I have never written anything biographical apart from an autobiography at the age of about fourteen which, although I've hung onto the thing for some thirty-five years, I've found myself unable to read past the first page. The spelling alone! I do enjoy a good biography, auto- or not doesn't much worry me since I doubt whether most people accurately remember their own lives in any case; I know I don't and I'm not sure I'd want to. Forgetting is a necessary mechanism I find for enabling a smooth transition from the past into the future; it certainly oils my wheels. Why remember, for God's sake?
But if one absolutely has to remember then one does need to be selective in what one presents before a paying public lest you not bore the pants off them. Because I suspect most lives are – what shall we say? – nine-tenths ordinariness, more most likely. So, to keep ones reader or viewer's attention it's best to stick to the highlights and either beef those up or romanticise them as much as you can get away with without completely fictionalising the whole damn thing.
Perhaps it's looking back that is the problem because I don't remember living a life of stultifying tedium and there have been plenty of things in my life that have caught my interest, I just don't seem capable of talking about them in an interesting way. I certainly have no plans to write my memoirs in the near or distant future.
Some people simply don't lead extraordinary lives despite the fact they might happen to be a party to extraordinary happenings. Let's take John Cleese for example. I own, and have read, Cleese Encounters by Jonathan Margolis who admits in the book's preface that he is "an unreconstructed admirer" of the man, a man who "[a]lways with the utmost politeness … declined to co-operate" with his biographer. At one point during an interview with Barbara Trentham, Cleese's second wife, she asked Margolis why he had taken on the task of producing the biography of a man who did not want one written:
I blurted out something unimpressive about Cleese being a national treasure whose life story belonged in the public domain as much as that of any prime minister or royal personage.
The real reason he admits in the next paragraph (after having stopped to think about it properly) was had he not undertaken it then someone even less qualified than he would have tackled it. I suppose that's as honest an answer as any.
What he does admit is this:
Listening to a string of Cleese's boyhood friends, I was stuck by their similarity. All were gently spoken, courteous men in their fifties, the best of the breed of polite, discreet, wry Englishmen. Middle-class Weston-super-Mare in the 1950s is the most incongruous of backgrounds for a comedian, the antithesis of flashiness and theatricality. I began to see John Cleese as a kind of displaced provincial solicitor, wandering lost and bemused through the glittery theatrical world, a confused what-am-I-doing-here? guest at royal dinner tables. I do not think he has quite belonged anywhere other than those sedate, grey Somerset streets.
It's not an inaccurate picture. So many people get the public and private personas of people in the public eye confused. Woody Allen is a prime example. Many people assume that the onscreen 'Woody' is the real Woody. Of course it's not not Woody – he has drawn on elements of his character and exaggerated them for comic effect – but it would be a mistake to confuse the man and his screen appearances.
But back to Margolis for a moment. My edition, amusingly released by Chapmans Publishers in 1992, runs to 257 pages, which works out to about ten weeks to a page bearing in mind Cleese was about 50 when this was written. But of course the maths … ('Dead Parrot' sketch voice) … don't enter into it. For starters, some pages are devoted to Cleese's parents. The argument any biographer will use is that they have to be selective and only record what's important. What Cleese watched on the tele on the 29th September 1967 probably isn't particularly relevant. But who is to say? (I watched Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – thanks for asking.) Cleese went to St. Peter's Preparatory School in 1948 and Margolis devotes a few pages to his time there. In contrast Roald Dahl, who attended the selfsame school between 1925 and 1929 devotes a third of his childhood autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood, to his years there.
The thing about 'Rosebud' moments is that they're not always easy to identify. And it's not always the obvious ones. One has to wonder how many pages Cleese would devote to the place should he ever sit down to do a proper biography. In The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons although Cleese mentions St. Peters he has more to say about the college he went to, Clifton and, granted, Margolis does devote an entire chapter to that time in Cleese's life.
There is certainly an element of looking for clues in the biography of any successful person. There is also a danger of reading into things, especially as biographers often are fans. It must be very hard to be objective.
And then there is getting your facts right. Beckett is another one who has not assisted his biographers, not until he was lying on his deathbed, in any case when he was a bit more open, although by that time his own memory couldn't be trusted one hundred percent. His first biographer, Deirdre Bair, records this:
'You are free to do as you choose in this matter of a biography,' he told me, adding that he would 'neither help nor hinder' it. 'I will introduce you to me friends,' he continued, 'my enemies you will find soon enough.'
He forbade the use of a tape recorder and wouldn't even allow her to take notes as they talked. He did not give interviews, he told her; they were simply having "a friendly conversation, just two people talking." Over the next six years they had many of these friendly conversations and sometimes his answers were clear and to the point whereas other times he was obtuse as his moods dictated.
What she ended up with was a fine piece of work although not always 100% accurate for which she gets some shtick and I feel rather sorry for her for that. As I read more about Beckett one thing I learned about him was that he did like to muddy the waters. In his play Krapp's Last Tape, which is considered to be a highly biographical work, Krapp describes his "vision at last", on the east pier at Dún Laoghaire which we know is the case by looking at earlier drafts of the work before he began his "vaguening" work on it. Beckett did indeed have an epiphany but in a letter he wrote to Richard Ellmann he had this to say:
All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named New Place, across the road from Cooldrinagh.
And you would think that would be the end of it. However, in an interview in the Irish Times, Eoin O'Brien, the author of The Beckett Country, which incorrectly identifies the east pier as the place where Beckett had his epiphany, has this to say:
On another occasion, I laid out David Davison's wonderful photographs of the storm-lashed Dún Laoghaire pier with the anemometer "flying in the wind", and Sam confided to me, not quite apologetically but rather in the tone of one who had pulled a fast one and is proud of having done so, that the revelatory moment - that moment when he "saw the whole thing at last" - had taken place on the much more humble Greystones pier on a black stormy night when he had been staying in the house his mother had rented in the then seaside resort.
So, where does the truth lie? Well, the only person who knows for sure is dead now. Does it matter if the epiphany happened on the pier or in his mum's house? Perhaps it began on the pier and ended in the house. Is it that important?
I actually feel sorry for people who live a part of their lives in the public gaze and the fact that that public takes it for granted that they are entitled to poke around in it. It's not a matter of fearing that people will find skeletons in the closet because neither Cleese nor Beckett has anything they especially need to hide. Does it really matter that Cleese couldn't ride a bike when at Cambridge – because of its flatness, one of England's most bicycle-friendly cities (see Cleese Encounters, p71) – and that Beckett was practically fanatical about them (see Beckett's Bicycles)?
Perhaps that was Cleese's 'Rosebud' moment, the fact that his overprotective parents never bought him a bike. I never had a pogo-stick myself and I blame that for everything. The thing is in my childhood autobiography I probably never mention that. I'm more likely to mention what I did have, who I knew and where I went. And so I pity any biographer trying to say, "Here, here's where the writer was born." And what good would it do anyone? Can you really see a family moving to Weston-super-Mare and depriving their kid of a bike in the hopes that he'll become the next John Cleese?
Let me leave you with a couple of poems.
Deconstructing JimmyI missed out on a lot growing up:
stilts, a pogo-stick,
skates – ice and roller – underage sex.
There were things I had: a family,
but it was the wrong family and
they skipped all the useful stuff at school.
Whenever I have needed something
it was never there:
the capital of Peru or the
TV remote, the exact bus fare
or just reasons why.
"You can't miss what you've never had, son."
Is that so? I think you've missed the point.
12 July 2003
Oh, and the capital of Peru is Lima. Thank you Google. But in this next poem it's the capital of Venezuela (which is Caracas) that I didn't know. Is either accurate? Does it matter? Perhaps I simply needed a few extra syllables in the second poem or maybe a few less in the first? Well, that would be telling.
Borrowed KnowledgeAs a child
I knew I knew everything.
No one believed me
and over time I
forgot most of it.
When a man
I thought I knew many things.
I knew of many things
and I believed
the things I knew were mine.
Now, of course,
I've grown old and it is clear
to me I knew nothing.
It is the one
thing that I know for sure.
Two plus two
is not mine, nor the capital
nor the reasons
I'm all alone tonight.
02 October 2007