and certainly the use of oral history, in the form of audio and video recordings of people who don’t write things down, has energised social history. Memoirs are the life-blood of our record of social change, but diaries, postcards and letters, where observations and inner feelings were once expressed, are giving way to emails, texts, blogs and tweets which vanish at the press of a key. Are they reliable as source material for autobiography .. what if the memory isn’t that good?
Despite the stoned expression in his cover photo, Keith Richards insists: ‘Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it..’
As a slow writer I’d better get started soon.