Looking for a Way Up

Rosemary Hill

  • BuySelf-Portrait as a Young Man by Roy Strong
    Bodleian, 286 pp, £25.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 1 85124 282 5

It is difficult not to admire Roy Strong, though there are moments in this account of his first 32 years where he seems to be doing all he can to make it easier. Born in 1935, he became in 1967 the youngest ever director of the National Portrait Gallery. It was a remarkable achievement, but by mentioning it three times in the first seven pages Strong begins at an early stage to try the reader’s patience. The description of himself as ‘the young director’ occurs so frequently it becomes almost a Homeric epithet, while the reader, if nodded to at all, features as ‘the average’ or ‘the ordinary’. Yet despite the exasperation he provokes – for all the vanity, the boasting, the famous names not so much dropped as fired like grapeshot on page after page – it is worth persisting, for by the end Strong’s memoir of his childhood and early career presents a compelling, original and oddly touching picture of a life and a time.

The position of the author in an autobiography is an interesting matter, to which Strong has clearly given no thought at all. He is the hero of his own life and all people and events are assessed in terms of their importance to him. From his birth weight (just over eight pounds) to his hair, which is still ‘abundant’ at the age of 77, no detail about himself is too trivial to confide. Others are given their place in ‘the pattern of my life’. In his library a section is ‘reserved for books by or about people who have most influenced me’; the death of Frances Yates, his former tutor at the Warburg Institute, occurs ‘a few months before I was knighted’. Yet this unswerving concentration on himself has the advantage of particularity. Memoirs, especially perhaps those of the 1960s, risk dissolving into period pieces laced with topical detail, researched as much as remembered. Strong takes minimal account of context and makes little concession to hindsight. His letters are reproduced at length, as are the private obituaries which he has the somewhat chilling habit of composing immediately after the deaths of friends and relations. The result is a curiously artless exercise in self-revelation.

Strong was a child of interwar Metroland, which he hated. Born at 23 Colne Road, Winchmore Hill, into a landscape of privet hedges, crazy paving and hanging baskets, he was one of three sons of George and Mabel Strong. George was a travelling salesman selling hats along the south coast for the firm of Ayres & Smith. He had served in the First World War, and the outbreak of the Second all but ruined him when Ayres & Smith turned their production over to military headgear. He persisted nevertheless, setting off day after day, decade after decade, as fashions changed and fewer people wore hats of any sort, carrying his box of samples round the department stores of London. His joyless return each evening, Strong recalls, would mean ‘the descent of a pall’ over the household. Neither empathy nor pathos clouds his recollections of this Home Counties Willy Loman. He takes his father to task for his unkindness to his son, for his drinking, his hypochondria (‘Needless to say, he died in his 90th year’), and the terrible smell of his Potter’s Asthma Remedy. Above all he blames him for his inadequacy as a husband, which led Mabel, who was somewhat timid and ‘not very intelligent’, to rely increasingly on her sons, especially Roy. Strong accuses his father of turning him into a ‘mother’s boy’ who struggled to break free until his marriage in 1971 caused a final, irreparable breach.

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