Biographer Holroyd enchants Sidmouth audience

“Next time I’ll be an artist or musician in Italy,” says Sir Michael Holroyd during a visit to Sidmouth

WHEN you are an acclaimed biographer, being married to a famous novelist can cause logistical problems when writing from home.

Sir Michael Holroyd, husband to Margaret Drabble, works from the top of the house “so Maggie cannot hear my cries of despair”, while she works at the bottom, “so I can’t hear her cries of triumph.”

Third of four speakers at Kennaway House’s Readers and Writers season in Sidmouth on Friday, Michael spoke to Di Bowerman about the influences in his life.

Brought up by grandparents in Maidenhead, Berks, he went to Eton but his divorced father couldn’t afford to send him to university.

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Instead, he absorbed knowledge from books at Maidenhead Library, and discovered Hugh Kingsmill, the subject of his first biography, which took 16 attempts, over four years, to publish.

His definitive biographies of Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw and Augustus John followed, as did a knighthood to services to literature in 2007.

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“I think my writing career would have been very different if I had gone to university. Biography, particularly literary biography, is not looked upon kindly by academics.

“It is thought to reduce creative works into forms of autobiography, and therefore although academics will look at a biography, it is perhaps more for entertainment.

“I believe, of course, there can be a good case that the lives of writers lie invisibly in those blank spaces between the lines of a text and to know something about them can enrich that text if it is done with subtlety and insight. So I’m not sure I would have been a biographer at all.”

His education at Eton was at “a very non vintage period in all education” coming just after the war.

“I would say it probably has had some influence on me but I can’t recognise it and I’m not conscious of it. A sort of patina perhaps.”

He finds his writing style difficult to describe.

“Perhaps it’s rococo. I don’t know. In a way I think I have been trying to create a different life for myself. I believe my subjects are being the teachers I never had at school.”

His best time for writing is mornings.

“I used to write in bed much more than I do now. I put my feet up and I did that for most of my writing because it saves energy. I did quite a lot in bed and then I’d tidy it up later, including the bed!”

Michael writes his first drafts in pen and says: “I like to try out things and then I go to the computer. Everything looks very good on the computer. It glows, but the writing may not be good so I want it to look bad to begin with so that I’m not taken in by these new toys.

“I try to do as much of the research as possible before I write, but then I get very anxious I’ve lost the ability to write or what to make of it, so I usually start a little bit too early and have to cross it out quite a lot.

“I do 10 or 12 drafts, the last one is shorter than the first. To be able to cross things out is useful.

“Nor when I research do I know precisely what the writer will need, so I have to go where some letters or manuscripts were and say now I realise what I wanted that for. It’s a hit and miss business. I try to absorb as much as I can before I write.

“To some extent I’m a solitary person, but when I’m with my subjects the room becomes crowded, although no-one can see anybody else in the room…I enjoy meeting these people I will never actually meet. It has a bit of magic to it. It gives me a satisfaction that I find difficult to explain.”

Biography’s golden age was, says Michael, from 1960 to around 1990. Professors of literature were not interested in the life of one person, but saw there was something the public liked in biography, and made life writing sociology.

“What they tend to do is to find out an individual who represents a whole category of people, usually people who have been badly treated in the past, and give retrospective justice to these people.

“It’s an admirable thing, it is part of sociology, and other things, but it’s not the biography I have done, it’s a different facet of it.”

The subjects of his books do not lead solitary lives. “So if I’m writing about Bernard Shaw, I’m writing about the whole Fabian movement. If I’m writing about Lytton Strachey I’m writing about all the Bloomsbury group and what they represented, and if about Augustus John, that’s my road book – gipsies, adventurers, clowns and a certain sadness.”

All of Michael’s major biographies are linked, with a minor character in a previous book linking to the following work.

“It’s as if they are choosing me and not me them. They take a long time, 17 years for Shaw, but that’s nothing. It took him over 90 years to live it for goodness sake.”

More recently he has written his memoirs and says his work A Book of Secrets; based around Lord Grimthorpe’s Italian Villa Cimbrone, and the women in his life, including Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward VII and Rodin’s muse, Eve Fairfax, is his last.

“I think it is. I think it is better to give up writing books before your reviewers and your friends beg you to give up. I still write shorter things, essays, articles, so I’m still writing.”

Bouts of illness recently; he is 76, have left him less confident to tackle larger works.

“When I am researching a book I wish I was writing it, and when I am writing it I look back enviously at when I was researching it. There is no pleasing me. If I’m not writing anything at all I’m slightly at a loose end, a feeling of slight emptiness.

“If I get an idea for an essay, then I think less about myself. I’m taken out of myself. If you haven’t been very well it is particularly good to be taken away from yourself.”

He didn’t set out to make Basil Street Blues autobiographical.

“I think I have made it much more difficult for someone to write about me and I am quite happy about that. I never thought I would write about myself and my own family and Basil Street Blues was going to be an essay on my parents. It developed and became a retrospective voyage of discovery.

“I’m interested in an individual planted in a place, particularly an artist or writer, I’m not interested so much in generals.

“The next time round I think I will be an artist or musician in Italy. I’ve made arrangements!”

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