Books: Biography - Brief lives

Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson, Hodder pounds 18.99. "I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war." This unforgettable moment from Beyond the Fringe appears in Thompson's lively and penetrating biography of the late lamented Peter Cook - one of the saddest of all sad clowns - to illustrate how much of Cook's humour was autobiographical. He came from a long line of colonial servants who neglected their children in the service of their sovereign, and, like Kipling, felt you should "bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives' need." This particular son, however, escaped with his emotional life in tatters but his talent intact: by the time he was 28 he had reached the zenith of his profession as comedian and satirist, but failed marriages and soured professional partnerships (notably, with Dudley Moore) led to disillusion and alcoholism. In detailing the bumpy path of this brilliant, compulsive, desperately insecure near- genius, Thompson's narrative is fresh with the intimate testimony of friends, ex-colleagues and family (right: Cook with his daughters Daisy and Lucy).

Daddy's Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture by Valerie Walkerdine, Macmillan pounds 37.50/pounds 11.99. Not so much a biography of an individual as of a type: Valerie Walkerdine investigates the image of the "tiny, innocent heart of our culture" (see the cover picture, on the left). "Thank heavens ..." went the words of the song, and certainly filmmakers, advertisers and anybody wanting to sell products with a squeaky-clean image has been gleefully grateful, over the years, for the fact that the precarious balance between sentimentality and ambivalent eroticism can be so easily summoned with a picture of a pretty female child. The effects of such images - in film, television, magazines, advertising, cartoons, etc - on real-life, working- class girls, whose reality may be quite different, is the subject of this readable study, and leads to some fascinating and disturbing conclusions.

Simenon: A Biography by Pierre Assouline, trs Jon Rothschild, Chatto pounds 20. What does everyone know about Georges Simenon? That he slept with 10,000 women, of course - or claimed that he did. You can waste a lot of time on the mental arithmetic required to work out how much of an 86- year life that would take up. Nonetheless, Simenon (left, with pipe) managed to squeeze in a few other activities, as this full and vivid portrait shows. Everything he did displayed both speed and quantity: at 22, he was writing three novels a month; his autobiographical works ran to no less than 25 volumes. He would write eight chapters in as many days, pause briefly, then spend three days revising - result: one book. He was once compelled to admit to his wife that he had been cheating on her daily for 20 years, but when, in 1945, he was looking for a new secretary he met the woman of whom he later wrote: "For the first time I was to know the thing they call passion, a veritable fever that some psychologists consider a malady ... I who didn't believe in love at first sight." So it can happen to anyone.

Joyce & Ginnie: The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, Hodder pounds 20. These inseparable friends wrote to each other for half a century, making an acute picture not only of two unusual careers - for Joyce, stage and film work replete with celebrities, for Virginia writing and broadcasting - but also of British social history (large events like war, abdication and moon landing, small ones like the changing pronunciation of upper- class vowels). The voices are inimitable: in 1943, working for ENSA, Grenfell (below) writes "Darling Ginnie, I'm indulging in the unusual beauty of a morning in bed. Got the curse yesterday morning and did 2 enormous Lunatic Asylums in the afternoon and evening, so I felt a little luxury was merited ..."

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