Michael Holroyd, Basil Street Blues
Well-known for his frank biographies of such controversial figures as Augustus John and Lytton Strachey, Holroyd teases out the story of his own distinctly problematic family in this delightful and original book. His volatile father, always busy with his own enterprises, and his glamorous Swedish mother with her succession of exotic husbands, had only walk-on parts in his life. It was only after both parents died that he was overcome by a desire to find the ‘connecting story’ which his fragmented childhood had so lacked. The result is a very personal detective story, subtle, funny and poignant.
Gavin Maxwell, The House of Elrig
The writer and naturalist Gavin Maxwell is best known for Ring of Bright Water, his moving account of raising otters on the remote west coast of Scotland. In his childhood memoir The House of Elrig he describes, with the same lyrical power that made that earlier book a classic, how it all began. In loving detail he evokes the wild moors around his Scottish home and the creatures that inhabited them. As was then the custom, he was ripped away from this paradise to go to a series of brutalizing schools. But always in his imagination he was at Elrig. It was his refuge and his escape.
Jennie Erdal, Ghosting
‘A large sapphire on the lapel of a bold striped suit, a vivid silk tie so bright that it dazzles . . . on his fingers a collection of jewels . . .’ – this is the man Jennie Erdal calls ‘Tiger’, the flamboyant figure at the centre of Ghosting, the strange and gripping story of the 20 years in which she became his ghost writer. Erdal created a whole literary oeuvre in his name, and even turned his ludicrous plot ideas and sexual fantasies into novels that were seriously and admiringly reviewed. Ghosting is a wickedly funny book, but it is also a thoughtful look at deception and self-deception, and the masks that most of us wear.
Roald Dahl, Boy
It’s easy to see from this childhood memoir where the ogres who people Dahl’s fiction come from: the vengeful and filthy-fingernailed sweetshop owner Mrs Pratchett, the school doctor who lances little Ellis’s boil in such a heartless manner, the creepy headmaster of Repton who wields the cane with unacceptable relish. But there’s another, far more cheerful side to the story in the person of Dahl’s adored mother Sofie who, widowed at 35 with six children to care for, nevertheless managed to leave them with idyllic childhood memories. Like many individualists, Dahl never fitted in at school and was ecstatic when he finally escaped to work for Shell, setting off for East Africa with the same infectious bounce and enthusiasm that permeate this irresistible little book.
Richard Cobb, Still Life
The historian Richard Cobb, famous for his brilliant books on France and the French Revolution, his inspirational teaching and his unconventional behaviour, grew up in the 1920s and ’30s in the quiet and deeply conventional town of Tunbridge Wells. Yet Cobb loved that small world with its middle-class confidence and soothing predictability – it was, he writes, ‘a society in which a rather frightened child could feel secure’. In this unusual memoir he recreates it in entrancing detail as he experienced it between the ages of 4 and 13. Arriving at the Central Station, with its wooden staircase advertising ‘Carter’s Little Liver Pills’, he leads us through the town and into the lives of the characters among whom he grew up, each minutely observed and remembered, from the mysterious Black Widow, seen always in deep yet unexplained mourning, to Baroness Olga, the town’s only victim of the Russian Revolution, with her tight-fitting cloche hat and jade earrings. At home his mother entertains her tweed-and-Jaeger-clad Bridge-playing friends while down the road in their large, dank Victorian mansion his extraordinary cousins the Limbury-Buses live their lives according to an unchanging regime of walks, rests and meals which are timed to the minute. ‘Strange and wonderful,’ wrote Hilary Spurling in the Observer when the book was first published. And indeed it is.
Hunt the Biographer
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...Read more
Mowgli with a Gun
A few months before his thirteenth birthday, the young and miserable Gavin Maxwell crept out of St Wulfric’s prep school to send a ‘thoroughly hysterical’ letter to his mother. At the end of...Read more
Tiger the Literary Lion
One day in 1981 a young woman found herself travelling from her Scottish home to London to meet a publisher. So far so predictable perhaps. She had read Russian at university and had recently...Read more
Hands off the Handlebars
Throughout his work – James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr Fox (1970), Danny, The Champion of the World (1975), The Twits (1980), The BFG (1982)...Read more
‘Delighted’ of Tunbridge Wells
Richard Cobb’s first book in English was A Second Identity (1969), a title he chose to show how a middle-class Englishman became not just a historian of France but a historian who effectively...Read more