Roald Dahl, Boy
‘This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten,’ writes Roald Dahl in his Preface to this childhood memoir.
Like many individualists, Dahl never fitted in at school. He longed for adventure and exotic climes and when the time came for him to leave Repton he applied to work for Shell, though his housemaster told him derisively that he hadn’t a chance. ‘All I can say is I’m damned glad I don’t have any shares in Shell,’ he muttered when Dahl came to tell him he’d succeeded. But nothing could dampen Dahl’s spirits, he was ecstatic. The last we see of him he’s setting off for East Africa with the same infectious bounce and enthusiasm that permeate this irresistible little book.
Michael Holroyd, Basil Street Blues
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.
Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost
Hilary Mantel has said that this powerful and haunting book came about by accident. She never intended to write a memoir, but the sale of a much-loved cottage in Norfolk prompted her to write about the death of her stepfather, and from there ‘the whole story of my life began to unravel’. It is a story of ‘wraiths and phantoms’, a story not easy to forget.
Mantel grew up in a working-class suburb of Manchester, a clever, imaginative little girl, alert to adult atmospheres and overheard, half-understood conversations, and to strange, inexplicable presences she sensed around her. Her Catholic primary school, with its casual brutality, was a rude awakening, and before she went to senior school life at home had become an emotional obstacle course too, after her gentle and rather scholarly father was supplanted by her tougher and less sympathetic stepfather Jack. By the time she became a law student in London Mantel had fallen in love with her future husband, and it was then that the gradual signs of a painful and long undiagnosed medical condition began to appear.
Giving up the Ghost is the story of a life full of challenges, but it is very far from being a misery memoir. It is a compulsively readable and ultimately optimistic account of what made Hilary Mantel the writer she is, full of courage, insight and wry humour.
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 – undoubtedly one of the greatest nature books ever written. 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.
Maxwell was an extraordinary man, born into an extraordinary family. His father, the son of an often notorious line of Scottish landowners, had married Lady Mary Percy, the beautiful daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, and had brought her back to his family’s estate at Monteith on the windswept shores of Galloway, where they built Elrig, the house of the title.
Gavin was only four months old when his father was killed in 1914, and thereafter the most important people in his life after his three older siblings were his mother and her sisters. All equally eccentric, they had grown up in regal splendour at Alnwick Castle, against which background they seemed perpetually in revolt – one entirely devoted to good works, another running a ‘high-pressure chickenfarm’ and later ‘the largest fur rabbit farm in the world’, and a third becoming a serious research zoologist. She it was who fostered the children’s curiosity about the natural world and set Gavin on his life’s path.
But the most powerful influence on this complicated, sensitive small boy was the wild moorland country around his home and the creatures that inhabited it. He evokes it in loving detail, along with the suffocatingly grand and philistine upper-class society into which he would unsuccessfully attempt to fit. As was the custom, he was ripped away from this haven to go to a series of brutalizing schools. But always in his imagination he was at Elrig. It was his refuge and his escape, and the power of his longing and the ecstasy of each return fuel this haunting book.
V. S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door
The writer V. S. Pritchett ended his life crowned with honours, but he never forgot his working-class beginnings in London.
Victor’s mother, an irrepressible cockney from Kentish Town, had hoped for a daughter, whom she intended to call after the dying Queen, so when the baby turned out to be a boy, she had to make a hasty adjustment. Life for the Pritchetts was full of hasty adjustments. Pritchett’s father – who later converted to Christian Science – was a reckless, over-optimistic peacock of a man, always embarking on new business ventures which inevitably crashed, hence the ‘cab at the door’, waiting to bear the family quietly away from yet another set of creditors.
Pritchett captures unforgettably the smells, sounds and voices of London in the first decades of the twentieth century, and the cast of Dickensian characters who made up his childhood world, from his austere Yorkshire grandparents, to the members of his father’s Christian Science church, and the employees and customers of the Bermondsey leather factor’s where he worked as a clerk until he made his getaway to Paris at the age of 20, determined to become a writer. It’s impossible to sum up a book of such vigour and originality in a few words. It simply has to be read.
Rosemary Sutcliff, Blue Remembered Hills
Rosemary Sutcliff is one of Britain’s most distinguished children’s writers, with over forty historical novels to her name. Blue Remembered Hills is the vivid and touching memoir of her own childhood.
Rosemary Sutcliff was born in 1920, the only child of a naval father and a pretty, manicdepressive mother with bags of charm and a wild imagination. As a child Rosemary suffered from the juvenile arthritis known as Still’s Disease, which burned its way through her, leaving her permanently disabled, yet Blue Remembered Hills is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of hard experiences.
In some ways, hers was an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, which would later feed into her books. When her father retired from the sea the family moved to Torrington in North Devon, and at 14 Rosemary went to Bideford Art School, becoming a skilled miniaturist. In time, though, feeling cramped by the small canvas of her paintings, isolated in the country and wounded in love, she turned to writing. In doing so, she brought the past vividly to life for generations of children, and herself found fulfilment and success.
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
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
A Flickering on the StaircaseRead 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
Avid to Live and Learn
I shall always be grateful to A Cab at the Door. I read most of it one Sunday evening in a Victoria line tube train which was stuck for two hours outside King’s Cross station. The train lights...Read more
The Truth of the Heart
I grew up in a house on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a bay. There was an upstairs drawing-room which was never used, and in the evenings when I was a little girl, I would go up there and...Read more