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?

If you have enjoyed this post, do subscribe to my blog and connect with me on social media.

Easter holiday reading suggestions

2017-03-30-11-55-53.jpgI’m off on a short holiday to the Netherlands so I’m planning to take some reading with me, of course, and have decided on another book from my ‘to read’ pile (I’m in the groove now!) called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. It looks delightfully weird and I love the Dutch so am very excited to be reading it at last. I’m also taking Roxane Gray’s Difficult Women, a collection of short stories which was a gift from a friend. Looking forward to that and hoping I can get some tips for my own short story writing. I’ll also take North and South which I’m re-reading this month as part of my 2017 reading challenge.

If you’re looking for ideas yourself and would like something light and amusing which you can dip in and out of, you could try Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe. I mentioned this book in a blog a few weeks ago; I read it whilst on a ‘break’ from a book I was finding quite heavygoing (Do Not Say We Have Nothing). It was the perfect antidote: a straightforward jolly read. It’s a series of letters from Nina, to her sister Victoria in Leicestershire and therefore readable in bitesize chunks.

Love Nina imgNina is twenty when we meet her in the early 1980s. She lives with Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons, Sam and Will, to whom she is a nanny. They live at 55 Gloucester Crescent NW1, an area that was also home to other literary types, among them Alan Bennett and Claire Tomalin, who also make appearances in the book, particularly ‘AB’ who is a great friend of ‘MK’.

Nina’s letters home detail the events of daily life in the household, and are brought alive by her pithy observations on the quirkiness of her employer and the neighbours. It was particularly nice to read this after watching Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van over Christmas, which was also set in Gloucester Crescent and features many of the same people. Nina’s affection for the family shines through and she writes with great fondness of Sam and Will, her young charges. MK is idiosyncratic, but charming, and Alan Bennett leaps off the page. The personalities of the individuals come across strongly; Nina clearly has a talent for this since much of what we learn about them is through the conversations she reproduces in the letters as extracts of dialogue. She manages to pick out the little details or the nuances and word choices that reveal so much.

The letters cover a couple of years, and at the end of the book Nina is part way through her degree in English literature at Thames Polytechnic. By this stage you can see she herself is becoming a more accomplished chronicler, although the later letters, many of which are about her university friends, I found less endearing than the earlier ones.

Nina, now in her 50s, eventually became a writer, and had two children with Nunney, one of the other inhabitants of Gloucester Crescent (though they got together much later), and has subsequently published two novels in addition to this memoir: Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, which I’d be interested in reading. Love, Nina was also adapted for television by Nick Hornby, and starred Helena Bonham Carter. I think that could be fun to watch.

So, a good little read, perfect if you’re going away this Easter holiday.

What are you reading this Spring?

If you have enjoyed this post I would love for you to subscribe to my blog by clicking on the follow button below or to the right, depending on your device.