Biography and memoirs: Literary or showbiz, foodie or rude: 10 stories of journeys out of the jungle
Friday 28 November 2008
It's a funny year in which the most successful showbusiness biography, the funniest, cleverest and most insightful, the one that says the most about the art of memoir-writing and the human condition, is the one that was written by a chimp. It is also a curious state of affairs when a highly paid television presenter, as if to promote his new book called Why Do I Say These Things?, says something so stupid and utterly crass that he nearly loses his squillion-dollar job.
But then, it's an unusual year that promises three books in one month about life history, colonialism, multiculturalism, faith, family and the Asian diaspora, all explained through the medium of curry. (One of these books, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's The Settler's Cookbook, has since been postponed until next year.) The other two, Ziauddin Sardar's Balti Britain (Granta, £20) and Hardeep Singh Kohli's Indian Takeaway (Canongate, £16.99) are deftly spiced and meaty concoctions that leave a largely positive taste in the mouth: Kohli is ""Neither Indian nor British", he concludes, "just Hardeep"). And yet still we end November with the non-fiction top 10 showing predictable sales for the standard celebrity autobiography: Dawn French, Michael Parkinson, Paul O'Grady, Julie Walters...
Not that the standard celebrity autobiographies are all as predictable as the format usually seems to dictate. Indeed, many of this year's bestsellers were even written by the person whose name is on the front. While the ace foreign correspondent Ann Leslie, in her smashing tale of history and handbags and the role of the bra in a danger zone, was Killing My Own Snakes (Macmillan, £20), slebs are holding their own pens, and proud of it.
The customary working-class childhood is common to most – council estates, coal mines, the rainforests of Liberia, for Cheeta the chimp – but none is recollected with more charm than Michael Parkinson's. "I remember thinking it wouldn't bother me," says the nth-generation miner's son of his expected trajectory into the Grimethorpe pit, "provided I could marry Ingrid Bergman and get a house much nearer the pit." The name-dropping in Parky (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) starts early – one of his mother's knitting pattern designs was modelled by Roger Moore, he says proudly. But the early chapters about his childhood and early career, back in the day when the Express represented the height of glamour and before all the bits we already know about – Billy Connolly, Bette Davis, Posh and Becks, Emu – are disarmingly modest and offer a proper glimpse into another world.
Even critics of Parky's gentle style of interviewing might recently be nostalgic for his more innocent era. Your view of Jonathan Ross's Why Do I Say These Things? (Bantam Press, £18.99) will probably depend entirely on what you already think of Jonathan Ross. So, to be open from the outset, I would rather be stuck in a lift with Russell Brand than read another word by this self-satisfied, lazy oaf. This isn't an autobiography, he says, because he wouldn't want to embarrass his kids. Therefore he confines most of the finer details about masturbation, porn and sex with vacuum cleaners (yet another rather pathetic steal from his pal Brand) to a single chapter, after which you will "know more than you'd probably care to about sex and me". Yup. Still, if chapter headings along the lines of "I Date-Raped Myself" amuse you, by all means buy this book – and may I also recommend Frank Skinner's On the Road (Century, £18.99). "For the first time we read a comedian's account, in his own words, of how his act is put together." This means some technical stuff about how "the technique itself certainly pre-dates Leno" and "a paedophile routine I'm still not sure about".
By comparison, Sheila Hancock's Just Me (Bloomsbury, £18.99), the follow-up to her 2004 memoir about John Thaw, The Two of Us, is practically a work of Shakespeare, with an actress's empathy and a fine eye for detail. The story of the bleak years since her husband died is touching and witty, with perhaps the most heartbreaking conclusion of the year: "I used to be fearful. There was a lot to lose. Now I've already lost a lot of it, I'm less afraid. I survived, and will again."
Literary biographies have struggled with technique as much as with some slippery subjects in the past year. Rodge Glass sums up the biographer's dilemma in Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography (Bloomsbury, £25), as he begs indulgence of his "unorthodox, affectionate book" about his mentor, employer, one-time bar patron and hero. "A biography is a joint effort," he writes, and indeed he acknowledges that fact shades into fiction as Gray sits in his kitchen, dictating his childhood to the eager stenographer with a copy of his 1981 masterpiece, Lanark, as a prompt.
Patrick French's The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul (Picador, £20) also wrestles with a great writer and his reputation. "Naipaul's outrageous denunciations were less interesting than the work which preceded them," he states. Of course, not every reader agrees with this analysis, and much has been made of the not-very-surprising revelations in this book about the Nobel laureate's treatment of his wives and mistresses. The trick of this clever and exhaustively researched biography (French examined 50,000 documents, including journals by his first wife that even Naipaul had not read) is that readers who respect Naipaul's writing will come away ever more devoted, while those who think that he is an utter shit will find even more reason for doing so. Linton Kwesi Johnson summarises well: "He's a living example of how art transcends the artist because he talks a load of shit but still writes excellent books."
Still more visionary wisdom comes from the seminal autobiography, Me Cheeta (HarperCollins, £16.99), the story of Cheeta the chimpanzee's journey from Africa to Hollywood, via Tarzan. Cute and fluffy but with a sharp set of teeth, it is a viciously funny view of human life. "Who could possibly, I thought, want another memoir by anyone?" Cheeta (or his ghost) writes at the outset. More celebrity memoirists should ask themselves the same question.
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