This is my review*. If you don’t like it, well, I have others.

Biographies, auto- or otherwise, have never interested me that much. I have enough trouble living my own live without having to worry about how others lived theirs. Which might strike someone who knows I read a lot of history as strange, given the huge cast of characters that have walked the stage of the past. But their stories all interweave in a universal narrative, one that is best seen in relation to everything else. I may have obsessed over Άννα Κομνηνή, fallen in total lust with Θεοδώρα, but their stories where always involved in more. But certainly I would take a historical biography over some recent televisual star relating how hard her life has been, and how tough it was for her to make it to the top of her game and get some enhancement surgery to get her on the front cover of some empty magazine, none of whose names I can even recall. Is that the how it stands today? All we aspire to is being rich, marrying rich, winning the lottery or some Gong Show-esque karaoke competition? The thinkers and dreamers have retreated even further from the mainstream than when I was a child. Could anyone get away with writing such a self-obsessed autobiography/novel as À la recherche du temps perdu today? Would anyone read it, given it likely wouldn’t be put in some 3-for-2 stack in Waterstones?

She wore flowers in her hairBut there is one auto(ish)biography that I adore, the reasons of which are wrapped up in my childhood, back when I did watch some moving imagery. But it was never the images, it was the wit and invention around it. Wit I have heard repeated many times in many places, and very few know where it comes from, perceiving it at some sort of given-from-on-high line, that everyone repeats, and so should they. This doesn’t, however, devalue the wit, as even from its origins in the 30s, it still shines today. But that is the curious thing about this book, none of that wit was attributed to the author.

The supporting cast, and what a supporting cast, that orbit around the centre, covers the range of the great and the good. Leading literary lights, musicians, society people, all gathered in what if it wasn’t accidental, would have been called a salon. In the Bloomsbury, Proustian meaning of the term. There are more anecdotes to be found about people you wouldn’t expect, the protagonist especially, connected with the infamous Algonquin Round Table of New York.

It all starts in grinding, unremitting poverty, reaches the heights of riches, and everything in between. But the sese of fun never leaves, the sense of, well, kind-heartedness, the inventive view of every situation, drifts through a life lived not for himself, but for everyone around him. Nothing came easy, no chance of an education in the early days, seeking work, through to the trials of touring the vast country during the vaudeville days.

Shoreditch is hip, yes sir it is

A book that covers a filled life, told in the way you would imagine it would be. Breakneck speed, colourful, musical and more hits than misses. Honest to the point that we with our gadet-crutch lifestyles can’t begin to understand how it could have all happened. It seems alien, a total other generation, and the grasping, sense-of-entitlement current thinking can only scoff in disbelief. But this was part of me growing up, not the way they did, but the stories they told. Or not until this book, for this man.

Aside from bringing my own predujces to this review, I have also managed to avoid using terms like ‘zany’, ‘wacky’ and ‘manic’. Because while it is, and it isn’t, this is more that you imagine. And if you have seen the old films, you will have a predetermined idea of what to expect. And it isn’t that. How he found himself in those situations, by accident, on purpose, chancing his arm, these are the things great biographies are made of. And this is a great biography.

If you want to hear what he says when he does open his mouth, you have to read, rather than watch, and listen. For this is the second to only time Harpo Speaks, so enjoy it. And you certainly will.

Photo sources : Fade out / I sure can

*Review, principles, whatever.

Kitchener: Architect of Victory, Artisan of Peace – John Pollock

by Harbinger.

Continuing my theme from last week with Harry Turtledove’s excellent counter factual book ‘Hitlers War’, I am looking at the First World War. In particular I am reviewing this excellent book about one of its most famous British protagonists, Lord Herbert Kitchener. I had always been interested in Lord Kitchener, particularly in respect of his roles in some of the major wars involving the British Empire from 1871-1916.

John Pollock is an accomplished biographer and historian. The book he has written is thoroughly readable and not like some history books where readability is sacrificed for orgies of dates, or the indeed the reverse where the history is lost in the modern trend of ‘dumbing down’. Many people will know Lord Kitchener as simply the face of one of the most famous posters in the world. He was in fact a highly complicated man who was seen often as a great war hero and at other times an anachronism.
Quite often the more negative view of Kitchener has been put forward by historians. Generally this is based on the tendency towards anti-imperialism in British History. Kitchener is obviously an important symbol of Imperialism along with figures like Major – General Charles Gordon and Robert Clive (Clive of India). However, in recent years Kitchener has undergone a rehabilitation. For example along with Winston Churchill, Kitchener was one of those blamed for the disastrous allied campaign in Gallipoli. This was mainly due to Churchill’s entirely self serving attack on him when an inquiry was conducted into the failure. Conveniently for the Liberal Government, Kitchener had been killed in 1916. His ship was sunk by a German U-boat whilst on a diplomatic mission to Russia. His death meant he was unable to defend himself and was used as a scapegoat for mistakes military and otherwise made by the Government (A tactic especially used by David Lloyd – George in his war memoirs).

He however, was a vital factor in winning the war, his infamous recruitment campaigns secured just over 2 million men, the back bone of the army that eventually defeated Germany. It was neither the military pedigree of the French or the resources of the United States that concluded the ‘Victory Battles’ but the Brave volunteers of Kitchener’s army.

Kitchener was a man who was stalked by controversy, from the hot deserts of the Sudan, to the disappointments of the Boer War and finally to the cloak and dagger world of Whitehall. Pollock has been able to extract the essence of a shy, quiet man who could be a little independent minded (not always a good trait in the world of politics.) His foresight and intelligence was such that he was was one of the few in the cabinet who predicted a long war and argued that the war would plumb the depths of Britain’s manpower ‘to the last million’. This book is obviously written by a man with passionate interest in Kitchener (much like myself). As such it is a great read and surprisingly well balanced.

Hope you enjoyed the review.


Sheila Hancock – Just Me

Ok, well now having explained how I feel about Biographies I am ready to tell you what I thought of Sheila Hancock’s latest book.
I started this book waiting for a friend in a cafe and was struggling not to cry when she arrived. There are some deeply moving moments, both from Sheila’s own struggling to accept John Thaw’s death, to her exploration of world war two and I choked up a number of times reading it. Hancock is an excellent writer, it’s not really a biography, the whole experience feels like sitting by a fire sharing tales with an old friend, she wanders from dealing with her grief and moving on, to reminiscing about life with John and her childhood, to tales of theatre and travel. It’s fascinating and meandering and incredibly witty and moving.
This book has everything a really good autobiographical book needs, a fascinating subject, an excellent writer and openness. Sheila shares her prejudice’s and how she faced and overcame some of them travelling, her experiences of the invisibility of age and travelling alone. I haven’t read the previous book, but I will be seeking it out, no doubt I will cry. John Thaw has a special place in my childhood, Morse was a treasure the whole family shared, but my parents and I particularly loved it and it’s stuck with me, I now share it with my husband. I was glad to read “Just me” first, I prefer to see Sheila Hancock in her own right to begin with.
If you aren’t sure about biographies i’d still recommend this, it offers a great deal more than the average celebraty biog.


I am presently reading and will soon be posting about Sheila Hancocks “Just Me”. I’m not going to talk about that yet, but I have some general comments on Biographies and Autobiographies I wanted to share, and maybe you can all tell me how wrong I am.

I don’t read a lot of life story books. I probably have half a dozen collecting dust that I will never get beyond the first 20pages of. I find them so often disapointing. As a teen I had an insatiable appetite for Dean Koontz novels and eventually in my early 20’s read his biography. In this case there were two problems, one is, although interesting enough to me his life hadn’t been anything hugely different or exciting so the book was padded out instead of just a bit shorter. The main problem though was the biographer. A psychologist who started the book by explaining that she wasn’t a Freudian she was, oh I forget, Jungian or something. Anyway having recently graduated from my psych degree my thoughts were “so what” and “ok but in this context that’s practically the same thing anyway” and “anyone who reads that and doesn’t do psych won’t care or understand, anyone who has studied it will now write you up as full of it”. Maybe I was harsh but her babbling, repetative analysis bored me rigid. It’s one of the few I have finished and remembe3r sufficiently to comment on. Most I never get halfway through, even if I am genuinly interested in the person. I have narrowed it down to a few core reasons why I rarely bother witgh biog:
1) you aren’t that interesting anyway, if you are 18 and have had two years chart succes how fascinating can your biography really be?
2) You wrote it yourself and you aren’t really much of a writer. Simple enough I think.
3) You picked the wrong person to write it for you (see the long grumble above).
4) It’s unauthorised and essentially just a rehashing of old press articles and rumours.

I think that about covers it. On the reverse of this, a biography I loved was Douglas Winters authorised Clive Barker biography The Dark Fantastic. It had a head start of course, Clive Barker has written the books that I have read 15 times over the years and I travelled to holland to meet freinds and then ignored them the whole time so I could attend his Q&A sessions and get a book signed. I was completely pathetic and struck dumb the whole time, but hey, it was worth it. He’s brilliant, funny and certainly appears to be a really nice guy. Anyway, the biog is well written, fascinating and really informative. So I guess those are the things you need in a biography:
1) A subject who has lived more than a quarter of their life and done something in it.
2) Access to the people and places concerned.
3) A really good biographer, or to be an excellent writer yourself.
4) A subject who is prepared to be open rather than focused on giving their version, settling scores and making points.

It is interesting that I would rather read someones blog and listen to the small insignificant facts fo their day than read the story of their lives, for the most part, it also means that I was extremely surprised to find myself utterly absorbed by Hancock’s book…more of that later.

I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on this topic.