Basil Street Blues


"A wonderful offbeat memoir.... Holroyd has written perhaps his best book yet."—Ben Macintyre, New York Times Book Review
Renowned biographer Michael Holroyd had always assumed that his own family was perfectly English, or at least perfectly ordinary. But an investigation into the Holroyd past—guided by old photograph albums, crumbling documents, and his parents' wildly divergent accounts of their lives—gradually yields clues to a constellation of startling events and eccentric characters: a slow decline from ...

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Basil Street Blues: A Memoir

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"A wonderful offbeat memoir.... Holroyd has written perhaps his best book yet."—Ben Macintyre, New York Times Book Review
Renowned biographer Michael Holroyd had always assumed that his own family was perfectly English, or at least perfectly ordinary. But an investigation into the Holroyd past—guided by old photograph albums, crumbling documents, and his parents' wildly divergent accounts of their lives—gradually yields clues to a constellation of startling events and eccentric characters: a slow decline from English nobility on one side, a dramatic Scandinavian ancestry on the other. Fires, suicides, bankruptcies, divorces, unconsummated longings, and the rumor of an Indian tea fortune permeate this wry, candid memoir, "part multiple biography, part autobiography, but principally an oblique investigation of the biographer's art" (New York Times Book Review). "[A] perfect example of a memoir that entrances me."—Katherine A. Powers, Boston Sunday Globe "[O]ne of the few [biographers] who can convey what makes ordinary as well as extraordinary mortals live in our minds."—Los Angeles Times

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Editorial Reviews

Amy Graves

Michael Holroyd's Basil Street Blues begins with a confession: Although he's made a career out of penning biographies of prominent writers, including George Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, he had no interest in writing about his own family until now. He claims this ''probably arose from my need to escape from family involvements and immerse myself in other people's lives.''

Holroyd grew up in England during World War II, in a family full of eccentrics whose lives, despite a promising start, devolved into debts, regret, and sadness. He was raised by his father's parents and an unmarried aunt, with whom he shared a growing interest in books.

The family squabbled bitterly in the house they shared after being forced to sell their much larger estate. But the way he tells their story, revealing the humor in their personalities and habits while not ignoring the anguish of their predicament, does not allow the reader to feel sorry for them. If anything, Holroyd identifies with their human failings and thereby makes them real.

Holroyd sets out to write about his family out of a need to integrate them and their role in his early life with the outcome of his later years. It's an ambitious as well as ambiguous goal. He gathered material for this book, which he describes as a ''vicarious autobiography,'' by asking his parents to write their life stories and send the chapters to him in the form of letters.

His parents married secretly when very young and his mother was already pregnant. Almost as hastily they divorced, and the result for him was shuffling between the separate sets of his extended family. Holroyd describes his father as an ambitious man who was bewildered by his own inability to turn his ideas for advancement into actual advancement; he died completely broke. His mother, a vivacious Swede in love with love and the high life, married repeatedly - and more unhappily, it seems, every time.

Clearly in some ways they failed him, but he does not blame or pity them. Instead he concentrates on their motivations and circumstances and tries to see them more objectively. It's his willingness to look at them just as struggling, striving people, apart from their roles as his parents, that makes them come to life.

Holroyd does not shy away from describing moments when he failed the people close to him. In this way his self-deprecation and modesty are strikingly English, but not at all affected.

His years at boarding school and later in the military are other subjects of this story, and the beauty of the many intertwining elements can be seen partly in the way he holds back a little, giving away only enough details to activate the imagination. His housemaster at Eton is one of many characters he captures: ''For a man of his bulk, he spoke in a curiously soft voice muffled by continuous catarrh. In the evenings, like some amphibious monster, he would glide quietly along the perspiring corridors, occasionally stopping, entering a room at random and lugubriously passing the time of day.''

Holroyd's insight into the women of his family is keen. He looks closely at his aunt's one great romance that failed to bloom into marriage, and the result, that ''the little hammers of duty boarded Yolande up, first at Brocket [the family's first home] and finally in Norhurst.'' Through biographical sleuthing he discovers that his father's aunt's life ended unhappily, and that his great-grandmother committed suicide when her children were very young. This is one mystery he cannot fully solve, but his speculations are informed and interesting.

Through these discoveries, Holroyd may have gained renewed appreciation of his own means of escape. Alone in a house full of unhappy adults, he discovered books and writing. ''Being a solitary child, books soon became my friends and the means by which, from the privacy of my bedroom, I travelled all over the world,'' he reflects.

Holroyd's confession of apathy toward his family turns out to be only partly true, for he tried to combine his interest in writing and his fascination with them earlier in his life. His only novel, A Dog's Life, so closely matched family members' personalities that his father fought to stop him from publishing it, which turns out to be a painful story in its own right.

Basil Street Blues may be an attempt to do what his novel could not: to search out the facts of his family members' lives and let them tell their own stories. Through the lens of a mature biographer who knew them as a child, they are vivid.
Boston Globe

Ben Macintyre
A wonderful offbeat memoir.... Holroyd has written perhaps his best book yet. —New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times
[O]ne of the few [biographers] who can convey what makes ordinary as well as extraordinary mortals live in our minds.
Katherine A. Powers
[A] perfect example of a memoir that entrances me. —Boston Sunday Globe
Library Journal
English biographer Holroyd has been called the greatest living biographer for his accounts of the lives of Hugh Kingsmill, Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, and George Bernard Shaw. If a biographer is required to give an account of his own life "as a passport for travelling into the lives of others," then this book is Holroyd's own. Beginning with conflicting accounts by his parents, two people who couldn't agree even on the date of their son's birth, Holroyd turns a penetrating and unflinching but compassionate eye on his grandparents, his parents, and their families. Tragedy (how little he can do to help his terminally ill father) mixes with subtle humor (one chapter is called "Three Weddings and a Funeral"). Holroyd agonizes over revealing his aunt's aborted love life, finding himself now in the position of relatives of his biography subjects, and finds that the truth behind family stories is always more complicated than what he heard when growing up. How he became a biographer and his thoughts on the genre are also included. This remarkable memoir will be of interest to academic and public libraries.--Nancy Patterson Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Ben Macintyre
A wonderful offbeat memoir . . . Holroyd has written perhaps his best book yet. By turns damning and delightful, frothing with hilarity but always pulled by a strong undertow of sadness, it evokes a postwar English world of genteel decay.
The New York Times Book Review
The soul of a biography should be not what do I (plus index cards) know, but what don't I know? Mr. Holroyd's new book, Basil Street Blues makes a wonderfully illuminating use of I don't know.It is not his most finished work -- it hardly could be -- but it may be his most remarkable.
The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393321746
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/1/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 338
  • Sales rank: 1,343,990
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Holroyd has written celebrated biographies of Hugh Kingsmill, Augustus John, and Bernard Shaw, as well as the acclaimed Basil Street Blues and Mosaic. He lives in London with his wife.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Two Types of

Towards the end of the nineteen-seventies I asked my parents to let me have some account of their early lives. I had never been interested in my family. My career as a biographer probably arose from my need to escape from family involvements and immerse myself in other people's lives. `We don't go to Heaven in families any more — but one by one.' I remember how struck I was when I came across this sentence in Gwen John's correspondence. That was certainly how I felt. I also remember quoting in my first biography Hugh Kingsmill's aphorism: `Friends are God's apology for families,' and feeling a chord of agreement.

    My parents, who had long been divorced, and gone through a couple of subsequent marriages, each of them, as well as various additional liaisons, were by the late nineteen-seventies living alone in fragile health and meagre circumstances. They appeared bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing. After all, it had started so promisingly.

    The accounts they wrote were very different. This did not surprise me. They had seldom agreed about anything, not even the date of my birth. As a gesture of tact I preserved two birthdays forty-eight hours apart, one for each of them. This had begun as a joke, grew into a habit and finally became a rather ageing conceit which will enable me to claim by the year 2000 the wisdom of a 130-year-old.

    My parents' marriage was something of a mystery to me. What did they have in common? After the age of six I seldomsaw them together and could imagine few people more dissimilar. What few scraps of memory I retained brought back echoes of reverberating arguments that floated up to me as I lay in a dark bedroom in the north of England — echoes that, to gain popularity, I would later assemble into dramatic stories for the school dormitory. A breadknife flashed in the dark, a line of blood suddenly appeared, and we shivered delightedly in our beds. But I have few actual memories of my very early years, few recollections of my childhood I can trust, and not many of adolescence. There were probably good reasons for this erasure, though I am hoping that some events may stir from their resting place and rise to the surface as I write.

    I was born in the summer of 1935. My mother was Swedish, and my father thought of himself as English, though his mother actually came from the south of Ireland and his paternal grandmother was Scottish. All I knew was that my parents had met on a boat in the North Sea, got along fine on water, then fairly soon after striking land, dashed their marriage on the rocks. I had been conceived, my mother once remarked as we were travelling by bus through Knightsbridge, at the Hyde Park Hotel where King Gustav of Sweden (calling himself Colonel Gustaveson) often stayed. I remember her laughing as we swayed into Sloane Street and travelled on. At another time, in a taxi, she pointed to the Basil Street Hotel with a similar laugh before turning into Sloane Street.

    I was largely brought up in the Home Counties by my paternal grandparents and a tennis-playing aunt. But there were irregular intervals, sometimes at odd places abroad, with unfamiliar step-parents who, like minor characters in a badly-managed melodrama, would introduce themselves with a flourish, a bray of trumpets, and then inexplicably disappear. Perhaps the peculiar enchantment that sustained and integrated narratives, enriched with involving plots, were to hold for me sprang from my sense of being brought up by so many characters -- parental, step-parental and grand-parental characters — who seldom met, showed little interest in one another, and apparently possessed no connecting story.

    In some respects my father had a `good war', or so I believed. But he could not adjust to the peace afterwards. Though increasingly impoverished, he somehow found (I never knew how) the money to send me to Eton College because he had been there himself at the end of the First World War. He spoke of his time at Eton with unconvincing jollity and was evidently looking forward to a second, vicarious, innings there.

    My mother didn't mind where I was educated. She did not have an ideology and simply wanted me to be happy, preferably without too much trouble. She never regarded education, which was full of awkward exams, as an obvious route to happiness. But probably such things were different for men.

    They certainly appeared different to my father who had the air of a man acting responsibly on my behalf — as, he implied, his own father should have acted for him. By the time I was sixteen, he judged the moment had come to take me to one side and explain the main purpose of my education — which was to retrieve the family fortunes that would otherwise descend on me, he revealed, in the form of serious debts. Eton was providing me with many valuable friendships that could catapult me, he believed, to success. It did not occur to me to ask why Eton had not provided him with such vaulting associations. He gave the impression of someone who had overshot success and landed somewhere else. In the event, I failed comprehensively in this romantic quest he had assigned me (my average income between the mid-nineteen-sixties and mid-nineteen-seventies was to be £1,500 a year). I did not even know how the exotic family fortunes I was to rescue had originated or where they had gone. Was it all a mirage?

    Lack of money was very evident in my parents' last years, when my father was living in a rundown flat in Surrey and my mother in a one-room apartment in London. I thought that the exercise of exploring happier years and travelling back to more prosperous times might bring them some release from their difficulties. From being their only child, the sole child from five marriages, I was to become their guardian and a barely-adequate protector. Having, as it were, commissioned them to write for me, I proposed paying them some commission money. After hesitating, my mother accepted the money with eager reluctance. She had always associated men with money, but understandably had not associated me with it, and was worried that I did not have enough. But times were improving for me, as if I were sitting on the opposite end of a seesaw from my descending parents. My Lytton Strachey had eventually been brought out as a paperback and after one very good year, when my Augustus John was published, I settled down at the end of the nineteen-seventies to annual net income of between four and five thousand pounds. I could afford to hand over a little money. Besides, I explained to my mother, she would not take my request seriously unless it was put on a business basis. Desperately needing the money, she gave me a kiss and took it.

    But my father would not take anything. He wanted to give money and receive praise: he found it almost impossible to receive money or give praise. He felt deeply humiliated by his poverty. `I certainly wouldn't dream of allowing you to pay 1 cent for anything I write about the family,' he notified me. I remember reading his letter with exasperation. He was so difficult to help. The truth was he felt embarrassed by my offer which, he wrote, `made me feel very ashamed of myself. I am not yet as down and out as you may imagine.' Now, re-reading his letter after his death, an unexpected sadness spreads through me. It was true that he had been `down' many times, `down' but not quite `out'. Cursing the foul blows delivered on him by politicians, he would somehow pick himself up each time — just in time. But in his late sixties and early seventies, with only a State pension and a couple of hundred pounds from a mysterious `Holroyd Settlement', though he would still speak with animation of things `turning up', my father had in fact settled into involuntary retirement. The game was up. `I find that time is heavy on my hands,' he had written to me. That was one of the reasons I had inflicted this homework on him. Nevertheless I emphasised that it was for my sake rather than his own that I was asking him to write an account. And perhaps there was more truth in this than I realised. For after my father and mother died in the nineteen-eighties I began to feel a need to fill the space they left with a story. Neither of them were in the front line of great historical events: their dramas are the dramas of ordinary lives, each one nevertheless extraordinary. From their accounts, from various photograph albums and a few clues in two or three boxes of miscellaneous odds and ends, I want to recreate the events that would give my own fragmented upbringing a context. Can I stir these few remnants and start a flame, an illumination? This book is not simply a search for facts, but for echoes and associations, signs and images, the recovery of a lost narrative and a sense of continuity: things I seem to miss and believe I never had.

    I had to distance myself from my parents while they were alive, not out of hostility to them, but from a natural urge to find my individual identity, my own route. `When a writer is born into a family,' wrote Philip Roth, `the family is finished.' Inhabiting their worlds as a child and then an adolescent, I felt invisible; after which I traded somewhat in invisibility as a biographer. But following my parents' deaths, when they became invisible and I was seen to have attained my independence, my feelings began to change. I was drawn into the vacancy their deaths created, needing to trace my origins. It is an experience, I believe, that possesses many people in these circumstances: to ask questions when it is apparently too late for answers, and then be forced to discover answers of our own.

    The unexamined life, Saul Bellow tells us, is meaningless. But the examined life, he adds, is full of dangers. I have found wonderful freedom in that maverick condition which can be described as meaningless: a freedom in not being tied to social contexts or engulfed in family chauvinism. My identity was shaped by what I wrote, though this identity was concealed behind the people I wrote about — concealed I think from others, and also from myself. But now I must go back and explore. My parents, my family scattered over time and place, have become my biographical subjects as I search for something of me in them, and them in me. For this is a vicarious autobiography I am writing, a chronicle with a personal subtext, charting my evolution into someone who would never have been recognised by myself when young.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix
List of Illustrations xiii
1 Two Types of Ambiguity 3
2 With Virginia Woolf at Sheffield Place 9
3 The Swedish Experiment 15
4 Links in the Chain 23
5 The Breves Process: Tea into Glass 42
6 The Coming of Agnes May 63
7 A Triumph and Disaster 85
8 Literary Lapses 101
9 Some Wartime Diversions 117
10 Notes from Norhurst 124
11 Yolande's Story 136
12 Scaitcliffe Revisited 155
13 Three Weddings and a Funeral 165
14 Eton 179
15 Legal and Military 206
16 The Third Mrs Nares 225
17 Flight into Surrey 240
18 Scenes from Provincial and Metropolitan Life 249
19 Missing Persons 272
20 Things Past 303
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