Charging Downhill

Frank Kermode

  • Basil Street Blues: A Family Story by Michael Holroyd
    Little, Brown, 306 pp, £17.50, September 1999, ISBN 0 316 64815 9

When he came to write his autobiography, the biographer Michael Holroyd decided to restrict himself to what he calls ‘a good walk-on part’, assigning the leading roles to his family. Avowedly happier with the lives of others than with his own, he remains as close as the circumstance permits to the condition of invisible watcher. Biography, he says, had formerly provided an ‘exit from myself’, and here he is, still, as far as is consistent with the product being autobiography, ‘stepping from my own life into other people’s where there seemed to be so much more going on’. Although he writes about his experiences at prep school, at Eton, as an articled clerk, a temporary officer and an aspiring writer, he does so almost apologetically, the lives of his relations having so much more going on in them.

Why, then, write an autobiography at all? Because one of his heroes, Hugh Kingsmill, said a biographer ought to provide ‘some account of his or her own life as a passport for travelling into the lives of others’. To do so while continuing to direct attention to other people rather than to oneself seemed a satisfactory compromise. Autobiographies have been called ‘extended suicide notes’ but this one, which stops when the author’s family rather than the author is more or less extinct, is more an extended set of obituaries.

The first great autobiographer, St Augustine, knew that ‘when I am recollecting and telling my story I am looking at its image in present time,’ and Holroyd often rather delicately reminds the reader that since this observation applies to autobiography generally it might as well be exploited by the writer. He forgets a name but remembers it later and says then and there what it was, rather than go back and change the passage where the lapse of memory was originally recorded. Of a minor character, a master at Eton, he writes:

He must be long dead now. Looking through the telephone book, however, I see there is a P. Spanoghe listed as living in Chelsea still, and suddenly it becomes a matter of urgency to contact him. I telephone: but there is no answer. Then I write. But I am too late. He died a few months earlier, his widow tells me.

This skilfully directs our attention to the writer’s desk and telephone; all this is happening, we are to believe, as he sits in his study. He will suddenly say of some object left over from the past, ‘I touch it with my finger’ – it is there on his desk, he writes its present in thinking of its past. One’s angle of vision on the past varies along with the passage of time, always present and always giving the past a different appearance or history. Who was the painter who admired the author’s mother’s foot? Picabia, Picasso or perhaps one of the Pissarros? By the end of the book the lucky painter is reported to have been Picasso, who not only inserted part of the foot into Guernica but presented Mrs Holroyd with a sketch of it, long since lost. Describing his visits to his mother in hospital, he mentions a woman friend who came more often than he did, and would kiss and touch the dying woman, as he didn’t. ‘I could not touch her in this way,’ says the writer, at once adding: ‘I must write that again. I could not touch her.’ Not being able to touch her is now a pain to be registered in present time, with a jet of emotion or guilt belonging to here and now, and also with more historical accuracy, for the limiting ‘in this way’ has been erased.

Augustine, patron saint of confessional autobiography, also has a lot to say about its paradoxes. ‘I can be far from glad remembering myself to have been glad, and far from sad when I recall my past sadness.’ Holroyd’s account of his family home emphasises its constant bad temper and its joyless eccentricities, but he recounts them with suave good humour as if they had by now become enjoyable and even funny. Indeed, this is a book that from the outset rejoices quietly and continually in the painful weirdness of the family. The author himself is not even conceived till p.89, the event having taken place either at the Basil Street Hotel or on a cane-backed sofa in the drawing-room of one of the Holroyd houses – probably, it turns out, the latter.

They had a good many houses, having been, originally, a family of substance and talent. Here their history, both as it was and as it was sometimes falsely represented, is told at some length. Holroyd, a lover of documented fact, ruthlessly turns up bogus coats of arms and false statements of performances in university examinations, along with authentic birth, marriage and death certificates, financial statements, records of stock and the like. He keeps these matters in the present by describing the trouble of searching for them in the National State Public Search Room, with its uncomfortable crowds of genealogy freaks. He pretends to be amazed that women habitually give false dates and men false descriptions of their status in passports. Considering the extreme oddity and irresponsibility of his parents, which here he celebrates with a present pleasure, his surprise is surprising. They seemed capable of much more than an innocent fib.

As far as one can make out, the Holroyd fortunes derived primarily from India and Indian tea, but the tea shares were sold during the ‘downwardly mobile’ course of the family in the two generations preceding that of the author. Their disastrous activities, though never criminal, remind one a little of an Angus Wilson family, upper middle-class but going down with all their eccentricities ablaze. The decline in their wealth is quite minutely indicated by Holroyd, who is always careful, when noting their diminishing fortunes, to give us equivalents in modern money. Thus £81,000 in 1898 equals £4.5m today; £12,000 in 1914 equals £500,000 now; £420,000 in 1917 is in our terms £14m, and £288 in the early Sixties would now be £3000. This is a fascinating bit of research, and demonstrates what one should have known: that the history of money is a history of inflation. This partly explains the conviction of Holroyd’s father that not only he but the nation was going to the dogs.

I imagine that this book will be best remembered for its family portraits. Like his own father, Fraser, Basil Holroyd, the author’s father, had something of the spirit of an 18th-century projector. Successively or together they made an undaunted series of investments in patent cleaners, Lalique glass, cement, timber and so on. Holroyd gets a good deal of quiet, sometimes slightly pained, fun out of these business ventures, admitting only at the end of his book to a certain sadness: his grandfather ‘did not enjoy a successful business career’. But when he left his commuter train he gave his copy of the Times to the engine driver. Perhaps this was a gesture common among gentlemen, but it seems unlikely, for the driver’s cab would be full of newspapers. Still, it is a rather fine thing to have done. One learns a lot about upper-class behaviour from this book – for instance, that 260 make-believe wedding rings were once unearthed at the Guards’ Club at Maidenhead.

Holroyd’s relationship with his father, though more infuriating, is still a matter of subdued hilarity. Basil is seen to be both funny and pathetic in his desire that his son should not follow his own downward path. In his absurd and repetitive marital adventures, his useless parental advice (‘homosexuality is worse than ... burglary’), his power to embarrass, his rather furtive wish to be a writer like his son, he sounds as if he belonged in a novel rather than in the world, but there is evidence of his existence. Father and son collaborated on a history of the world in verse, and both tried their hands at fiction (Basil’s, never published, was about business and apparently a bit like C.P. Snow).

When the young Holroyd wrote a novel about a family somewhat resembling his own, his father successfully dissuaded or prevented him from publishing it in England: ‘Of course I agree that were the book to be published in Hindustani or Erse there would be little likelihood of it affecting anyone, but this does NOT apply to the English language.’ Nevertheless it was published in the United States, the author handing over his advance to his father without explaining where the money had come from. The trouble over this novel reinforced Holroyd’s desire to stick to non-fiction, though ‘adapting some legitimate fiction devices’.

The writer’s mother was Swedish and, in the old sense of the word, gay. She lived handsomely off her mother until all the money was gone, and her varied erotic career, here described without the least hint of reproach, easily disqualified her from being regarded as a good mother. Both parents remarried twice, or believed they did, for Holroyd the researcher has discovered that they neglected to make formal application for their decree absolute, and so unwittingly remained married to each other. His mother’s second ‘husband’ kindly stumped up for a share of Michael’s fees at Eton, which his father, himself an Etonian for a while, could not afford. A German associate of Fraser gratefully remembered the Holroyd family: ‘Its upper-class lightheartedness and devil-may-care attitude was in such contrast to my own background.’

So, no doubt, their behaviour appeared to a clever foreign adult, but the boy, left to the care of a nurse and an aunt early disappointed in love, cannot have found it helpful. In one farcical episode he finds himself writing letters to his father on behalf of his mother, and vice versa, but such intimate contact with his parents was rare. He had a lot of time for reading, and came across the biographies of Hesketh Pearson, which ‘taught him something about the craft of non-fiction story-telling’, a lesson well learned, as readers of this book will agree. Dr Johnson thought that where there is room for fiction there is little room for truth, but here the truth sounds very like fiction.

Hugh Kingsmill was his other model and with him and William Gerhardie he established friendships that made up for some of the deficiencies of family. These writers left their mark on his style, and Gerhardie himself was a splendidly eccentric subject. For the rest, Holroyd was, he says, a watcher, always seeking to be invisible. It is in keeping with his carefully controlled tone that he makes as little as possible of his athletic prowess, though he was obviously a good games-player – evidently a fair cricketer (though he makes a joke of this) and (almost) a squash champion and Keeper of Squash at Eton, which sounds very grand.

His prep school, chosen by his father though he had himself suffered greatly there, was terrible in the usual ways; Eton seems to have been more easily borne. Life as a National Service officer is described in an appropriately farcical mode, though unlike most conscripts, Holroyd was imprisoned in the Tower on the unfounded suspicion that he had dodged the draft to Suez. It would be absurd to expect such glamour to be found in life as a solicitor’s clerk in Maidenhead, but recalling it seems to have been an agreeable enough experience.

All modern autobiographers seem to think of themselves as outsiders, solitaries, especially if they were writers before they turned to self-revelation. Certainly this book is written. For all the evidence that the atmosphere of his home was ‘saturated with unhappiness’ the book that describes it sounds reasonably contented. The crazed grandmother, driving everybody mad as she went about ‘patting the cushions, or rearranging the chairs, or humming as she sauntered indecisively between rooms or simply eating’, the constant shouting and fighting among these ‘distressed, not-so-gentle folk, downwardly mobile, indeed charging downhill, led nobly by my grandfather’ – all this is very calmly recounted. It was material for an autobiography that tries as hard as possible to be a set of biographies. The calm, though, belongs to the writer at his desk, remembering pain with a pleasure not immodestly insisted on, and enhanced by a liberal use of ‘legitimate fictional devices’.