Michael Holroyd at 80
By RUTH SCURR
Last night the Royal Society of Literature hosted a celebration of Michael Holroyd’s eightieth birthday at the British Library. Hermione Lee led a panel of biographers – Patrick French, Richard Holmes, Jenny Uglow and me – discussing Holroyd’s work and his influence on our own biographical practice.
There was a high level of consensus: Holroyd is nonpareil. He can do more in a single sentence than lesser writers manage in a whole page. For example, when writing of Winnaretta Singer, one of the many children of the American sewing-machine multibillionaire: “Her first marriage, a distressing experience involving an umbrella, had to be annulled”. . . .
His ears ringing with our praises and gratitude, Michael came on stage and said he felt elevated into a new fictional character called "Holroyd". Concerning "Holroyd" he had this to say: experience shows us our ignorance. The young Holroyd “entered other people’s lives to get away from his own”. Mature Holroyd, looking back on his work, reminded us that Virginia Woolf thought she knew everything there was to know about biography, until she sat down to write one of her friend Roger Fry. She wanted to bring him back to life on the page, she thought she might write his life backwards, she thought she would revolutionize the genre, but in the end fell back on a conventional model. Experience shows us our ignorance.
Michael read two short passages to add to those the panellists had chosen from his work. The first was a description of George Bernard Shaw, in his “young eighties” enjoying gardening:
“Chopping wood, making bonfires, sawing logs, collecting acorns, eyeing the strawberries while patrolling up and down with his notebook, camera, and special secateurs, he appeared to one neighbour ‘like a magic gardener in a fairy story’. He would write in the garden too, stepping out from a veranda at the back of the house (‘my Riviera’) and hurrying past the flowers and trees to a small revolving hut, like a monk’s cell, with its desk and chair and bunk. Here in what some visitors mistook for a toolshed, he was conveniently out of the staff’s way and the world’s reach.”
The second was an autobiographical account of “Illness in England”, ending with a call from a journalist wanting “A couple of facts about your schooling, if you don’t mind”:
“Really? What for?”
I paused. “Who are you?”
He named a name – and a newspaper – and with mingled feelings I gave him the facts as I remembered them.
“Is that all?” I asked tentatively.
“Yes. I think that completes it, thank you.”
For the time being.
After that, Michael rejoined the audience. The panel set off on a broad discussion of biography and its challenges past, present and future. When the question of Facebook, Twitter and email arose, we ventured some tentative thoughts on how social media might change biographical practice. Hermione Lee, with characteristic incisiveness, turned quickly to Michael and asked: “Are you on Facebook or Twitter?” “Not to my knowledge”, he replied.