Memoirs; satisfying our curiosity about the real and often hidden lives of others. Away from the arena of ghost-written celebrity kiss-and-tells, a good autobiography gifts the reader with something that is candid, powerful and paradoxically universal. From the early dysfunctions of family life to the trials of ageing and grief, these five books offer compelling and enlightening insights.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? – Blake Morrison
Yorkshire-born, South London-based poet and novelist Blake Morrison received his widest readership with this memoir centred on the life and death of his father. The book was so popular in fact as to be made into a film of the same name starring Colin Firth as Morrison. And in 2002, Morrison followed up this story with his mother’ tale in Things My Mother Never Told Me. In And When Did You Last See Your Father? Morrison’s dad comes through the pages as a force of nature, at turns charming and affable – at others obnoxious and bullying. Throughout, the book probes its title question, the title taken from the popular William Frederick Yeames painting.
Morrison adeptly moves through the stages of his dad’s life as seen through his eyes, continually questioning notions of identity and memory. Who is his father and how will he be remembered? As the wheeling, dealing dad who embarrassed him as a child, or the flawed man he sees as teenager, one whom he suspects of cheating on his mother, or else the reduced figure, vulnerable on his deathbed? Morrison’s father’s life is not an extraordinary one – he is a rural GP, a philandering married man and a father who dies of cancer in his seventies – but what makes this story so compelling is the confessional nature of Morrison’s prose.
Bad Blood – Lorna Sage
In this memoir, the late Lorna Sage (prominent academic, critic and specialist in women’s writing) details the first 16 years of her life. But more than describing the forming of an individual consciousness, Bad Blood is a family saga and at the centre of this family stage stands Sage’s wonderfully, (supposedly), wicked grandfather from whom she – according to her mother – inherits her bad blood. Sage’s small-town vicar grandfather is drawn as an impassioned and literary man whose ambitions never come close to being fulfilled and who instead indulges in a life of adultery and heavy drinking. Though he dies when Sage is just nine, the figure of her grandfather looms heavily over both her life and the book.
This is a quietly triumphant story that closes at the point when Sage just is on the cusp of freedom and autonomy, her limited world about to open outwards. She may be 16 and pregnant, but she is about to begin her academic life in earnest at a prestigious university, having gained a place to study English Literature. To read Bad Blood is to enjoy Sage’s evocative portrait of three generations both battling and occasionally buttressing one another.
The Importance of Music to Girls – Lavinia Greenlaw
T.S. Eliot Award-shortlisted poet, novelist and librettist, Lavinia Greenlaw takes a less common route in this memoir as she traces the lines of her own history through the medium of music. From a childhood spent learning English folk dance at Cecil Sharp House in Camden and the joy of making her first mix tape for a boy she likes, to the discovery of punk and electric blue hair. Greenlaw’s book stands out not because she has a particularly dramatic coming-of-age tale to tell, but because of the poetry of her prose and because of the evocative lens through which she describes girlhood.
For Greenlaw, music is the universe expanding: a force that allows her to both ‘change the shape of the world’ as well as her ‘shape within it’. It is the ‘external phenomenon’ that allows her as an, ‘unformed thing’ to begin to form, if not complete, herself. As the genre of hedonistic music biographies expands, this is a refreshingly subjective tale told from the perspective of an awed and transfigured listener.
Experience – Martin Amis
Love or loathe controversial writer Martin Amis, this memoir (published in 2000 and winner of the James Tate Black Memorial Prize), tells a fascinating tale full of literary gossip, creative rivalry (Amis’ father is the author Kingsley Amis) and the impact of trauma; his cousin Lucy Partington was a victim of Fred West. And it is this mix of darkness and light which makes Experience such an engaging read.
As is often the case in Amis’ fiction (think John Self in 1984 novel Money), the leading man the author paints is far from heroic. Though Amis certainly doesn’t show himself to be a character as despicable as the likes of Self, nor does he shy away from detailing his own failings. Ranging from his neurotic obsession with his own teeth and long line of failed relationships to his near constant anxiety that he receive approval from his cantankerous, often drunk, father. Read this for an at turns sad, absurd and funny slice of angst-ridden literary life.
Somewhere Towards The End – Diana Athill
Diana Athill’s autobiography differs from many in that is not just told from the perspective of someone who is aged looking back, (Athill was 89 at the time of publication), but is about the experience of ageing itself. And Athill, former distinguished editor and co-founder of the publishing house Andre Deutsch, and published writer herself, is a shining example of how to age well. Though frank about the trials involved in the ageing process as well as – as the title suggests – the proximity of her own death, Athill’s prose is uplifting, and her tone cheerful.
Somewhere Towards The End is not impressive though because of Athill’s age – as she puts it ‘when you’re old people think you’re wonderful if you mange to eat a boiled egg!’ – but because of the vivid details of her writing and her palpable lack of disregard for the status quo. Within the context of Athill’s era (she was born in 1917) her opinions are strikingly radical. She describes the experience of nearing death as an atheist, her decision to remain unmarried and her lifelong lack of maternal feeling. At one point she flagrantly dismisses the notion of fidelity being right for all describing the desire to be ‘someone’s one and only’ as potentially ‘neurotic, unwholesome and the cause of many ills”. This thought-provoking and moving book is one that makes you want to find and befriend the author!