Michael Holroyd: How I learnt to love English

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The Independent Online

The best-selling biographer of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and Bernard Shaw explains the origins of his literary passions...

In school, I wasn't allowed to study English because I was told that I didn't have the mind for it. I learnt to love English myself in Maidenhead public library during the holidays. It was a complete revelation to me. I felt like an emperor: I had all the authors in the world lined up before me in alphabetical order, and I could call upon them as and when I pleased. I had heat and comfort and a whole staff that could assist me. My university was the public library system. My method was trial and error. I made my own way through the jungle of learning.

In some ways I am very ill-read. My reading was at random. There are still some classics I haven't read that I should have, but it does mean that I read some things that few other people knew about. One example is Hugh Kingsmill. He was my guru, although he was dead by the time I met him. I found his work and was completely taken with his philosophy.

I came across Kingsmill's biography of Frank Harris by accident. It was a masterpiece of irony, and made me laugh in a way I never had before. I laughed at the comedy of life I was engaged in, and found a new humour. I decided to write a book about Kingsmill, which appeared in 1964. I may say now that it was an immensely bad book. It was a labour of infatuation and I learnt a bit like a skater – falling down and picking myself up.

Kingsmill was a follower of Lytton Strachey, who became the subject of my next biography. I came along at a very fortunate time with that. Before then, homosexuality was not treated frankly or with openness. I wasn't doing a brave expose, I was just dealing with it, but for once I was in tune with the spirit of the time. I wanted the things he did to be as important on paper as they were in his own life.

When I was at school, my dad told me that the all I would be inheriting were debts, and so I'd have to use education to help me. Sciences were what earned money, so I tried to study science. I just couldn't do it. I put my foot down and said I couldn't go to university to do something I was unhappy doing, and that I couldn't understand the questions never mind think of an answer. I argued so much he came up with a brilliant idea: that I should go into law and get paid to argue. I became an articled clerk, but after a couple of years I gave that up.

I've no idea what exams I passed. No-one ever asks me. I'm self-employed, so I don't ask myself. I passed some, but I'm not sure which. I hope I'm some comfort to those who don't pass enough. If I don't have a feeling for something, I'm stupid, but if I get that feeling, I wake up. I daresay some exams can be important, but they're not all important. I'm proof that it is possible to have an alternative. Education isn't all about making money.

Writing biographies is like time travelling. The dead call out to the living to be heard, and we can resurrect them along with their love affairs and creative work. One comes back from the journey changed. It means intimate contact with other lives: you handle letters and touch diaries in the same places they have touched them. It is like living a piece of science fiction.

When I went to school, it was during a non-vintage period. Things are greatly changed now, and when I've been given honorary fellowships I've always secretly been pleased. At one time, university seemed to me to be the Garden of Eden where everyone was happy and in love and I was excluded. Then it became a boast that I didn't go, and had learnt it all myself. Now, I can see pluses and minuses in both routes, but the important thing to know is that if things go wrong it's not the end, just the beginning.

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