‘Who dies, if memory lives?’ The well-known question has adorned many tombstones and always raises in me the dour response, ‘But who lives if memory dies?’ If our main hope of survival lies in the memories of the still living, then in two or three generations we shall all of us, as the Gospel of Mark warns, become as if we had never been born. It is a fact that most of those who have ever lived on this earth, in every age, are unremembered. But it is also the case that from every age a tiny number of inscriptions, sculptures, paintings and documents survive, preserving for posterity a handful of names, most often of those who enjoyed wealth and reputation, but sometimes, by chance, those of slaves, servants, unmarried daughters or short-lived children.
Michael Holroyd has spent much of his career researching the lives of famous people. In old age he has turned his attention to his own dysfunctional family of origin. His disorganised and multiply-married parents have become public property. Humorous and poignant, his memoir Basil Street Blues was rightly praised, and