Books: Sporting secrets of the stars

Basil Street Blues: A Family Story by Michael Holroyd Little, Brown pounds 17.50

`When a writer is born into a family," Philip Roth has said, "the family is finished". It's a remark which Michael Holroyd quotes and must often have mulled over since writing about his family in his novel A Dog's Life, a book which his father so detested that he prevented its publication in Britain.

Surely, father chided son, you could have waited a few years until we were dead before appraising the world of our misery. This reaction seems to have had a profound effect on Holroyd, who let A Dog's Life appear only in the safely distant US, gave up writing fiction, and has spent over 30 years immersing himself in familes other than his own. By virtue of this, he has become one of the great biographers of our time, so no one's complaining. But many a reader watching him dissect the families of other men must have wondered about his own. How eccentric were they? How posh? From which side did Holroyd inherit his charm? Was there something in childhood that drove him to the self-effacing profession of biography?

Now, with his parents dead and no relation left to threaten lawsuits, Holroyd has tried to answer such questions, for himself as well as us. Part autobiography, part family chronicle, part meditation on the ethics of biography, Basil Street Blues evokes lives that seem long gone and which even at the time disappointed those living them. Holroyd helps his family live again. He makes them visible. Yet the great underlying theme is his own invisibility.

Invisibility was something which Holroyd strove for at school (Scaitcliffe, Eton), to the extent that he sometimes wonders, with the latter, whether he was there at all. His worst humiliations came from being noticed - like the time he was beaten for wetting his bed, and his screams could be heard several dormitories away. Only by joining in could he lose himself. This meant being fairly good at games, cricket and squash in particular. Howard Jacobson has lately owned up to his boyhood prowess at table tennis, and now we learn that Holroyd was British Open Junior Squash Champion at 16. What next? Muriel Spark's secret netball career? John Fowles's rowing blue?

Though Holroyd's sporting (and academic) accomplishments show that he was less of a nonentity than he affects, his pleasure in disappearing seems genuine enough. It was what he liked (still does like) about reading books - being able to forget and lose himself. Why this need to vanish? In part it was to detach himself from his parents, whose lives were so unstable that attachment would have made him insecure. His father Basil, who "gave the impression of someone who had overshot success and landed somewhere else", was restless and ill at ease, enthusiastically greeting each new partner in love or business only to have his hopes dashed. His high point came in the mid-1930s when he was selling Lalique glass, and on a boat from Goteborg to London met a Swedish beauty (and later model) called Ulla. Just 17, with hair the colour of champagne, Ulla was off to England in search of fun. She found it with Basil on a cane-backed sofa, where Michael was conceived.

But Ulla and Basil rarely agreed about anything - not even their son's date of birth - and once the war came, began to drift apart. Still only 30 when divorced from Basil, Ulla went on to have several husbands and countless admirers, not surprisingly, to judge by the photos. Basil, too, had his romances, and for 10 years was married to a glamorous French publisher called Marlou. Since both parents moved around a lot, what should be done with Michael, an only child, became a vexed issue with a simple solution. For the best of 20 years, he lived with his grandparents and spinster aunt in Maidenhead. If the plan was to give the child a quiet and stable home, it didn't work.

The madhouse he came into was full of sound and fury, and festering with ancient sores. The grandparents, Fraser and Adeline, were still getting over Fraser's four-year defection into the arms of Agnes May, daughter of a glass-grinder. The aunt, Yolande, who liked to charge about the place in the company of dogs, was nursing a broken heart. Holroyd pieces her story together through letters, agonising whether (since she is still alive) it's proper to quote from them but deciding that (since she has lost her memory and awareness of living) she can't be hurt by it.

Towards the end of their lives, as muddle, illness and lack of money overtook them, Holroyd had touchingly close relationships with both his parents, and having finally raised his earnings above pounds 1,500 a year was able to help them out a bit, if not to reverse the family's economic decline. He also persuaded them to write short accounts of their lives for him, and it's from these, and his own intrepid researches, and the unpublished fiction his father wrote between business ventures, that he has fleshed out Basil Street Blues.

There are, at times, too many exotic distant relations. Though their lives are fascinating (their deaths too - one great-grandmother killed herself with carbolic acid, one might-have-been uncle burned to death as a baby), they take up space which a less diffident Holroyd might have allotted to himself: not so much his sex life (to which there's a solitary teasing reference), but his emotional life, which, when he allows it, he explores with painful honesty, writing of his mother, for example, as she lies dying: "I could not touch her ... I must write this again. I could not touch her." Basil Street Blues is not a bashful book. But nor should it be Holroyd's last word about himself.

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