Books: The Books Interview: A biographer's backyard

After epic journeys into other people's lives, Michael Holroyd tackled his own family history. By Frances Spalding

Michael Holroyd is exuberant - for good reason. At 64, he has made good a loss that has underpinned his entire career. His massive biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and Bernard Shaw are credited with having changed the face of modern biography. Each creates an entire world. They teem with unforgettable descriptions of minor characters and give generous space to the cultural and socio-political milieu, with the result that much British history of the late 19th and 20th century can be found in his books. Yet, while busily involved with these epic tales, he remained aware of a buried or lost narrative - his own, and that of his family.

A sense of continuity is essential to any sustained narrative. It was this which Holroyd felt his own family history lacked. Fragmented by divorce, financial difficulties and enmity, his relations stumbled through the 1930s and emerged from the war unprepared for the postwar era. By the late 1970s, Holroyd's parents had, between them, gone through five marriages. Both lived alone, in fragile health and meagre circumstances. "They appeared bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing," he writes in Basil Street Blues (Little, Brown, pounds 17.50). "After all, it had started so promisingly."

But it was his own sense of bewilderment, his search for things missing or which he believed he never had, that fired him to write this account of his family background. "It was something I'd had in the back of my mind for a long time," he admits, his face lit with a contentment suggestive of both triumph and relief.

"Increasingly, since I'd finished the Shaw it seemed to me knocking at the door. Once I'd opened the door it came running out..." For a man who has spent 17 years on a biography, it was relatively quick work - perhaps two and a half years, with other commitments, for Holroyd has chaired many literary organisations and is currently lobbying hard to improve Public Lending Right.

PLR is the scheme whereby authors are paid for the use of their books in libraries. It took more than 20 years to convince politicians that this was a matter of justice, not just a bid to improve the lot of writers. "PLR is the most important piece of legislation for writers in my career - and yours," Holroyd insists, conveying something of the passion that has directed his fight for this intellectual property right.

There is no lack of continuity here. For the man who thrusts into my hands the latest discussion document on PLR was once the boy who revelled in the democratic ambience of his nearby library and the access it gave him to books. Here he read adventure stories, found H G Wells - "a great favourite of mine" - and moved on to Dostoievsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Balzac and Zola, among others. He has persistently put on record that he was educated "at Eton College and Maidenhead Public Library".

Basil Street Blues uncovers the circumstances behind this need for imaginative escape. To all outward appearances, the Holroyds in the 1930s were a wealthy, well-appointed English family, with some Irish and perhaps Scottish ancestry and an Anglo-Indian chapter in their history. So Michael Holroyd's Swedish grandmother thought, when her 17-year old daughter, Ulla, met Basil Holroyd in the summer of 1934 on a boat travelling from Sweden to England and soon after began visiting his family home.

But things quickly got out of hand. There was a hasty, secret marriage in a register office, Basil and Ulla using as a witness the taxi-driver who drove them there, and a honeymoon in the Basil Street Hotel. Less that nine months later, Ulla gave birth to Michael.

He was six or seven when the marriage ended. He went to live with his father and his spinster aunt in his grandparents' house, Norhurst, a home he associates with "ritualised unhappiness". Its static dullness alternated with short visits from his mother and exciting trips abroad with step- parents "who, like minor characters in a badly-managed melodrama, would introduce themselves with a flourish, a bray of trumpets," and inexplicably disappear".

Looking back on this period, Holroyd recollects frustration and anxiety. "What I didn't like as a child was the lack of continuity. Every time you stopped you had to change stations. I couldn't get continuity and some sort of pleasure and excitement together." At one point, he ran away from his grandparents to his mother. Soon after, he ran away in the opposite direction, back to the familiarity of Norhurst.

The basis of his family's supposed wealth were Rajmai Tea Company shares. In family legend, these were "priceless, invaluable, beyond dreams". In fact, as the Rajmai Tea Company was a private company and shares could not be traded, their worth was unknown.

Nevertheless Holroyd's grandfather used them as a means of raising loans and in this way set up an outlet in London for Lalique glass, making his two sons Basil and Kenneth co-directors. Undeterred by the slump, he turned his Basil Street offices into Chinese-style showrooms then, in the autumn of 1934, with great pomp and ceremony, opened the great Lalique galleries in New Bond Street.

It could not have been worse timed. What saved the family in 1947 was Kenneth Holroyd's marriage to an heiress. From this it can be deduced that, directly or indirectly, his nephew Michael went to Eton on money from Woolworth's, for its founder and first chairman had generously settled on Kenneth, his son-in-law, pounds 100,000 - roughly equivalent now to a couple of million.

At his prep school Holroyd had discovered how to banish anxiety with laughter. "It was a passion... that released me from innumerable apprehensions." He was less happy at Eton, until his last year, when he had begun to find his way around. Many of his dreams at Eton involved following a group of people, then turning a corner and finding they had disappeared. From this, he deduces, "I was trying to find where it happened, where it was."

What, then, did Eton give him? "There may have been a patina given by that period," he offers in reply; "it gave me a manner, of coolness and relaxation". His ingrained courtesy is part of that patina, part of his charm and finesse. In Basil Street Blues he touches on painful matters lightly, allowing tragedy to come through uncoloured by emotional display. "There's not much anger," he admits. "Anger is like a sentimentality - it takes part of the truth instead of the whole truth."

Instead, he employs comedy. He claims to have learnt about serious comedy from Hugh Kingsmill, the subject of his first biography, and in particular from Kingsmill's small book on Frank Harris. The technique, which Holroyd has perfected, is to measure the ideal against the actual and so expose a comic disparity that criticises and forgives at the same time.

What makes this new book unlike anything that he has done before is that it is based, not on a huge archive, but on fragments, glimpses, the odd legal document and the contents of his aunt's evening bag. In addition he had his parents' hand-written accounts of their early lives, which he had asked them to write in the late 1970s.

"At the time," he says, "I had no idea it was for me... it was intended as therapy - a magic carpet that would take them back to better times." With these scant materials as his starting point, he has rifled tirelessly through records, tracked down every possible link, analysed information for the purposes of deduction, and uncovered a story as odd and unexpected, as poignant and moving, as any he has ever told.

Michael Holroyd, a biography

Michael Holroyd was born in London in 1935. His parents divorced when he was young and he was brought up by his grandparents. He was educated at Eton but never went to university, although he has five honorary degrees. He is best known for the biographies Hugh Kingsmill, 1964; Lytton Strachey, 1967 (made into the film Carrington in 1995); Augustus John, 1974; and Bernard Shaw, 1988, which was begun in 1975 and inspired a television film in which Holroyd played himself opposite Sir Ian McKellen as Shaw. The novel A Dog's Life (1969), a precursor to his new family memoir Basil Street Blues, was published only in America after Holroyd's father took legal steps to prevent its British publication. Holroyd has lectured for the British Council and was awarded the CBE in 1989. He has been Chairman of the Society of Authors and Book Trust, President of English PEN and a member of the Arts Council. He is now Chairman of the Royal Society of Literature. He married the novelist Margaret Drabble in 1982, although they lived in separate houses until 13 years later. They now cohabit in west London.

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