No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to info@oberonbooks.com and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.

The heat-death of the universe – from Beyond the Fringe

Beyond the Fringe opened as part of the Edinburgh Festival on 22 August 1960. The earliest known performance of Jonathan Miller’s monologue below, however, was as part of Bright Periods, a revue at University College Hospital, in 1957.
The monologue is now available in One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016, a new collection of Jonathan Miller’s writing, edited by Ian Greaves. 

Some years ago, when I was rather hard up, I wanted to buy myself a new
pair of trousers – but, being rather hard up, I was quite unable to buy
myself a new pair. Until some very kind friend whispered into my earhole
that if I looked sharp about it I could get myself quite a nice second-hand
pair from the Sales Department of the London Passenger Transport Board
Lost Property. Now before I accepted this interesting offer I got involved
in a great deal of fastidious struggling with my inner soul, because I wasn’t
very keen to assume the trousers which some lunatic had taken off on a
train going eastbound towards Whitechapel.

jonathan-miller

However, after a great deal of moral contortion, I steeled myself to the
alien crutch, and made my way towards the London Passenger Transport
Board Lost Property Sales Department in Portman Square, praying as I
did so, ‘Oh God, let them be dry-cleaned when I get there.’ And when
I arrived there, you can imagine my pleasure and surprise when I found,
instead of a tumbled heap of lunatics’ trousers, a very neat heap of brand
new, bright-blue corduroy trousers. There were 400 of them! How can
anyone lose 400 pairs of trousers on a train? I mean, it’s hard enough to
lose a brown paper bag full of old orange peel when you really want to.
And anyway, 400 men wearing no trousers would attract some sort of
attention. No, it’s clearly part of a complex economic scheme on the part of the London Passenger Transport Board – a complex economic scheme
along Galbraithian or Keynesian lines, presumably. So over now to the
Economics Planning Division of the London Passenger Transport Board
Ops Room:
‘All right, men. Operation Cerulean Trouser. Now, we are going to
issue each one of you men with a brand new, bright blue pair of corduroy
trousers. Your job will be to disperse to all parts of London, to empty railway
carriages, and there to divest yourselves of these garments and leave them
in horrid little heaps on the floors of the carriages concerned. Once the
trousers have left your body, your job ends there, and I mean that! All right,
now – are there any questions? Good – now, chins up and trousers down!’

And they disperse to places far out on the reaches of the Central Line.
Places with unlikely names like Chipping Ongar; places presumably out
on the Essex marshes, totally uninhabited except for a few rather rangy
marsh birds mournfully pacing the primeval slime.
And there in the empty railway carriages they let themselves separately
and individually into the empty compartments; and then, before they
commit the final existential act of detrouserment, they do those little
personal things which people sometimes do when they think they’re alone
in railway carriages. Things like…things like smelling their own armpits.

The Beyond the Fringe gang

The Beyond the Fringe gang

It’s all part of the human condition, I suppose. Anyway, it’s quite
possible they didn’t even take their trousers off in the compartments but
made their way along the narrow corridor towards the lavatory at the end
– that wonderful little room, where there’s that marvellous unpunctuated
motto over the lavatory saying, ‘Gentlemen lift the seat.’ What exactly
does this mean? Is it a sociological description – a definition of a gentleman
which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could
be a blunt military order…or an invitation to upper-class larceny…but
anyway, willy-nilly, they strip stark naked; and then, nude – entirely
nude, nude that is except for cellular underwear (for man is born free
but everywhere is in cellular underwear) – they make their way back to
headquarters through the chilly nocturnal streets of sleeping Whitechapel
– 400 fleet-white figures in the night, their 800 horny feet pattering on
the pavements and arousing small children from their slumbers in upstairs
bedrooms. Children, who are soothed back into their sleep by their parents with the ancient words: ‘Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the
gentlemen trot by.’

The new collection One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016 is published by Oberon Books and is now available to pre-order ahead of publication in March ’17. In keeping with Miller’s grasshopper mind, One Thing and Another leaps from discussions of human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, to analyses of the work of M.R. James, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Truman Capote, by way of reflections on directing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Olivier and opera.
Jonathan Miller is internationally celebrated as one of the last great public intellectuals. Read One Thing and Another to find out why.