Best biographies of 2009: All manner of conflict lurks in these sketches of larger-than-life personas from Dame Vera to Floyd

The 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War has helped along that staple of historical publishing, the "Hitler industry". Among the many books that have nourished this genre are a hefty biography of his confidant, Joseph Goebbels: A Life and Death by Toby Thacker (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.99) and an elegant and well-researched portrait of Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass (HarperPress, £20), chronicling the literati and intelligentsia who stayed there against the odds.

The blockbuster of 2009, though, is Max Hastings' The Finest Years (HarperPress, £25), a muscular volume on Sir Winston Churchill's time as prime minister from 1940-1945. There's no doubt that Hastings is inspired by the great war leader, but the admiration for his military prowess is tempered by excellent research which brings to the fore the misgivings of his contemporaries. Using this as his means of attack, Hastings disentangles the less glorious actualities of the war from the mythology of Sir Winston, a man whose oratory at times seemed more deadly than the Luftwaffe.

I saw Hastings recently, signing his book. He was asking the store attendant at Waterstone's whether he or William Shawcross's new biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (Macmillan, £25) was selling better. It may have just been a petty rivalry between the two popular historians, but it may also have been a gauge as to which national hero most stirred the popular sentiment. It was, according to the attendant, the Queen Mother.

Seven years after her death, her official biographer Shawcross has finished sifting through her extensive archive of letters and brought together a memorial tome that, because of her longevity, is also a history of the 20th century told through the crests and troughs of the British monarchy.

The letters, which he reprints at length, are fascinating as a record of the development of Elizabeth's rise to queenhood, but also the development of a woman. It is rare to find a life documented so well from the interior as well as the exterior, and in some ways her letters can elucidate more than mere biographical details. Her early writing, from a time nursing wounded soldiers staying at Glamis Castle during the First World War, is girlish, filled with ampersands and underlinings, and words written backwards when she is talking about boys who had caught her eye. That straightens itself into formal, if slightly melodramatic language, as Elizabeth marries into the Royal Family and counsels and sympathises with them through the abdication crisis. Her style ultimately develops in her finely written recollections of the Second World War, which in turn signal her rise to the status of mother of the nation. If anything, Shawcross's biography is there to reassure us that our love of the Queen Mother was not misplaced.

In a very different tune, the 92-year-old Dame Vera Lynn issued the second volume of her memoirs, Some Sunny Day (HarperCollins, £18.99), this year. To those who don't recall, her first rendition came out 40 years ago, but time has not dimmed British affection for the wartime sweetheart. Indeed, this was also the year that "We'll Meet Again" topped the charts (albeit in album form) for the second time. Her story – born in Essex, playing the East End music halls as a child, and hitting the new boom industry of radio in the late 1930s – is told in a chirpy but modest voice. At one point she notes that she had to buy a car to get her back from her musical engagements, making her one of a handful of women in Britain who drove in the late 1930s. There's barely a beat on how exceptional she is, but instead a few nice details on black-out etiquette for car headlights. It's a brilliant tale of hard work, patriotism and bearing the weight of a nation's love.

Dame Vera and the Queen Mother are both hallowed in 20th-century culture and, as such, there may be some veiling of truths to keep their reputations pure. For a vital account of being a woman in the 20th century, one can turn to Diana Athill. Aged 92, she has released Life Class (Granta, £25), a selection of her memoirs that chronicle the growth of a woman from a privileged childhood of horses and country estates to a middle-class existence in Andrew Deutsch's publishing house and love affairs, to a late contemplation on old age. The prose is breathtaking, and the honesty exhilarating.

Something that makes a good memoir is a sense of a life lived with gusto. Athill has it. So too does Keith Floyd, the man who became the first celebrity chef. His memoirs are sporadic, wild, fun, like talking to a drunk at the end of the night, with a fog of cigarette smoke and tragedy in the air. A tumultuous personal life, vast riches, even vaster spending, and a love-hate relationship with fame all surface through Stirred but Not Shaken (Sidgwick & Jackson, £18.99). In between sips of his preferred tipple of whisky, Floyd reveals himself as a man for whom the media was almost an amusing accident that got out of control. His true love was his cooking. As a footnote, Floyd died in September this year, just before his memoirs were published. He had been celebrating getting the all-clear from cancer that day with a hearty lunch of oysters and partridge, a bon viveur to the last meal.

Two other bon viveurs were subjects of biographies this year. One was of the Tory MP Alan Clark, by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld, £25), who had previously edited Clark's riotously indiscreet diaries. One wonders what a biography could add to Clark's own writings, which were filled with more self-criticism than even a hostile critic could manage. What Trewin does is pull together a comprehensive picture of Clark, the renegade politician, the philandering yet hopelessly faithful husband and the vain but vulnerable man, and finds the legacy beyond the diaries. It may not have the style of Clark's writing, but it does put some substance into the Clark swagger.

The other bon viveur is Charles II, about whom Jenny Uglow has written a classically brilliant biography, A Gambling Man (Faber, £25). Examining the first 10 years of his rule, which marked the Restoration of the monarchy, Uglow portrays a double-edged king, one who was given the soubriquet "the merry monarch" for the return of pomp and finery to the Royal Court, the other a man who had used pragmatism and dark politics to secure the nation, and his own throne at the head of it.

Finally, it is rare that a biography of a Belgian makes it across the Channel, so an honourable mention must go to Pierre Assouline's volume Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin (OUP USA, £16.99). Born George Remi in Brussels, a young man who doodled his way through school eventually reversed his initials to come up with his pen name and landed a slot doing cartoons on a news- paper. And thus Hergé and Tintin were born. Assouline researches in meticulous detail and draws together the lives of the fictional character and his creator. An intriguing biography and, if nothing else, one learns a lot about Belgium.

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map