Biographers, dealing as they are with lives passing, face time and death head on. Michael Holroyd, author of Augustus John’s life, among others, told his Hay audience that his privilege was to write a new book for a dead author. Animal Magic: A Brother’s Story, reviewed in NWR, does just that. Andrew Barrow’s brother Jonathan was killed in a car crash, alongside his fiancée, days before Jonathan’s wedding. Andrew took the dead man’s surreal, prophetic unpublished novel The Queue (in which the bride gets run over by a bread van), and reworked it into a highly original biography which reveals how in awe of his brother Andrew is, forty years after his bereavement.
In his memoir Ten Pound Pom, Niall Griffiths also looks back, to when his family briefly emigrated to Australia. But he struggles more to face 2007 – recounting all the pies that were eat and Ozzie killjoys met – than the wildlife-loving boy he was in 1976. With its alternating ‘then’ and ‘now’ sections and setting of the boy’s story in third person, as though he were someone other than the author, the book suggests that childhood is a long way off. But the way Griffiths uses the present tense throughout makes the whole life accessible as a contemporary story. Still, though, we guess that Niall would rather be eleven than past forty. And know for sure he’d rather be home than Down Under. And how much did he fork out on excess baggage to wing that pastry-lined belly Waleswards?
Richard Gwyn is also skilled at splicing past and present in his memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, which was one of a pair with Horatio Clare’s Truant at this year’s NWR Hay event. In our major online interview of both authors, ‘Plus Gainsbourg que Gainsbourg’, Gwyn describes how his experience of acute insomnia, caused by hepatitis C while waiting for a liver transplant, helped him dodge a traditional chronology. So the book’s structure lets him slip in and out of the past, conveying the ambivalence of being in a present while waiting for a life-saving operation: the only thing which would give him any future.
The Vagabond’s Breakfast mentions Montaigne’s account of a gravestone inscribed: Here lies so-and-so, who was dead when time was passing through the year twelve hundred,’ and riffs on the personification of time. In NWR, Gwyn explains how the philosopher is considered ‘the father of the essay’ and specifically ‘self-reflexive prose in which the thoughts and actions of an individual constitute the subject matter’. Could a sixteenth-century aristocrat, then, be blamed for the current glut of misery memoirs, sick lit, confessional and celebrity memoirs, not to mention blogging, FB and Twitter?
This was first published in the Western Mail’s Saturday Insider column, 25 June 2011.