Full Disclosure

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

‘I always say, keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.’ No one knows who came up with that line first. It might have been Lillie Langtry. It could have been Margot Asquith. What we do know is that the line was made famous by Mae West, who gave it to her character Peaches O’Day in the script for her 1937 film Every Day’s a Holiday. Every day is a diary day for me and has been since 1959, the year I turned eleven and my great-aunt Edith (a Lancashire infant school headmistress) gave me a shortened (and thoroughly expurgated)

The W Factor

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Rain is general all over Cornwall. I am in St Ives, on holiday with my family. Outside may be miserable, but inside we have a jigsaw. I think of ‘Pangur Bán’, the ninth-century Irish poem about a clerk and his cat both at work, one writing and the other mousing, the contentment of companied exertion. ‘Day and night, my own hard work/Solves the cruxes,’ the poet wrote, in Heaney’s translation. Three generations – children, grandparents, siblings – come and go, criss-crossing and reconstellating at the puzzle table, an hour here

Poet for Our Time

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

On 17 April, the British Library is hosting a talk. Antonia Fraser and I will be having a ‘fireside chat’ about the subject of her latest book, Lady Caroline Lamb: A Free Spirit. If, that is, we can succeed in keeping Lord Byron at bay. April being the month of the bicentenary of Byron’s death, […]

Licence to Write

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Scepticism and superstition are a writer’s guiding stars. This is especially true when it comes to biography. Before you devote years of your life to plotting someone else’s, you can be spookily receptive to the tiniest twinkle. When approached to write a new authorised biography of Ian Fleming, the first since 1966, my initial reaction […]

The Cat That Got the Oat Milk

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I have just corrected the final proofs for my new book and the relief is tremendous. It concerns cats. More specifically, it concerns the cat, and deals with the moment at the end of the 19th century when the species was transformed from mouse-catching kitchen skivvy to pampered pet. One moment workaday tabbies were ambient pest-controllers […]

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Minor Miracles

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Minor literary figures have always attracted me because the designation is so terminal: once a minor always a minor, unless elevated to a major minor. On my bookshelves are the three fat volumes of George Saintsbury’s Minor Poets of the Caroline Period, in which the reputation of poor Shackerley Marmion (1603–39) is written in stone. […]

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Poems from a Room

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The most satisfying room I know is in a Gloucestershire farmhouse. It is neither large nor imposing, but it has quiet perfection. Over the course of thirty years, at auctions and gallery openings, in shops in country towns and markets in London, my friend Ursula has bought paintings and objects that appeal to her. They […]

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A Flap with a Fox-Tail

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn’t allow it to spoil your lunch. Kingsley Amis is credited with that remark. Another suggestion for dealing with reviews is: don’t read them; just measure them. Some authors – a suspicious number – claim not to read reviews of their books at all. What a […]

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Secrets of Nabokov’s Teapot

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Down here in southwest France, the summer of 2023 has been kind: sunny, not too hot, an obliging shower of rain when required. Only one phenomenon marks it out – a spate of bird crashes, five so far, four starlings and a thrush. By this I mean the sudden death of a bird caused by it flying, full-pelt, into the glass doors and windows of our house. Sometimes I hear the thwack, almost as if a rock has been thrown, but most often I discover the corpse on the doorstep or on the ground below the window. The sheer force of the

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Many Walks of Life

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The first literary biography I ever read, back in 1977, was Christopher Sykes’s life of Evelyn Waugh. Even at the age of sixteen, I seem to remember, I had my doubts, impressed, on the one hand, by what the book clearly gained from the author’s friendship with his subject, yet puzzled, on the other, by […]

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Dropped & Bowled

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

As a romantic-minded teenager, it never crossed my mind that publicising a book might be a crucial part of a writer’s career. Wordsworth had wandered lonely as a cloud. The Brontë sisters had published under pseudonyms. Emily Dickinson had made a virtue of never meeting anyone at all. I certainly couldn’t imagine any of them […]

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Heavy Lies the Crown

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Writing a royal biography is a daunting task. Harold Nicolson likened starting his life of George V to setting out in a taxi for Vladivostok. I know the feeling, having written a life of George V myself. For me, it begins with research in the Royal Archives. Sitting high up in the Round Tower at […]

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I Can See Clearly Now

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I am in a tunnel, a hundred feet beneath the Euston Road. This used to be part of the London Underground before it was closed off and abandoned sixty years ago. Now it is used for storage and the occasional TV production whenever an eerie version of the Tube is required. As in any Underground station, […]

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Where Falcons Dare

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I find myself telling my children: ‘Daddy’s doing his peregrines.’ It was one of Charles Darwin’s small sons who, on learning that there was no study in his school friend’s house, asked in puzzlement: ‘Where does your father do his barnacles?’ Darwin spent eight years poring over cirripedes (‘I hate a Barnacle as no man […]

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All About Mee

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

To Oxford, to talk about memoir writing. It’s the week after the publication of Spare and all the newspapers and social media have been full of it. I am resolved not mention Prince Harry, that the words ‘Prince Harry’ will not pass my lips. I’m interested in ordinary folk and struggling writers. My 45-minute lecture, […]

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Happiness is a Cold Fjord

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Iwas in Oslo for a job. Mostly it involved speaking to people about happiness, which is a lot more fun than speaking about despair and gloom. They disagreed wildly about the definition of happiness but they all told me to go cross-country skiing. I was happy (as it were) in Oslo, and each day I […]

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A Butcher’s Trade

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When I began working at the Times Literary Supplement in the 1980s, an older colleague would hand me a piece of typewritten copy, pristine just an hour before but now heavily marked in pencil, with the faux-solemn words: ‘Here is the bleeding corpse. Yours is a butcher’s trade.’ The source of the remark was said […]

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A Rebus Puzzle

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This summer brought the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2020 it all took place online and the 2021 festival was a hybrid, with some writers being beamed in and physical audience numbers restricted. 2022 saw us back to something akin to normal. The largest venue could accommodate 650 spectators and was often filled to capacity. […]

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Travels with Orlando

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Castelnuovo di Garfagnana is a small fortified town in a valley halfway between the Apennines and the Apuan Alps, in the province of Lucca. I’m here at the invitation of the town hall to give a talk on Ludovico Ariosto, who was governor of this remote citadel for three years, from February 1522 to June […]

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Portal Agony

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Covid finally caught up with us in Venice, though I reckon we caught it on the Eurostar. Mostly the week was spent cancelling the restaurants we’d booked as a reward for three years of missed holidays. The only reservation we managed to keep was the first and priciest, at a bleakly cool stunt-food outlet which had just won its first star and wasn’t going to let you forget it. There was a lot of swallowing hard and pretending to be rich. Isn’t it clever the way the snail chutney cuts the rabbit lung parfait? No, you’re right, it’s horrible. There was no foam or aerosolised soup, but at one

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