Everybody, they say, has a book in them, if only the history of their lives up to their graduation from adolescence. I would agree, but with the proviso that these books be openly offered as fiction. When I think what unreliable witnesses my book chums are, especially about each other, I wonder how any trust worthy biographies, let alone autobiographies, ever get to be written. Most of these friends tend to dispute this thesis. But then, they would, wouldn’t they? For if they have not themselves been persuaded against their natural modesty and common sense to write autobiographies, flattered out of their natural caution and canniness to take on huge biographies, they will be reviewing the end-products, or perhaps supplying pre-publication quotes for the ads. At the very least, they are buying, or borrowing, or pretending to have read, the things.
Can there really be, orbiting the globe like space debris, more than enough free-floating material to pad out tome after fresh tome on Graham Greene, or George Orwell, or P.G. Wodehouse, or Evelyn Waugh, or Bernard Shaw, or Cyril Connolly? Must we prepare our shelves for yet another cache of letters, stumbled across like Dead Sea scrolls, every decade? If so, will they, too, rank high with biographers as first-hand testimony to what the subject was genuinely feeling at the time? Unless there is a well-grounded reason to believe that what was written was intended specifically to deceive, any letter seems routinely assumed to be as true as the writer can make it. Yet, after a little research through carelessly unlocked drawers and left-behind handbags, don’t we know that it is when letters are at their most spontaneous and sincere that their authors are most likely to be lying? Indeed, I am sorry to say, I would go so far as to assert that few paper declarations of undying devotion are ever quite so aglow with conviction as the one posted immediately after, though sometimes before, an intimate mingling with some other love. You only have to listen to what a friend is saying to someone else on the telephone. Then you compare what you overheard with what your friend claims to have said. Immediately it is apparent each side of the conversation is being shamelessly rewritten to your friend’s advantage. Where you thought this end of the line was whining ‘I’m sorry ... forgive me ... I was wrong ... give me another chance ... please, please, please ... sorry, sorry, sorry,’ it turns out it was telling the boss to stuff his job, the mother-in-law to take a jump off the roof, somebody to shut up and listen. Any doubt which version the subject would expect the biographer to print or the autobiographer prefer to adopt?
Having said that – as politicians say on TV when wriggling themselves inside out like a glove – I have not the slightest doubt that every word of Mavis Nicholson’s first volume of autobiography is firmly rooted in documented truth. For it is so much harder a slog to invent than to recall – even Tolstoy stole from his wife’s diaries. And such is the heavy pressure of detail here, moulding the senses on every side, that opening the pages is almost like clamping on the headgear for a bout of virtual reality. Retracing her steps for us from the tiny, crowded house without a bathroom, where she shared a bed with her gran, Martha Jane, until the first day she ventures further than a cycle ride from home, her rail ticket in her glove, her worst fears about her future at college in Swansea assuaged by her mother’s promise to keep up the postal supply of STs and avoid her having to visit a strange chemist, Mavis forgets nothing. And I mean nothing. Do you need to know who were her neighbours in Mansel Street as she passed hitching a ride on the greengrocer’s cart? ‘He stopped at intervals to serve Mrs Vigars, Mrs Hill, Mrs Jones, the Misses Gethins, Mrs Harris, Mrs Lane, Mrs Farral, Mrs Hale, Mrs Pike, Mrs Southcourt, Mrs Evans, Mrs Hughes and Mrs Trimnel.’ Or the route she takes as the place expands while she explores it?
I counted the streets on the way to the library in Neath Road, the main road. After Mansel, and parallel with it, were four: Vernon, Grandison, Caroline and Regent. After the library were Ritson, Tucker and Villiers, and if you walked down Villiers Street there was a low bridge we called the tunnel. Once through that and we were at the Docks – the outer edge of the town.
Or what was being kept in the pair of tureens on Martha Jane’s dresser in her own private parlour, used by the family, with fires lit, only on Christmas and Boxing Days? ‘Co-operative Stores dividend slips, the club cards, her spare hair nets, small gold safety pins, and a St John’s Ambulance First Aid book.’ Or maybe in the couple of old, badly-mended lustre jugs hanging above? ‘In each you would find something interesting: a small roll of bandage, a coin, a hair clip, a bus ticket or a stub of pencil with a rubber in its end along with a small ball of dust. And probably a piece of the jug that had yet to be fixed.’ These mantras of the mundane, litany lists where words become things, images turn into names, as chanted to each other by working-class kids in school bogs and allotment sheds, under the street light, at the bouncing back of the bus, serve a tribal purpose, emphasising the solidarity of the insider and initiate. But usually, also, as Mavis indicates, there is ‘something interesting’, to us as to her.
The TV pro who can date any of the famous she cares to choose, and chat them up before millions, was shy enough to faint at the rumour of strangers in her girlhood, glued to her father’s trouser leg, with her head hidden in her mother’s skirt. In the family snaps that start the chapters she often reminds me of those portraits of visiting fairies that conned Conan Doyle. An anthropologist passing as a native, she saw strange things through downcast lashes and heard a lot she was not meant to hear through hands cupped over her ears. The household rolls, street topography, family trees, an almost prison-warder tally of pocket, handbag, drawer and jar contents, are the props and backdrop to domestic dramas and everyday mysteries that are about to be reenacted on this tiny mobile revolve.
Almost every autobiographical first vol these days includes playground crazes, skipping rhymes, doggerel spells and games usually familiar to the reader, if only from other autobiographical first volumes. Mavis is no exeption, but her haul is much richer, stranger, more provocatively enigmatic and challenging. Her memory makes the rest of us seem like sufferers from senile nominal aphasia and it is backed by a spread of source material – albums, letters, press cuttings, adverts and the like – which deserve a doctorate. I do not know which I relish more: the exactitude of her excerpts from the writings of her teenage friends to her, to each other, to teacher, to themselves, embarrassing, stilted, yet genuine, and curiously moving sometimes, a kind of true people’s literature that rarely survives into its authors’ adulthood; or an account of those outbursts of dramatic activity by the ordinary wage-earning families (hardly ever recorded in autobiography) who, in my home area of North-East England as in Mavis’s South Wales, would several times a year stage impromptu, only fleetingly rehearsed evenings of almost surreal nonsense, constructed from scraps of script, sketches, playlets, pageants handed down for generations, on occasion possibly a century or so. I have never been able to remember a verbatim example of these archaeological survivals in folk memory, which deserve to rank with ballads and work songs. Mavis, however, can. She and her cousin invariably had a five-line song-and-dance finale to their concerts. Nobody knew what it meant. Nobody knew where it came from. But it ran thus:
Two model Quakeresses
Wearing our stylish dresses
You may not know it
I may not show it
Hiding our face from the golden west.
Now that is that sort of acrostic graduate students ought to be cracking. There is a lot more to Martha Jane and Me than rebuilding a vanished world and transporting us back to eavesdrop and keyhole-peep at what went on there around half a century ago. Mavis herself is a character reconstructed with some subtlety. She assures us early, quite convincingly, that she is a bundle of nerves, always expecting the worse from any meeting with anyone beyond the street. Playing with other girls on a lonely beach, she looks up to see a man far off on a headland and her instinctive shriek of ‘Murderer!’ panics them all. But gradually, through 35 short chapters, timidity drowned in high spirits, prudishness buried under burgeoning sensuality, conformism sabotaged by her own sharp tongue, she reveals her ruling passion as a curiosity that may never be satisfied. She is well on her way to becoming the ideal TV interviewer: that is to say, somebody who really wants to know everything about everybody, even the nobodies. If some producer is seeking a period working-class family comedy drama set in Wales, there is enough material here for the first 35 episodes: quiet hero father, music-loving ballroom dancer, cycling to the steel works every day for a job that ruined his guts; pretty, quiet heroine, mother reproaching herself for abandoning her Mavis, when the twins came, to her own mother, Martha Jane; Martha Jane herself, Mavis’s bed companion, teller of horror tales, owner of bits of jewellery and furs, hunter of bed bugs, Queen of the House, Duchess of the Street; then Pop, grandfather, nightwatchman, invisible lodger, spitter of gobs on the stove, only seen when carrying through his chamberpot if guests were present, only heard filling it ‘like a waterfall’, or groaning his marital duty in the noisy middle of the night.
A second volume of autobiography is even more of a problem than a second novel. There is always something exotic about other people’s early years. Characters tend to be outsize and grotesque and are observed with a fresh eye. The colours are vivid and warm like those in a comic. By the time of the next instalment, the author tends to be in the same world as the rest of us, mixing with people we have at least heard of, and with feelings to be hurt, reputations to be damaged, libel actions to be won. Even Kingsley Amis waited for his memoirs until he has outlived most of his enemies. Only John Osborne has progressed to vol two without losing steam or bile: he seems to have patented a unique bite that is able to inject a poison, a sort of literary curare, that cannot be traced by lawyers. In this second vol, Osborne forgives his dear companion and collaborator Tony Richardson almost everything, double-dealings and manipulations, eccentric propositions and bizarre booby-traps, for the dazzling, life-illuminating flame of his seeming irrepressible vitality. The one thing he cannot stomach is Tony’s marriage to Vanessa Redgrave. For his vignettes of their time together, Osborne employs a lethally bilious, and often, I have to admit, hilarious graphic line, the verbal equivalent of a Lautrec sketch. T – V leaving the Osbornes and the driver in the car on a Provence hillside where ‘the three of us sat in silence while the Oscar-winning lad from Shipley and his adulated wife slugged it out’; or the small mews house the two couples shared where T – V are said to reduce the bathroom daily to a slimy compost of toiletries. Osborne tells Richardson that in his considered view the pair should ‘live together in a brick underground shelter with wall-to-wall rubber sheeting’. What truth there is in such vivid caricature we shall probably never know – what would I not give for the memoirs of Tony Richardson, who died last month! Certainly it is not that kind of gossipy intimate scandal that Vanessa Redgrave ever indulges in anywhere in her autobiography. Far from battling for her own way in her relationships with men, she seems almost over-solicitous of their feelings by the standards of modern feminism. Can she really be quite so delighted as she sounds when Tony appears, just as labour starts for their child, assuring her: ‘You look beautiful, you look like Monica Vitti’? Or remain quite as equable, as she again gives birth, on hearing that father Franco Nero is fleeing London for Rome at the news, and returning only when he is informed it is a boy. She wouldn’t mind even if ‘he burst upstairs, opened the baby’s nappy and kissed his little balls’? I think the answer is that she is not writing that kind of autobiography. It is difficult to imagine that anyone so dedicated to combating injustice, inequality, oppression, hunger, corruption and the rest of what the Sunday Telegraph in almost every issue likes to call ‘trendy rubbish’ can be labelled as ignorant or unconcerned about ‘the world outside herself’. Critics who quote the Osborne passage with such pleasure, for instance Auberon Waugh, like to think of her as some kind of glamorous, rich star who has elected herself Red Queen of her own paid-for Commy Court, which is convened occasionally to award her semi-divine honours. How many of them spend so much of a moderate, hard-earned income on anything but themselves? If her book achieves nothing else, it will be well worth publishing for its modest, understated description of how our greatest actress studies, attends lectures, takes part in debates, works to know what she is talking about, steadfastly tests and worries at her version of what is wrong with the world, when she could be lying back with her feet up, glugging champagne under the bougainvilia. For she is an actress of superb powers. Where others wear their talents on the outside, like crustaceans, winning easier plaudits by the juggling of their armour, her genius is within, like her skeleton – her unprotected flesh, a skin or two already missing, exposed to the painful winds and harsh light of reality.
There is much about birth and children, family and friendship, but even less about sex than there is in Middlemarch. For those interested in politics and acting, subjects thinly covered even in the memoirs of actors and politicians these days, Vanessa Redgrave’s autobiography has a lot more to give the serious reader than might be gathered from most of the reviews so far.