Lives and Letters

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No one asked me to be a biographer. Quite the opposite. My grandfather hoped I might set off for India and make a career at the tea plantations there. He had been presented with some shares in one of the Assam tea companies by his father. He used these shares as if they were tickets that took him on a summer holiday which he called ‘following the business’. What he really wanted was to go abroad without his family from time to time. I saw a photo of him in India once: he was smiling in a way I had never seen him smile at home. And he was encircled by rather bemused-looking planters.

Back at home he taught me the skills of making a proper cup of tea. It was not easy: how to hold the cup correctly; how to boil the water to an exact temperature – and then how to engage the small spoons of tea with water at the right moment. Then there was the difficulty of preparing the milk and adding it. Sugar was never tolerated. Writing a biography was far easier than preparing a correct cup of tea – or so it seemed to me. In the end I wrote a small biography of my grandfather and placed it in my autobiography.

Most people do not encourage members of their family to become biographers. There is no telling what trouble they will get into. If you write fiction any member of your family who appears on the pages of your book can be hidden by a different name that prevents them being recognized. But biographers are always invading other people’s families uninvited, writing about the dead who cannot answer them and presenting what they have written to their subjects’ families and friends. It’s no surprise we are not welcome.

I was fortunate in never being at a university, going instead to the public library for my education. In the library I found hundreds of possible subjects lined up in alphabetical order and waiting to be chosen. There they all were: Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Hugh Kingsmill, Shakespeare. Which one would you have chosen? I chose Hugh Kingsm

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About the contributor

Michael Holroyd has been studying his ‘Ancestors in the Attic’, which is the title he has given to an illustrated book he is struggling to prepare.

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