Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 9 March 2009

The next John Cleese


No bike 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.

562129 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 pier 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)?

Rosebud_350x326 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 Jimmy

I missed out on a lot growing up:
stilts, a pogo-stick,
skates – ice and roller – underage sex.

There were things I had: a family,
an education
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 Knowledge

As 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
    of Venezuela,
    nor the reasons
    I'm all alone tonight.

02 October 2007

P.S. I wasn't alone on 2nd October 2007 and we watched Numb3rs, two episodes of Medium and taped Huff to view later.


Dave King said...

It's an interesting business, this autobiography stuff and how much we remember and how accurately. I'm inclined to agree with you in the main.
When I was studying for my diploma I chose as my main thesis the development of the self picture and took a lot of evidence and illustrative material from biographies and autobiographies. Comparing the two was often quite instructive. What often stood out was that the simple facts were often more accurately ecorded by others, but the significant facts, eg their significance for the subject's development were better known to him or her.

Patrice said...

I could not help but think as I read this that much of my life has been quite interesting fodder for a bio - but that these interesting parts are the last things I'd want disclosed. Perhaps I should say there are things I might want to tell - as they are indeed, important, but I'd want to tell them with my own spin, so to speak

Perhaps it's a desire for privacy, perhaps for control of the final version one's own history that makes us reluctant to cooperate fully. After all, once it's been taken down, it becomes so much more difficult for us to revise it. It's not that the facts change, but that they way we see the facts and their relationship to what we have become, that changes constantly (at least for me).

I liked the poems very much.

Marion McCready said...

I very much like the second poem, nice turn in ending. I like reading biographies. But the one I struggled with the most was Carole Angier's biography of Primo Levi. I love Levi's work and I'm very fascinated by him as a person but the heavy tome of Angier's biography is enough to bore the pants off anyone - too many detailed diversions i.e. the live and times of his cousins, second cousins etc.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

I used to be somewhat addicted to biographies and autobiographies, but I was usually disappointed with what I read. I was looking for psychological significance, but what I found was mostly ephemera, the details that people pore over as a refined version of voyeurism.

I doubt that very much about Cleese's life explains his particular sense of humor, his outlook on life, and the way in which he has always violated his own stereotypical image as the proper Englishman. What's really important is internal, not external, and I admire his preference for keeping that private.

Jim Murdoch said...

It is very interesting, Dave. There is always the assumption that if you were there then you remember. I watch these cop shows where they question people and I am so glad that's not me. It's not just because of my recent memory glitches because the simple fact is that I've never been especially good at remembering things. I was only writing about this earlier today. I saw my first wife naked every day we were married and yet I really cannot remember what she looked like and even when it comes to her face I find myself referencing photographs in my head rather than live events.

I agree that comparing biographies is helpful. I have three on Beckett plus a lot of other books that have biographical material. I have one in particular where the original people who were involved in that first production of Waiting for Godot are interviewed and one of them admitted that the legend had now taken over and he had heard and read so much about it that he no longer trusted his own recollections.

Patrice, that is an interesting point. As a writer one question that people always get round to is: How biographical is your work? Well, a lot of it is but never in a blatant way and the fact is that even when I do reference actual events they're usually the kind of things that everyone ends up going through once or twice in their lifetime.

It's why I've been a bit resistant to reveal too much of my private life online because whatever I say will present a skewed picture unless you are privy to all the facts. People make assumptions, they – to use a good Star Trek word – extrapolate based on what they do know. When I was talking to Dave above I mentioned my first wife. I don't think I've mentioned her before. Regular readers know I'm currently married so the logical assumption is that Carrie is my second wife. But you can't assume that. All that is known is that I have had two wives and that's it – everything else is conjecture.

Of course some people do take control and write their own autobiographies but there is no reason to assume that they'll be more honest than a biography. I went through a phase of reading biographies, Catana, although I don't think I have a single autobiography. And, you're right, it is all voyeurism with a polite name. And yet we keep on looking. When one fails to satisfy we move onto the next. I think if we spent a bit more time refining the question we're trying to answer it might reveal more than we actually get to see in others lives.

And, Sorlil, glad you liked the poem. It's every bit as biographical as the first actually. As time has moved on I have become more and more aware that no matter how much I learn what I don't know is growing at a far faster rate. The important thing with the first poem, and this is the thing that biographers often miss, is that what is missing (or what they think is missing) from a person's life is usually far more important than what they have.

Oh, and in case you wonder how I know what we watched on TV that night, I still have the paper. We use them to line the bird's cage. So, no big mystery there.

Conda Douglas said...

Bios and memoirs, interesting subject for a writer's blog, Jim. I couldn't help thinking about my childhood as I read your entry. I grew up in a ski resort. I played with the children of famous people of all stripes.

What struck me as I grew up is how different these movie stars and politicians and great writers were in real life as opposed to what I read later in biographies.

We all seem to perceive others and ourselves through such strong filters, I wonder now if there's any such thing as a true biography or even memoir.

Jim Murdoch said...

You'll have to agree, Conda, that so much of our writing - both fiction and non-fiction - draws on biographical and autobiographical elements. It's one of those questions readers are always asking writers: "How much of you is in the book?" And it's a fair question but the answer will always be that what they're reading is mince, bits and pieces from different times in your life all mixed up so that it's next to impossible to say what accurate.

I thought it was very honest of Clive James when he brought out the first volume of his biography to state outright that it was a fictionalised memoir. Because they all are to a greater or lesser extent.

I also think the point you make about the celebrities is so valid but that's marketing for you.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, as ever, Jim. Of the three Beckett biogs, I still favour the Deirdre Bair. What are your thoughts? I loved the poems, particularly the second one.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dick, glad you liked the poems. I do appreciate your opinion. As for Bair's biography, as it was the first I read, I do have an attachment to it and it really isn't as inaccurate as people make out. When I'm working on something about Beckett I check every resource I have and many's the time I've found what I'm looking for in her book. Knowlson's has a lot of gems in it but one has to remember he had access to Beckett during his last days by which time he wasn't being nearly as guarded or obtuse as he could be. That said, as Knowlson admits elsewhere, his memory wasn't quite as sharp as it once was - and it was razor sharp - so some things never were answered to his complete sarisfaction.

BTW the first volume of Beckett's letters is now out. I think there will be four volumes eventually. We'll have to see what my birthday brings.

Jena Isle said...

Hello Jim,

I do plan to write an autobio eventually... my life looked/s ordinary but it was and is not.
You would be horrified at the skeletons in my I will do this only when need

As usual very impressive article Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing I find about skeletons in cupboards, Jena, is that we all put on out shocked faces when we learn about the escapades of x or y or x with y and yet there's none of us without these embarrassing moments in our lives. We'd like to think we've become the people we have without treading on anyone's toes or putting out foot in it if not making a complete and utter fool of ourselves but that's not the way of it. I look forward to reading all about your faux pas in due course.

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