Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Those who write memoirs know – the truth must be told

Lady Antonia has had her critics. But we tell our stories because we can

Related Topics

In recent years a large number of best-selling books have been victims' tales of suffering at the hands of adults. A whole new genre – the misery memoir – established itself. Several of these books have been contested by family members and some cases have gone to court. The most high-profile was that of Constance Briscoe, the barrister who claimed to have been viciously abused by her British Jamaican mother. The mother sued her and lost.

Nothing can ever be the same again when you publish your family saga. That doesn't stop people and it never will. The need to tell the world is a compulsion. Lady Antonia Fraser has just published Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter. Evocative and intense, it was deservingly book of the week on Radio 4, read by the author. But I was uncomfortable at times to be hearing the intimacies of a fiery marriage, and wearied of the tiresome parade of celebs. None of that diminished the beauty of the writing and the fascinating love story.

I once sat next to Pinter at a dinner for a worthy charity at Buckingham Palace. Lady Antonia was on the opposite side and you could feel the heat of passion passing between them. She has been able to describe that un-containable attraction in words, a remarkable feat.

A number of critics are disapproving of the timing. So soon, too soon, they tut-tut (Pinter died just over a year ago). Others have more serious misgivings. She is jumping on to the memoir gravy train, is egocentric, "upper-class totty", "self-indulgent". An authentic memoir stirs people, makes them uneasy, partly because there is something "unnatural" about turning a subjective lived experience into pictures and words, ordering life's chaos and selling it as a perfectly formed product.

The most uncensorious find themselves questioning Fraser's seeming indifference to her painfully gentlemanly ex-husband and Pinter's estranged son and first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant who died subsequently of alcoholism. Her own children are not best pleased. That is the price you must be ready to pay. You must be prepared too for the mental and emotional fall-out as you try to excavate your memories.

I just saw The Boys are Back, the film based on Simon Carr's heartbreaking and yet affirming account of the death of his young wife and the years when he was a lone, wild dad of two boys. Although the film had a happy ending, in his memoir one gets the shadows, the anger and aches that become almost part of the flesh.

The best published recollections are those that take risks, edgily hover between control and collapse. Like Hanif Kureishi writing about his father or Lorna Sage's unbearably honest Bad Blood or Claire Bloom's avenging tome about her fraught marriage to Phillip Roth. The fall-out from such accounts whips up more attention that the book.

After I published a rushed book about my life in 1997, six relatives stopped talking to me. Some were not missed. The ladies in mosque gave my mum, Jena, endless grief about her wicked daughter, who had dug up family sagas that should be forever buried. Like disinterred bodies I had made a terrible stench. I promised Jena I would not be so impetuous again. Then she died and I broke the promise, partly because I wanted her unspoken agonies and ecstasies not to go into the grave. My second memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, has seen off more mortified friends and family.

I can't understand why there is always so much over-reaction to descriptions of real people and events. One ghastly relative did have conspicuous hips, and a coarseness that money couldn't refine. And a cousin did abuse and beat his young wife with coat hangers, leaving her black and blue. And my father, though a clever and kind man, was a gambler and wastrel who never understood how much he hurt us.

I did lose myself for a while when I came to Britain on the early 1970s, a time, like now, of social abandon and no restraint. And I did, in the name of love, stupidly put up with spousal serial infidelity in my first marriage. And I did learn to flirt from my delightful mum. Why shouldn't I be able to say and write all that? It is the truth, or at least what I remember to be true, or maybe an edited version to favour me, the heroic memoir writer.

We are all heart and heartless; honest yet sometimes unconsciously deceitful. We tell our stories because we can, because we must. Stuff the rest.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game