Magazine article The Spectator

Lesser Lives in the Limelight

Magazine article The Spectator

Lesser Lives in the Limelight

Article excerpt

If James Boswell could glance at a few recent issues of The Spectator, he would be delighted to see that the literary form he did so much to modernise is thriving. In the last month or two, biographies of Hardy, Empson, Janacek and Betjemen have impressed this magazine's critics with their attention to detail, elegance, clear-sighted analysis and balance. So many of the skills Boswell introduced to the endeavour are still adhered to. He might, perhaps, permit himself a well-earned pat on the back.

However, if he then visited his local W. H. Smith, he would lose much of that satisfaction. Very few of the lives reviewed in the literary press are ever found in the shops. A request for Empson would be met with a blank look.

A request for Janacek would almost certainly be met with directions to the local pharmacy. Instead, what Boswell would find is that the art of biography has devolved into the most chilling of all literary forms: the celebrity life story.

The celebrity life story departs slightly from the norm in that it dispenses with a few of the traditional tenets of biographical writing -- elegance, quality of analysis, attention to detail, balance, and worthiness of subject are some of the more common omissions. Once the preserve of actors, it has over the last few years grown to the point where every footballer, chef and pop star produces one.

You don't even have to be a celebrity any more; 'reality' TV participants and members of the public who have suffered traumatic events are also in on the act. When not helping my two-year-old daughter write Tales from the Potty, a heartbreakingly honest account of one baby's fight to control her bladder, I do find myself worrying about the fact that almost all new releases in my local bookshop are trashy life stories, and that, meanwhile, there is no poetry section.

Is there any redemption to be found in the celebrity life story? Mustn't Grumble, Terry Wogan's latest memoir (Orion, £18.99), is not a particularly promising start. A rambling, conversational work, containing dozens of bafflingly humourless ditties sent in by his listeners (and so many ellipses that it appears . . . at times . . . to be interspersed . . . with . . .

Morse code), the book entertains in brief patches but ultimately lacks coherence. By far the most dramatically arresting struggle is not that surrounding the author's journey from provincial banking to a knighthood, but rather the great internal war between Wogan's fundamental sense of proportion on the one side and his great fulminating ego on the other. With claims of ephemerality being followed by trenchant boasts about being the most popular presenter in Britain, the book's shifts of perspective make this a dizzying read.

For different reasons, Kiefer Sutherland: The Biography by Laura Jackson (Portrait, £16.99) is also unsatisfying. Its chief problem is that it is a work of unabashed hagiography. In the space of a couple of early pages, we have Sutherland 'to his credit' not using his father's absence as an excuse for later bad behaviour, after which we are told, 'As Jack Bauer [in 24], Kiefer has never looked better.' A few lines later, Jackson writes, 'Kiefer accepted another halfbrother with unruffled equanimity', which amuses particularly since Sutherland was eight at the time -- can a child of eight ever display 'unruffled equanimity'? …

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