A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing by Hilary Mantel - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

The Pen & the Handkerchief

A Memoir of My Former Self: A Life in Writing


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Hilary Mantel is worth reading on anything. I have no special interest in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, but Mantel’s observations about Glenn Close as Alex, whose ‘fashionable, photogenic face is made up of intersecting hatchet blades’ and who has ‘won the most important battle in life – that with her hairdresser’, and her description of Michael Douglas as Dan, looking like ‘a hamster threatened by a tomahawk’, make me want to go back to the bunny boiler. Mantel has even made me want to seek out Robocop for the first time and see if I too find its ‘spectacular, totally unrealistic’ violence ‘stimulating’.

Edited by her publisher Nicholas Pearson, A Memoir of My Former Self gathers up essays, short pieces, film reviews, five Reith Lectures and some miscellaneous journalism in an arrangement that is loosely thematic rather than chronological. The earliest essay, ‘Last Morning in Al Hamra’, is an account from 1987 of living for a short while in Saudi Arabia. It won Mantel the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing and was published in The Spectator, leading its then editor, Charles Moore, to offer Mantel the film column – not an obvious move but a clever one. Writing in the dark suited her. Mordant and witty, Mantel is always somehow coming from left field, as if the world is an endlessly surprising place. ‘Everything, however intimate or harrowing, is light entertainment now,’ she writes in the wake of viewing Michael Caton-Jones’s 1989 film Scandal, about the Profumo affair. ‘People go out and scour the streets for TV crews to come in and film Granny dying; few couples, it seems, have sex without selling the serial rights.’

Mantel signed off from The Spectator in 1990 – she was ‘quitting journalism altogether’ – because the Tudors were calling. Summing up her time as its film critic, she said she had seen ‘one perfect film’, Babette’s Feast, some good ones and ‘bucketsful of the most wonderful trash’.

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