Michael Holroyd is the most distinguished biographer of his generation, chiefly on the strength of three monumental works – Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and Bernard Shaw, published between 1967 and 1992. The first two were each published in two volumes, and Bernard Shaw in four volumes.
Those were the days. It is unlikely – that is an understatement – that any publisher would afford a literary biographer such amplitude today. Not only the economic climate but the cultural climate was different then for biographers, and he played his part in creating it. He had decided that a subject’s sexuality should have the same prominence in a biography as it did in the actual life, and his taboo-breaking Lytton Strachey was sexually and emotionally frank in an unprecedented way. This released his peers into following the same route, and deferentially reticent biography gave way to candour and openness.
But that is not at all the way he writes about himself in Basil Street Blues. In this book he remains zipped up, in all senses. It is an autobiography, and yet it is not. A biographer is a natural self-concealer. That is why he or she ‒ in this case he – likes doing it. Yet, consciously or not, the biographer is finding out about himself even as he investigates his subjects. Or he may be escaping from his own problematic family in order, as Holroyd says of himself here, ‘to immerse myself in other people’s lives’.
In Basil Street Blues the focus is turned back on to the family. He calls this enchanting and original book an exercise in ‘vicarious autobiography’. ‘I have never been interested in my family’ – and then he suddenly finds himself asking his long-separated parents to provide him with written accounts of their lives.
Their scatty accounts did not tally. There was no ‘connecting story’. Even the exact date of his birth is uncertain. And was he conceived in the Basil Street Hotel, or in the Hyde Park Hotel, or ‘on the cane-backed sofa in the drawing-room’ of his grandparents’ family home? Reconstructing the past, Holroyd becomes enmeshed in ‘variant texts’, in fantasy and in misinformation. He says he does not think of biography as an ‘information retrieval exercise’, although information retrieval of the most ingenious and exhaustive kind is a feature of his family-history writing, as well as of his biographies. But verifiable facts are just his signposts. He has often written about the links between fiction and biography, and in his Works on Paper (2002), which is about biography and autobiography, he has wise and provocative things to say: ‘The lies we tell are part of the truth we live.’
Basil Street Blues tells how as the lonely, only child of divorced parents, he spent time with his mother and her bewildering series of exotic further husbands, but grew up mainly in his paternal grandparents’ house. His volatile father was sometimes there, depending on the success or failure of his commercial and amorous enterprises. This unharmonious household is the unreliably beating heart at the core of Basil Street Blues, and I am not going to spoil the new reader’s fun by enlarging on its idiosyncrasies, or on the furious non-stop squabbles between grandmother, grandfather (who left home once, but slunk back), Old Nan and the unmarried, dog-walking Aunt Yolande – disappointed, resentful, ageing people, locked together by obstinacy and the intermittent trickle of family money. Their collective unhappiness and anger are presented as high comedy; if Basil Street Blues is ‘like’ any other book, it is perhaps Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori.
While the comedy is sustained throughout, there is something touching about the reversal of roles when Michael as a young adult becomes the baffled supporter and advisor of both his parents, and their go-between. Tenderness, in the end, underpins this chronicle. It demonstrates how the disparate members of dysfunctional, sinking families remain intimately linked far below the waterline. He knows that his parents ‘were consecutively and are cumulatively’ himself. When his grandparents, and then his parents and then his aunt declined into old age and decrepitude, he was the one person left to care for them and to administer their ends ‒ and to make some astonishing discoveries about their hidden lives, and those of their forebears. In his ‘Envoi’, Holroyd writes that Basil Street Blues ‘may seem to present an unusual family saga, but beneath the patina of conventional respectability acquired by many families lie secret episodes and half-suspected dramas’. Apparently ordinary people are really quite extraordinary.
He has given himself, as he says, only ‘a walk-on part’ in Basil Street Blues, and his invisibility is a running joke. His self-concealment began as a protective carapace and a survival strategy. At his prep school, the same one at which his father had been miserable before him, ‘I strove for invisibility’. As for Eton: ‘Was I really there? I sometimes wonder’ – although he cannot conceal the fact that he was outstandingly good at squash. But he had embarked on a long career of escaping notice. His glamorous Swedish mother, who became a fashion model in her thirties, had a tendency to break into song and to dance on tables. This was embarrassing. ‘It was then that I determined to master the secret art of disappearing.’ This art was perfected during his National Service. He was standing alone one day in the officers’ mess when someone looked in and called back over his shoulder: ‘No one here!’
And yet, over the decades, this invisible man, the self-concealing biographer, has been unzipping himself, figuratively, bit by bit and not always consistently, taking the scenic route through his recollections. It has been a question of reprises, revisions and variations. When he was very young he wrote a long, unpublished tragi-comic novel about the bizarre Holroyd household. A filleted version of this autobiographical fiction, A Dog’s Life, appeared in the 1960s ‒ but only in the United States, because his horrified father threatened to take legal action if it came out in the UK. (It was published here for the first time last year.) Basil Street Blues, with its parallel and hardly less phantasmagorical account of his family life, was first published in 1999. He had already written about the débâcles of his National Service for an anthology, All Bull, and this was reprinted in his collection of essays and reviews Unreceived Opinions (1973). The Afterword to the recent reissue of A Dog’s Life enlarges on familiar Holroydian themes, uncovers more personal material, and concludes that this, his only novel, was the ‘saddest comedy I have ever written’.
He calls Basil Street Blues ‘a patchwork’; and the title of the autobiographical book that came five years later, Mosaic, underlines the fragmentary conceit. Mosaic fills in gaps in an every-expanding jigsaw, investigating the lives of peripheral characters in the family drama ‒ his aunt’s one and only admirer, his grandfather’s elusive mistress – as well as writing about the most important relationship in his own life before his marriage. He is not so invisible in those pages. Nor is he invisible in the interviews and articles for the press about, for example, the ill-health that has dogged him in recent years, always illuminated by his particular knack of making dreadful things funny without trivializing the dreadfulness.
So anyone in the far future writing a biography of Michael Holroyd will need to compile a concordance of all these versions and variants of his life experience. He leaves them, like vapour trails, hanging in the air. He is against the idea of anyone attempting a biography of him for all the usual reasons, and besides, as he says, ‘Whoever tried, would get it wrong.’ Yes, of course they would.
Meanwhile we have Basil Street Blues ‒ the essence of Holroyd, sad and funny, and a teasing, subtle, wholly characteristic work of art.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 45 © Victoria Glendinning 2014
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 29: Michael Holroyd, Basil Street Blues