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Memories of childhood, poker and “First World healthcare”

Meeting the Devil“I have a tendency when reading biographies and autobiographies about elderly or dead people of great accomplishment to want to skip through the early part, especially the childhood.” So wrote Jenny Diski, who now contributes an essay to Meeting the Devil, a collection of short pieces of memoir originally published in the London Review of Books. I must confess to feeling likewise, though usually the temptation to skip is soon overcome with an inner scolding: that skipping is cheating. I was once a painfully slow reader who enjoyed reading immensely. Finishing books was difficult, but I would persevere, and feel an amazing sense of achievement when I could put a volume back on the shelf. I could not – and perhaps still cannot – feel that satisfaction if I had skipped as much as a page.

So during my teenage years the biographies and memoirs stacked up, a bookmark perhaps a quarter of the way through each. They were not all badly written, and ranged Denis Healey to the Mitford sisters. But none were short, and I began to feel a distrust for any writer who felt the absolute necessity to begin at the beginning. Then I read Stephen Fry’s much-lauded tome, and I failed to find the inner genius within the incoherent mess that is Moab Is My Washpot. Perhaps there was a point to dogmatic regulation in writing biography: or perhaps we should just be suspicious of national treasures.

I only skipped a few pages in my ruthless consumption of Meeting the Devil, as short pieces of autobiography leave little room for filler, or even subtle narratives on childhood’s ultimate causation of everything. Unless of course, the latter is the main thrust, and if it is, it would probably have to be pretty convincing to get printed in the LRB.

More unifies these essays than divides them. Most of the writers seem, for some reason, to read the Times: or at least they do if they mention a paper at all. Hilary Mantel and AJP Taylor take it in hospital; John Henry Jones recalls it covered in jam at the breakfasts of William Empson.

More to the point, there is indeed a good deal of essays recalling childhood. But none do so for its own sake. Andrew O’Hagan’s haunting recollection of taunting and torturing a younger boy said the unsayable just after the killing of James Bulger. Allon White wrote one of the collection’s longest pieces shortly before his premature death from leukaemia in 1989, aged 36. His childhood is in colour too vivid – or perhaps shaded – to have been rendered without the sheer proximity of time’s winged chariot. One might say Joe Kenyon, who started work in the mines at 14, had a childhood of sorts. Factory work takes him to Slough, but he is back in the pit before long. His recollection of a pit explosion which claimed 58 lives reminds us that memoir rarely gives voice to those most worthy of it. And for Lorna Sage and Jeremy Harding, childhood seems an excuse to discuss weirdness more than anything else. Harding’s portrait of his adoptive mother Maureen, and her compulsion to prefix the most commonplace of signifiers with ‘what I call…’, brings to life the beauty of the everyday, maintaining respect and sympathy without infatuation.

That, perhaps, is what separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to memoir: would we read it if we hadn’t heard of the writer beforehand? Almost all of these, perhaps excepting AJP Taylor’s contribution, stand on their own two feet. Some give us the LRB’s style more than the writer’s own, but I’ll happily take that anyway. The uninitiated may have never heard of Paul Myerscough or Emily Witt, but that won’t make you turn off as they introduce their own intricacies to discussions of poker and OkCupid.

Yet these are no light-hearted scribblings. Terry Castle hears of the death of her crushing friend Susan Sonntag, and observes that ‘the real reckoning has yet to begin’. Alan Bennett’s contribution (he writes a short preface too) is the first version of The Lady in the Van, later adapted for radio and stage. On the death of the old woman who has lived on his Primrose Hill patio for the past 15 years, he writes:

I am filled with remorse for my harsh conduct towards her, though I know at the same time that it was not harsh. But I never quite believed she was as ill as she was and I regret too all the questions I never asked her. Not that she would have answered them. I have a strong impulse to stand at the gate and tell anyone who passes.

It is only RW Johnson’s essay that leaves a sour taste. Before we have come to terms with the fast-paced drama of his near-death experience, and miraculous survival, he is bemoaning the prospect of South Africa’s ANC government ‘end[ing] access to First World healthcare’ through merging the private and public sectors. Making such comments is all the worse in a short piece of memoir: Johnson fails to take us with him as he journeys from awful lagoon-injury to quite questionable politics. It might be doable, but it would take a better writer (of whom there are many in this book) and more than five pages.

Back to where we started, with Jenny Diski. The last word in Meeting the Devil is hers, and she ponders the options for her burial or cremation after being offered a shared plot at Highgate Cemetery. She does not mention the Times, though if I recall correctly, the protagonist of her first novel, Nothing Natural, is a reader. The words she wants on her headstone (‘the Heir Apparent’ is not keen on such expensive indulgences) are these: ‘Jenny Diski lies here. But tells the truth over there.’ No writing, whether styling itself a novel or an autobiography, will be fact or fiction absolute. Reading this book – and with these writers, reading it cover to cover should be a pleasure, not a trial – will demonstrate that a good memoir is far more than truth or an interest in the subject. On first reading the collection’s blurb, which told me the volume is ‘a study in the art of the self-portrait’, I was a little scornful. But if there was ever a demonstration of how it’s done, in the words of Michael Jackson, this is it.

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