Well-known for his frank biographies of such controversial figures as Augustus John and Lytton Strachey, Michael Holroyd teases out the story – or rather stories – of his own distinctly problematic family in this delightful and original book.
His career as a biographer, he tells us at the outset, ‘probably arose from a desire to escape from family involvements and immerse myself in other people’s lives’, and from Basil Street Blues, it’s not hard to see why. The lonely only child of divorced parents, young Michael spent much of his childhood with his squabbling paternal grandparents, ‘Old Nan’ the family nanny, his unmarried Aunt Yolande and her dogs. His volatile father, always busy with his own commercial and amorous enterprises, and his glamorous Swedish mother with her succession of exotic husbands, had only walk-on parts in his life.
With the passage of time things changed, and in the 1970s, when his career as a biographer had begun to take off, he found himself trying to cheer his ageing parents – now both struggling to get by – by asking them to give him an account of their early lives. But nothing in their attempts matched up – not even the date of his own birth. It was only a decade later, after both his parents had died, that he was overcome by a desire to discover more, to find the ‘connecting story’ which his fragmented childhood had so lacked. The result was Basil Street Blues which he describes as ‘an exercise in vicarious autobiography’. Inevitably, as he begins delicately to probe and piece together the bizarre history of his own family, he discovers more about himself. The result is a very personal detective story, subtle, funny and poignant.
‘A wonderful offbeat memoir . . . Holroyd has written perhaps his best book yet.’ New York Times Book Review