Audiobook review: “A Life of My Own” by Claire Tomalin

I first became aware of Claire Tomalin a few years ago when her biography of Samuel Pepys (Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self) won the Whitbread Book Award (predecessor to the Costa Book Award) in 2002. I remember the story was quite newsworthy because her husband, the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, was also shortlisted the same year for his novel Spies. He won the prize for the novel. She won the biography prize plus the overall best book. Tomalin has written a number of well-received biographies, including of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Hardy. Her most recent was Charles Dickens: A Life, published in 2011.

A life of my own imgBrowsing in the bookshop last year, I noticed that she had published her own autobiography, at the age of 83 – I note with some pleasure that her 84th birthday is in fact today! Many happy returns! Reading the blurb whetted my appetite – I was not aware of her life as a groundbreaking Literary Editor at the Sunday Times, or that she had five children, including one boy who died as a baby, and another son who was born with severe disabilities, nor that her first husband, fellow journalist Nicholas Tomalin, was killed in 1973, when her children were still very young. It sounded like a very interesting read.

Anticipating some long drives, I got hold of the audiobook (the reserve list at the library was long and I knew it would be many weeks before I got it), and the fact that it was narrated by Dame Penelope Wilton was a bonus.

At first, I’m afraid to say, I did not enjoy it; I found it quite irritating. Claire was born in 1933. Her father was French and her mother from Liverpool, a talented composer. Her early life was troubled, not least because her parents divorced when she was still quite young. However, she still secured a very good education, first at Hitchin Girls Grammar School and then at the progressive Dartington boarding school in Devon, before going to Cambridge. Through her parents she came into contact with very many high-profile artists, writers and musicians, so though there may have been a shortage of material wealth (though I can only imagine this is relative) there was no shortage of cultural wealth. And I’m afraid this is what I found irritating. I don’t think the author wants us to feel sorry for her, but I found myself with the sense that she really had no idea what the lives of her working class contemporaries, many of whom would have no less ability,  were like compared to her own.

The book became less irritating. Once she had graduated, I found the young adult Claire more interesting, although there was still way too much name-dropping for my liking. I think I expect biographies, and in particular autobiographies, to provide insight, reflection and self-awareness; I have, for example, enjoyed Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland very much. However, for me this just did not happen with Claire Tomalin until the final quarter or so of the book. As we learn about the death of her husband Nick (he was hit by a shell whilst reporting on the Yom Kippur War in 1973) and how she had to cope with life as a widowed mother of four children, I found I became more sympathetic. She also faced challenges that most will never have to, thankfully, in relation to her children and these parts were both incredibly touching and immensely readable. She lived in a house in Gloucester Crescent, north London, and mentions neighbour Nina Stibbe, whose tales of nannying to the editor of the London Review of Books in the 1980s are recorded in another book I’ve reviewed here, Love, Nina. It was quite a bohemian lifestyle and engaging to read about.

There is much to enjoy in this book, and the last few chapters are poignant, but overall, I was disappointed. Although it was not smug or self-congratulatory, there were certainly parts which lacked a sense of the privileged life the author had led and that for me was a flaw. You will recognize many of the names mentioned, the anecdotes about Andrew Neil and Rupert Murdoch and the industrial disputes that beset The Times provide a fascinating perspective, and here is a life that has been long-lived, so it spans a vast range of time. For me, though, the book was little too much chronological account and not quite enough personal insight.

Recommended if you’re an admirer of the author or have an interest in the mid-20th century cultural life of London.

Which biographies or autobiographies have you enjoyed recently?

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October reading challenge

I am turning rather belatedly to October’s reading challenge book; I’ve had a few heavy reading weeks trying to work my way through the Man Booker shortlist. The winner was announced last week, and although I fell a little short of my target, managing only five out of the six, I feel I need a little break before tackling the monster that is Paul Auster’s 4321!  There is still a week to go before the end of October so completing this month’s challenge is still achievable. I’ll be posting my review of September’s reading challenge book, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, later in the week.

Continuing the theme of life-changing (it’s still Autumn and I’m still motivated!), my task this month is to read a biography or autobiography of someone I admire. Walk into any bookshop and there are dozens of course. They are particularly prevalent at this time of year as publishers turn their attention to Christmas sales. I tend to eschew those celebrity biographies which are so clearly ghost-written and which strike me as a cynical attempt to capitalise on someone’s popularity. But there are many other worthy books and authors out there.

Not My Fathers SonThere are a couple of titles that have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Scottish actor and comedian Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son, which was published in 2014. It is linked to his appearance in BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010 in which the result of his research caused him to reflect on his family, his upbringing and, in particular, his relationship with an abusive father. It has received glowing reviews and has also won prizes. The theme of secrets and family research is close to the book I am writing myself so it could be helpful. Or it may just make me feel like givng up now!!!

Watch Me

Option two is the second volume of Anjelica Huston’s authobiography Watch Me, published in 2015. I read the first volume A Story Lately Told, a couple of years ago and loved it. The first book gives an account of her childhood growing up in Ireland, and her relationship with her enigmatic father, the towering figure of John Huston. It moves on to London, her early adulthood and her first experiences in modelling and acting. Watch Me picks up when Huston is 22 years old and recounts her Hollywood years.

A life of my ownFinally, I saw in the bookshop recently that Claire Tomalin has written A Life of My Own, where, for a change, she is writing about herself. I admire Claire Tomalin hugely; she has written some of the finest biographies produced in recent years, covering subjects such as Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Mary Wollstonecraft. She has led the most astonishing life: an unhappy childhood, four children, the death of her husband, the loss of a child, and the eternal struggle between motherhood and work. I think I would find this book truly inspiring.

 

How similar are these three covers!?

So, which is it to be? Grateful for views

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Book review: “Jo Cox: More in Common” by Brendan Cox

No-one could forget the terrible events of June 16th 2016, the week before the UK referendum on exiting the EU, when Jo Cox, the British MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire, was brutally murdered whilst in her constituency. It was shocking on so many levels. Firstly, that, in the midst of a profound expression of our democracy (which I believe we should never take for granted), campaigning during a referendum, one of our most conscientious and hard-working elected members should be killed for doing her job and what she believed in. Secondly, and most upsetting to me and, I’m sure, to many others, that a mother of two young children, a wife, a sister, a daughter, should lose her life and all those close to her should lose the most important person in theirs. It was truly awful.

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In the days that followed, campaigning in the referendum was suspended as the news reverberated around the world. Support was shown and condolences sent by dozens of world leaders, not least President Obama. Jo’s death had a huge impact. So many had felt the insult to our democracy. In those subsequent days and weeks, we also learned much about this young woman and her life, and the loss felt even greater.

Jo’s husband, Brendan, became famous overnight, a role he would never have wanted. The grieving widower, the father of two shocked and grieving young children (then aged just five and three), the spokesperson for his late wife and all the good and powerful things she stood for. He was frequently on our television screens, looking dazed and gaunt, in Parliament, just days after Jo’s death, hearing MPs’ tributes, at a memorial event in Trafalgar, attended by thousands. It is a wonder how he got through those days.

It is thirteen months since Jo’s death and Brendan has been busy. He has set up the Jo Cox Foundation which seeks to promote fairness and tolerance in the world through practical actions. He has also published this book, which is part biography of Jo, partly an account of loss and, I suspect, part catharsis. It is rare that I have sat down and read a book in a couple of sittings over a weekend, but this book lends itself to that kind of immersion.

First and foremost the book, for me, provides an intimate glimpse into the architecture of grief. We will all experience grief in our lives, but most of us will never have to lose someone in the circumstances that Brendan lost Jo, that their children lost their mother. The pain is profound. We see Brendan go through all the stages we are familiar with – shock, denial, etc, though he clearly fights very hard against anger, and seems to have won. He describes in detail the unique way that nature enables children to process it. In the midst of his own grief Brendan’s primary concern was to support his children through their even greater loss to ensure that it was handled in the best possible way. Brendan talks about taking advice from experts in child psychology on how he should talk to them about their mother. The overwhelming consensus is that children should be allowed the space to grieve as they need, in their own unique way, and that it is important that we do not impose adult preconceptions and expectations about their level of sadness. For a young child, losing a mother is a profound and life-changing event that will affect the rest of their lives and it is so important to handle it right.

The sadness in this book is at times unbearable, but Brendan also writes with joy too. He provides an account of Jo’s life, her humble family background and childhood, her life as a student at Cambridge and her early achievements in a career that was destined to be stellar. Brendan, in providing this account, is honouring his late wife and the enormous achievements she made in her short life. There is a definite sense that the best was yet to come.

We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Jo Cox, maiden speech to Parliament, 2015 

 

Finally, the book is a love letter, a tribute from a bereaved husband to the woman he clearly loved so deeply. His love drips from every page. Some of the detail he gives is surprisingly intimate almost too much for me as a reader. The kind of small details of a relationship that couples normally only share with one another. But then you remember that Brendan no longer can, and his sharing with us feels all the more poignant.

The book is structured so that parallels are drawn between events in the months following Jo’s death and important stages in Jo’s life. For example, the account of Jo and Brendan’s time working in America and joining the Obama presidential campaign is given alongside an account of Brendan’s visit to the White House with his children, at the invitation of President Obama.

It is an incredible book and all proceeds from sales will go to the Jo Cox Foundation. It is hard to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but it felt like a very important read. It has certainly caused me to reflect, and the lesson that comes from it, for me, is along the lines of that old truism (with apologies for misquoting) that it’s not the years in your life that really count, but the life in your years. And Jo certainly packed a lifetime’s worth in her 42 years.

An emotional read, but highly recommended.

If you have read this book, I’d love to know how it affected you.

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