Lead Us Not into Vexation

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?’ asked the 17th-century priest and poet George Herbert. ‘He is a brittle crazy glass.’ The Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie asks this old and difficult question in a thoroughly modern way. His new book, Touching Cloth, a memoir that describes his first year in ministry following ordination, explores the […]

Last Dance in Buenos Aires

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The nearest I’ve come to Argentina is reading Far Away and Long Ago, a haunting and often surprisingly violent memoir (it was written in Bayswater when the author was an invalid during the First World War) by W H Hudson of his mid-19th-century childhood in a ranch house overlooking the River Plata and Argentina’s vast […]

Planes, Trains & Snowmobiles

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘I do not want to be good,’ declared Martha Gellhorn. ‘I wish to be hell on wheels, or dead.’ Gellhorn is one of Sara Wheeler’s heroines, and something of these feisty and defiant sentiments runs through her memoir, which is both very enjoyable and impressive. Wheeler is remarkable for the sheer amount of travelling she […]

Rock and Rhyme

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Publishers’ biographies of poets tend to be brief and cursory, amounting to not much more than a list of previous publications. Because ‘the work speaks for itself’, you see. Don Paterson’s 1993 debut, Nil Nil, stated merely that he was born in Dundee in 1963, moved to London in 1984 and won an Eric Gregory […]

Family Secrets

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Two Sisters comes thirty years after the publication of Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? This account of the relationship between a bluff, domineering yet loving Yorkshire GP and his bolshy, bookish son, and of the physical details of his father’s death (it should have been called ‘And When Did You […]

Piano Man

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Any memoir of the first twenty years of one’s life runs the risk of glibly sentimentalising the past and assuming that trivial remembered details or moments merit wider circulation. Stephen Hough doesn’t altogether avoid these traps – do we really need to know about the antics of his guinea pig, the menu at a long-defunct […]

Through the Looking Glass

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There is a particular problem that books detailing an experience of a debilitating malady pose for the reviewer. For an author who has already undergone some gruelling trial, the slings and arrows from a (generally hale) critic might so easily become the last straw in a catalogue of miseries that the sensitive reviewer will be inclined to hold any

Long Lunches & Large Advances

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It’s no disrespect to John Walsh’s elegant and elegiac memoir to say that forty years ago, during the earlier part of the period it covers, books like this were ten a penny – or at any rate in their remaindered form £2.99 a throw. They had titles like As I Walked Down New Grub Street […]

Life Lessons from the Sinful Greek Girl

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Here are two books by academics. They are memoirs of reading, or rather they are books about reading, writing and storytelling with sections of autobiography. Both are about death as well as living, and at least in part about how literature can make some consoling sense of the afflictions or demands of the body. Elizabeth […]

My Lovers and Other Animals

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Norman Scott’s memoirs shame me. I remember a game of charades, played in a Devon country house on Christmas Eve in 1979, and the hilarity that greeted my brother-in-law biting a pillow and shaking it in his teeth like a wild puppy. ‘Norman Scott!’ we shouted in glee, as we remembered Scott’s testimony earlier that […]

Jail Broke

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The filmmaker Chris Atkins often steered close to the wind in making documentaries, criticising politicians and the media, and using undercover sting operations to expose the dark side of celebrity culture and tabloid reporting. When he himself got caught and sent to jail for taking part in a tax evasion scheme, perhaps the obvious thing […]

Life Support

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Imagine arriving at an airport to see young pilots slumped in chairs or asleep on the floor, then being jolted awake and having to race through the terminal to take control of their next flight. Far fewer people would contemplate flying. Yet our hospitals are staffed in large part by junior doctors, some only days […]

Out of Lanarkshire

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The late journalist Deborah Orr’s moving memoir of her Lanarkshire childhood is about many things but, unwittingly perhaps, it does demonstrate how extremely difficult it is to describe one’s parents. Our perspective is skewed by the very intimacy that should make their personalities reveal themselves clearly to us; unshiftable patterns get in the way as […]

She Adored Children

Posted on by David Gelber

Timebends: A Life is not the usual autobiographical account of when, where and with whom. It is a voyage of self-discovery across dark, interior seas aboard Arthur Miller’s own personal Argo. Indeed one gets the impression that it was never really intended for publication at all; that he wrote it behind locked doors, at night, […]

The All-Seeing I

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The ego-flood of memoir is very strange: I did, I was, I felt, I had, I wanted – I, I, I. But who is this loquacious ‘I’? The I of the present sees their past I in their mind’s eye. Bataille, who knew a lot about eyes and Is, proposed that we are ‘discontinuous beings’ […]

Massacre of the Satirists

Posted on by Tom Fleming

No one who was in Paris on 7 January 2015 will ever forget the fear and horror that coursed through the entire city that day. This was the date of the massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, when, during an editorial meeting, twelve artists, editors and journalists were gunned down by […]

Flash Backs

Posted on by Tom Fleming

George Szirtes’s exceptional The Photographer at Sixteen is concerned mostly with the brief life of his mother, though he refrains from mentioning her name until halfway through the narrative. He affords his decent and honourable father the same respectful treatment: he is telling their stories backwards, discovering what kind of people they were in the […]

Picture Imperfect

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Laura Cumming’s wonderful, haunting new book slips between genres. It is not quite a memoir, not quite a biography and not straightforwardly an investigation into the past. But this ambiguity fits the nature of its subject: what Cumming explores in this book, which is ostensibly an account of the early life of her mother, is […]

Dreaming of Gondar

Posted on by David Gelber

Back in 1924, Granny Yetemegnu (or Nannyé) warranted a five-bullock wedding in her home town of Gondar, in northwest Ethiopia. No matter that she was only eight and her husband, Tsega, an aspiring priest, around thirty. Wearing a heavy black cape trimmed with gold filigree, she stood barefoot as a ring was threaded onto her […]

Flesh & Blood

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Fergal Keane is renowned in Britain for his television and radio reports – often from war-torn places – the underlying tone of which is humanitarian compassion. His experience as a foreign and war correspondent has given him an insight into the complexities behind most political situations. In Wounds he brings this sensibility to the story […]

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