Reviewed by Simon
It takes a certain sort of bravado to assume that your family will be interesting to people who don’t know you. Not just your family in connection to you, but your ancestors – those people usually covered in the first couple of pages of a biography, and seldom mentioned at all in an autobiography. That’s the brave step that Michael Holroyd took with his 1999 book Basil Street Blues, now republished in the as-always-absolutely-sumptuous neat little editions from Slightly Foxed. (This one gets a sort of orchard green – resisting, clearly, the temptation to match colour to title.)
I was only dimly aware of Michael Holroyd, and – had I spent a while rooting through my memory – I might have recalled that I’d seen his name on the cover of biographies. Besides a flirtation with fiction (A Dog’s Life, so heavily autobiographical that his father threatened to sue if it were published in the UK – in a section fascinatingly but all-too briefly described midway through Basil Street Blues), Holroyd has stuck to biographies – often returning to Augustus John, George Bernard Shaw, and Lytton Strachey (so it seems from his Wikipedia page, research fans).
None of these gentlemen have ever captivated my attention for long, which is perhaps why I have not read anything by him before, and perhaps I actually know him best as the husband of Margaret Drabble. But the professional biographer will obviously have a different approach to memoir than anybody else, and part of that meant choosing a starting point long before his own birth – back, indeed, as far as the annals were available. But it is his parents’ upbringings that really kick things off – and he investigates these by trying to gather as much written material as possible, straight from the horses’ mouths rather than from the shelves of the British Library (or from wherever it is that biographers gather their sources):
Towards the end of the 1970s I asked my parents to let me have some account of their early lives. I had never been interested in my family. My career as a biographer probably arose from my need to escape from family involvements and immerse myself in other people’s lives.
My parents, who had long been divorced, and gone through a couple of subsequent marriages, each of them, as well as various additional liaisons, were by the late 1970s living alone in fragile health and meagre circumstances. They appeared bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing. After all, it had started so promisingly.
The accounts they wrote were very different. This did not surprise me. They had seldom agreed about anything, not even the date of my birth. As a gesture of tact I preserved too birthdays forty-eight hours apart, one for each of them. This had begun as a joke, grew into a habit, and finally became a rather ageing conceit which will enable me to claim by the year 2000 the wisdom of a 130-year-old.
It turns out that neither written account is especially thorough, and they both peter out at some point, but Holroyd is still able to return to them often throughout the first half of the book. It lends some closer contact to the history of his grandparents, which (truth be told) isn’t the most interesting part of the book. The wider research has (unlike his parents’ notes) obviously been performed thoroughly, but – since Holroyd didn’t know them or didn’t know them well – his ancestors’ romances, successes, and development of a glass business are not dealt with intimately. And one undoubtedly expects intimacy in a memoir. Before we get to these, there is a chapter entitled ‘With Virginia Woolf at Sheffield Place’ – which gave me a hope that Virginia would figure largely in his upbringing – which is actually about a theory regarding biography that Woolf outlined in ‘Reflections at Sheffield Place’ – namely:
[A] turning away from the general narratives of history, with their wheeling armies and splendid processions that pass through the gorgeous tapestry of Gibbon’s pages. It is an attempt, in miniature form, to put into practice Samuel Johnson’s advice to biographers not to dwell on ‘those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, but lead into domestic privacies’: an eye-level rather than the overall view of our past.
The chapter was certainly interesting, and rare would be the biographer of the past half-century who would disagree with this approach, but I thought it perhaps a little self-indulgent as a prefix to a memoir. Perhaps Holroyd had been wanting to expand on these thoughts in some form, somewhere, for a while, and a memoir (being inherently self-indulgent) seemed the least unsuitable place to do so? These elements work much better when incorporated later, relating to specific events – such as the early life of his aunt Yolande, still alive in her 90s at the time Holroyd was writing.
Whatever the reason for the introduction and structure to Basil Street Blues¸ I have to confess to my interest being piqued most from the moment where most memoirs might begin: the author’s birth. Tales of his grandfather’s long-suffering marriage to the selfish, domineering Adeline – and his subsequent affair with the much-married Agnes, who rearranged her background and her father’s survival according to the needs of any particular marriage certificate – were the highlight of the first half of the book, but I longed for the eye-witness accounts characteristic of the memoirist and alien to even the most eye-level-focused of biographers.
After this, we see a mixture of Holroyd and his family – seeing Holroyd at Eton, in a law firm, in the military, and always circling back to his family. I always find it fascinating to read the genesis of artistic careers, and was amused by his brief attempt at writing stories for women’s magazines (‘I copied down one that seemed to me very characteristic, then brought it up to date by changing the names of the characters, the speed and make of the cars, the brand of the breakfast cereals, and so on before sending it to the magazine that had originally published it twenty-five years ago.’) This plagiarism was rejected (although not on grounds of plagiarism, it should be added), otherwise who knows the direction Holroyd might have pursued…?
Yet, somehow, even in the sequence of marriages that he watched his parents enter and leave, and the deathbed scenes, there remains some distance. This is an engaging and enjoyable book, but it could not be called a warm one. Plenty of people have written about unhappy relatives in a way that still finds warmth in the depiction, and plenty of those people are represented in the Slightly Foxed back catalogue. This is a very good book, but in a different tradition – one that cannot shake the mantle of the biographer even when turning to memoir.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Michael Holroyd, Basil Street Blues ( Slightly Foxed: London, 2015). 978-1906562748, 364pp., hardback.