The guilty secrets that sell volumes

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The Independent Online
SIR STEPHEN SPENDER wrote a strange lament in the London Evening Standard about modern biographies which he says have become a game of hunt the slipper - 'the slipper being, as we have long suspected, the penis or clitoris'. He was thinking, presumably, of recent revelations about Philip Larkin's pornography collection, or J Edgar Hoover's cross-dressing, or Daphne du Maurier's lesbian affairs, or even the riveting suggestion that Lord Reith, puritanical BBC founder, had an 'intimate friendship' with a man. And no doubt he was worried about what his future biographers might write. He went on, 'It strikes me that there is a fallacy in the idea that what is secret, private, is the truth. It is not really so much the truth as a dirty secret, shared by biographer and reader.'

I think there is a crumb of truth here, but that Sir Stephen has misread the problem. It isn't the biographers or readers, but much more the publishers and reviewers, who seem to be over- excited by sexual revelations and imagine they are more meaningful than they actually are. I was astonished, having read Margaret Forster's long, thoughtful and scholarly account of Daphne du Maurier's life and work, to find how the tabloids reduced the whole book to 'Daphne a dyke'. But I think this is a particular, and I sincerely hope short- lived, feature of our sexually muddle- headed age, and that it arises from the co-existence of elderly tabloid sub-

editors trained to jump into 84 point at any hint of sexual irregularity, with a younger generation brought up on Madonna and EastEnders who have no patience with sexual hypocrisy. Thus the poor biographee often gets attacked from both sides, being castigated by the Sun for being a lesbian, and by the Guardian for not coming out.

But what of Sir Stephen's contention that what is secret is not necessarily the truth? It may not be the whole truth, but just by being secret it gains importance. This is especially the case with creative artists who often channel their guilty secrets into their work. Britten's paedophilia, du Maurier's lesbianism are not merely interesting in themselves, but intimately bound up with what made them artists: they are the secrets that unlock the work. In any case, what is the point of a biography that is less than frank? One doesn't necessarily want to know what people did in bed, but one certainly wants to know who they did it with, and how their relationships developed. We cannot go back to hagiography or to the purely public Lives of the Victorians: we are too sophisticated. But it is still possible for any public figure to deter future biographers by two simple expedients: first, never talk to the press, and second, burn all private papers. I commend them to Sir Stephen.

I HAVE ALWAYS believed that the Royal Household is much odder than people realise and that some of its practices (ironing newspapers, employing bagpipers) make the Last Court of the Chinese Emperors seem modern and efficient by comparison. More confirmation arrived this week with the Mirror's revelation that when the Queen goes out to dinner she takes her own cutlery because, as a Palace aide explained, 'The Queen likes to take her own utensils wherever she goes.' Why? Is she worried about germs? Afraid of being poisoned? Or - a more interesting possibility - is she kosher? It is noticeable that she never undertakes engagements on Saturdays and, for all we know, Windsor Castle might be an eruv. I am also mesmerised by the Palace's recent remark that the reason the Queen never wears a seat belt is because 'She is above the law by virtue of her position.' If she truly believes this, then there is nothing to stop her beheading people. Or, of course, stabbing them with her very own steak knife.

ARE FAT WOMEN jokes funny? Perhaps when I was young and thin I found them funnier than I do now, but they were surely never very funny at the best of times. These thoughts occurred to me watching French and Saunders on Thursday night. Hitherto I have always thought that Dawn French handled the question of her size rather well: her attitude seemed to be 'I am fat but I don't mind so why should you?' But this programme was different. A sequence that must have been five minutes long but felt like five hours showed Dawn French on a pony. The sight was mildly amusing but not by any means gut-achingly so, and I kept waiting for the funny bit to happen. It never did. Dawn French being fat on a pony was the joke. The uncomfortableness was exacerbated by the fact that Jennifer Saunders, who was always the prettier of the two but not glaringly so, seems to be becoming more glamorous by the week. Perhaps her success in Absolutely Fabulous has changed their relationship? I do hope not. It would be too depressing if they drifted into the conventional male double act routine of one always making jokes at the other's expense.

THE NAME Armani will now for ever be associated with John Birt, which is a bit of a swizz for Giorgio Armani. All that money spent on gorgeous advertising, pages and pages of it, building up an image over years and years, and one little tax return sends it all down the pan. According to Adam Nicolson in the Spectator, Etonians are taught that you should have to look at a gentleman for 10 minutes before realising that he is well dressed. Any quicker, and it means he's a poof. But you could look at John Birt for two hours and never guess that he spent pounds 3,000 on his suits. Poor Armani.

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