A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 01 March 1997
Indeed, O'Connor's The Secret Woman (Weidenfeld, pounds 20) omits to notice that - if you ignore her first and last husbands, and the passing trade - Dame Peggy's now-famous roster of celebrity lovers makes up an eleven. This team bats all the way down, with a slight loss of sparkle in the middle: J B Priestley, Paul Robeson, Walter Sickert, Mark Dignam, Theodore Komisarjevsky, Michel Saint-Denis, Billy Buchan (John's son), Burgess Meredith, Tony Britton, William Devlin, George Devine. (Pinter could be the non-playing coach.) As a new twist to the showbiz bio, this has potential. Coming soon: Dame Edith Evans and the catenaccio defence.
After finishing O'Connor's book, you crave some escape from the stultifying limits of its genre. As a "property" as well as a text, it reveals what's gone wrong with the tacky trade in private lives. Extracted in the press for the usual handsome fee attached to sex with the stars, the mushy passages that name those paramours will become the book for most of its audience. Few will bother now about its critical lapses.
Before she died in 1991, Dame Peggy worked with Michael Billington on a sound survey of her roles, from Juliet to The Jewel in the Crown. Sex, in other words, is all O'Connor has to sell, as he can't quote from letters (the children refused him permission). Even so, he fails to build a solid bridge between the turbulent off-stage soul and the regal, even chilly star. And his syntax brings to mind a knitting-basket after the attentions of a pair of frisky kittens. We even learn that "Harriet Walter first met Peggy when she was 74" - bad news for Ms Walter. But who needs an editor when the papers will bombard you with big cheques for soft-centred tittle-tattle? The book is a meretricious muddle. And so is the publishing culture that wraps shabby goods in sensation-seeking hype.
Arts & Ents blogs
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- 2 Notting Hill Carnival: Woman shares selfie after being ‘punched in face for telling man to stop groping her’
- 3 Keira Knightley topless: Usually conservative actress does own take on #Freethenipple campaign for Interview Magazine
- 4 Oil tanker with $100 million cargo goes missing off Texas coast
- 5 George Galloway left with severe bruising after attack in Notting Hill by man 'shouting about the Holocaust'
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