Wednesday Book: A Perfect Chocolate Box of Tempting Biography

By Ash, Timothy Garton | The Independent (London, England), June 21, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Wednesday Book: A Perfect Chocolate Box of Tempting Biography


Ash, Timothy Garton, The Independent (London, England)


Telling Lives: from WB Yeats to Bruce Chatwin

edited by Alistair Horne

(Macmillan, pounds 20)

BIOGRAPHY IS the English art. It flourishes here more than in any other country. As a judge for this year's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, awarded last month to David Cairns's magnificent life of Berlioz, I was struck by the preponderance of high-quality biography over any other category of non-fiction. Now we have, in the slyly titled Telling Lives, a perfect chocolate box of biography.

Thirty years ago, the military historian Alistair Horne endowed a fellowship for writers to spend a year working on a book at St Antony's College, Oxford, which he describes as "what the United Nations ought to be, but isn't". (Full disclosure: St Antony's is my college, and I'm on the selection committee for the fellowship.) Former Horne Fellows - 26 in all - have contributed biographical essays to this volume. The range is tremendous: Robert Kee wondering what Parnell would have made of the Good Friday Agreement; Christina Hardyment comparing Marie Stopes and Germaine Greer; Martin Meredith on the South African human-rights lawyer Bram Fischer; Roy Foster reflecting on Yeats; Norman Davies on Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish Byron; not to mention Suharto, Mussolini and Charles Babbage.

Not all are choice pralines. But the best are original and beautifully written biographical sketches. Some, such as Hardyment's, are vigorous free-standing essays; others are distillations or foretastes of larger works. Thus, Alex Danchev gives us his distilled view of Basil Liddell Hart, brilliant writer on war, dandy and assiduous honour-seeker. In the foretaste camp, John Campbell contributes a rollicking essay on "The Femininity of Margaret Thatcher". "It is", he writes, "perhaps hard to believe John Junor's story - told him by Jim Prior - that `one or two ministers had... tried unsuccessfully to get a leg over'. But at least one of her ministers has confessed that he used to sit on the front bench wondering what sort of underwear she was wearing."

Most effective of all are the sketches of people whom the authors knew and loved: what the French call eloges, a form in which Isaiah Berlin was supremely skilled.

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