Monday, 28 September 2009

Comments on reading list

Jane Ridley sent me the reading list on 11 June saying

"I am attaching a list of books on biography. You are not expected to read all of these - we will look at some in the course of the MA - but reading a selection is good preparation. Richard Holmes's Footsteps is a good place to start."

I did indeed start with Footsteps, reading the paperback edition which had no photo of the author, whom I knew from seeing him often on military history programmes on telly to be bald and with glasses, nor did it give biographical details about him. I read with increasing puzzlement how he had, fresh out of a Catholic boarding school and with a rucksack on his back, retraced the path taken by Robert Louis Stevenson and his sometimes faithful donkey Modestine through the Cevennes in the 1870s. Was this the best preparation for a career as a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and a steady climb to the rank of Brigadier General in the Territorial Army? Belatedly I realised that there are two Richard Holmes: in fact, if you google Richard Holmes Wikipedia you will see a so-called disambiguation page, which lists no less than six twentieth century bearers of the name deemed worthy to have their mini-biographies published in the online encyclopedia.

I dipped into a number of others. I read the recommended chapter in the Roland Barthes book; I read it again; I then read the translator's comments; I closed it with a sigh and a sad shake of incomprehension of my head. I read with astonishment Leon Edel's book. How could one devote the best part of one's adult life trying to track down every piece of writing by Henry James and to talk to very person who met him, then write a multi-volume biography of him? I read with admiration Ian Hamilton's book, after having disambiguated him from the British commander at Gallipoli in 1915. How could a man who had written an admittedly unauthorised biography of J.D. Salinger and been sued by the writer for his pains then himself write Keepers of the Flame, which details attempts by relics and heirs through the ages to control the published account of the lives of their loved ones?

I read with great enjoyment Martin Gilbert's book and with great enlightenment both of Nigel Hamilton's. After finishing the former, In Search of Churchill, I set myself to write a short piece inspired by it, since I had done no academic writing since 1957. I entitled it A Time for Silence, the text from Ecclesiastes which tells that sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut, in which I compared an incident in the lives of both Churchill and Gilbert when following this maxim marked a turning point in their careers. I followed this with a longer one entitled How Gilbert Wrote his Churchill Biography.

I then had the temerity to contact Sir Martin, asking whether I could come and see him. What then happened will be the subject of another post.

No comments:

Post a Comment