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Michael Holroyd confronts an army of automobiles in this charming book. Weaving together memoir and historical anecdote, he traces his relationship with cars through a lifetime of biography.

Learning to drive was no easy matter for Michael: the lessons required military precision when practising how to get in and out of his car ...

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On Wheels

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Michael Holroyd confronts an army of automobiles in this charming book. Weaving together memoir and historical anecdote, he traces his relationship with cars through a lifetime of biography.

Learning to drive was no easy matter for Michael: the lessons required military precision when practising how to get in and out of his car correctly. His biographical subjects also had their difficulties: Bernard Shaw drove with reckless gusto when overtaking his eightieth year; Vita Sackville-West’s car became a chamber for sudden romantic assignations and getaways; while Augustus John and his family careered through vulnerable villages as the poor vehicle, piled high with bohemian friends, stuttered and jerked along in first gear.

Wry, thoughtful and very funny, On Wheels is an elegy to the glamour of the car. Subtle and perceptive, Michael Holroyd finds surprising ways to understand the past and challenge our view of the future.

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for A Book of Secrets

“Written with the kind of elegance, ease, and simplicity possible only from a master.” —Toni Bentley, The New York Times Book Review

“Brilliant . . . Holroyd is an impeccable writer and researcher, a man whose books are packed with intricate detail yet retain a buoyancy.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
From the Publisher
Praise for A Book of Secrets

“Written with the kind of elegance, ease, and simplicity possible only from a master.” —Toni Bentley, The New York Times Book Review

“Brilliant . . . Holroyd is an impeccable writer and researcher, a man whose books are packed with intricate detail yet retain a buoyancy.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Kirkus Reviews
Prodigious British biographer and memoirist Holroyd (A Book of Secrets, 2011, etc.) tells of memorable automobiles in his life and in the lives of those about whom he has written. Do not mistake this neat little book for your kid's chapter book, though it features a large font, heavily leaded; generous margins; innocent illustrations; and just over 100 pages. It is entertainment for grown-up readers, especially of the Anglophilic sort. Holroyd has become aware that, somehow, his many books, including the biographies, have often featured automotive transportation. This text is about the automobiles of his oft-married parents and his own coming-of-age with cars. The author grew up in the congenial company of his grandparents' permanently parked Ford, but he didn't learn to drive until he was 30. Holroyd's story concerns the cars he drove, the cars his biographical subjects drove and how they were all driven. The telling is as full of wit as it is fraught with harmless collisions and idiosyncratic journeys. There's a comic ride on an emblematic double-decker. Holroyd examines the Royal Automobile Club early in the 20th century, a time when it was dubious whether the gentle members of the distaff side were suited to take the wheel. He pays tribute to the memory of his first car and recalls his years in the army as a driving instructor who had no driver's license. Throughout is the evocative nomenclature of vehicles, unsung or famous, of the past. The cavalcade includes Vauxhalls, Biancas, Lanchesters, Rolls-Royces, Fords, Zodiacs and Zephyrs. (The author favors Honda Accords). An entertaining personal essay, short and sweet, about the cars in the life of Holroyd.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374709891
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/14/2013
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 128
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Michael Holroyd is the author of acclaimed biographies of George Bernard Shaw, the painter Augustus John, Lytton Strachey, and Ellen Terry and Henry Irving; two memoirs, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic; and the bestselling A Book of Secrets, which was published in 2011. Knighted for his services to literature, he is the president emeritus of the Royal Society of Literature and the only nonfiction writer to have been awarded the David Cohen British Prize for Literature. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.

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Read an Excerpt

Shortly before the Second World War my aunt manoeuvred the family’s black, eight-horsepower Ford into the garage of our new house at Maidenhead. I didn’t see her do this (I was three or four at the time). But no one else could have done it – certainly not my grandfather or grandmother. My aunt seemed both conventional and eccentric, living a safe life in quiet anger, though able to take sudden initiatives which hinted at happier, more adventurous early years. She loved and admired her father, but not her mother. The three of them had recently moved from a much larger house nearby and used the garage for storing everything that would not fit into their new home. The car rested in the middle of this chaos.
I came to live with my grandparents and my aunt a year or two after the start of the war and continued living there until I was twenty. The garage, with its mysterious and inviting conglomeration of objects, soon became a magic place for me. It was full of surprises, full of treasure. Crowded along the walls were all sorts of animals and birds in chipped Lalique glass: sparrows, fish, a fox, peacocks and dragonflies. My grandfather had been René Lalique’s representative in Britain. In the late twenties and during the thirties he used to sell streamlined Lalique figureheads – falcons, hawks, eagles, all sculpted in art-deco glass. Mounted on the front of expensive cars, these mascots were illuminated from within by small lightbulbs. They were, the advertisements proclaimed, like ‘the glittering ornaments in a lady’s hat’. By the forties they nested, some of these birds, on the tops of cupboards and chests of drawers, in suitcases, behind ladders, and near the hooves of a half-demolished rocking horse. I made friends with these animals, taking them into the car, where I would sit talking to them, keeping them warm.
Looking back, I am surprised that I never took hold of the wheel of the car and, with fierce engine noises, imagined myself winning tremendous races. In fact I thought I was sitting in a special armchair rather than at the wheel of a car. After all, it was never taken out of the garage and I never saw it move – it simply wasn’t that sort of car.
The treasure I found huddled against the walls included pictures by Lewis Baumer and Anna Zinkeisen, illustrated books and catalogues, statuettes, paperweights and a bowler hat belonging to my aunt. I would carry some of these gems into the car and place them on the backseat, where they would wait for me to come back. My grandparents soon got used to my being there and, once they knew I was safe, were pleased I had a room of my own. Otherwise I was a worry to them. When I was wandering around the house I would sometimes hear them cry out: ‘What shall we do with the boy?’ It was a question they never satisfactorily answered.
But I knew what I was doing. My best discovery in the garage was a large radiogram on which I played some of my aunt’s scratchy and discarded records. They were mostly tunes from the twenties and thirties: ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, ‘Dinner for One Please, James’, ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’. The dusty and uneven sound from these old records seemed to intensify a sense of poignancy that I came to understand only fifty years later when I wrote a family memoir and discovered the lost love that overshadowed my aunt’s later life.
I would also play the wireless and began listening to classical music: Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. Sometimes I became so excited by what I heard that I had to climb out of the car and stride up and down the garage, waving my arms high in the air as if surrendering to the music, as if conducting these symphonies and operas. In retrospect it seems to me that this car was my place of education, my seat of learning. I would go to the public library at the other end of town and bring back books by Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells and Rider Haggard, reading them by day in the car and by night more traditionally in bed with my torch.
I travelled between the library and the house on my bicycle – much to my grandmother’s agitation. She would lean far out of her bedroom window, moaning softly, until she saw me turn the corner and come into view, when she would multiply her moans so that I could appreciate the volume of her anxiety. When she caught sight of me showing off as I careered down the road with my hands outstretched, she was convinced there would soon be a disastrous accident. But there was very little traffic in those days and there seemed more chance of her falling from her window than of me falling off my bike.
This bicycle was the most exciting of my possessions – more exciting even than my airgun or chemistry set. I would pedal down the hill, round the town and on towards the river. One evening I went all the way to Cookham and thought I saw Stanley Spencer painting in the churchyard among the graves. It was as if this bicycle, which could carry me to such distant places, was attached to our house by an invisible elastic band. Wherever I went, however far, it always brought me back.
*   *   *
After the war was over, my life began to change – and so did that of my parents. My mother, who was Swedish, had earlier wanted to take me off to Stockholm, where I would be safer, but my father, who had made me a ward of court, argued that I would be perfectly safe with my aunt and grandparents in Maidenhead, which was of little interest to the German bombers. By the end of the war they were divorced. My father (who had been stationed in France while in the RAF) married a glamorous French publisher in Paris, and my mother, back in London, married a Hungarian businessman (at least that is what I thought he was). All this made the edges of my life very uneven, odd and bewildering. The only place that retained a central security for me was this house with its garage in Maidenhead. I passed most of my holidays from boarding schools there with occasional excursions by train to see various new step-parents.
When my father returned from France, he began driving all over England and Wales looking for work. Sometimes I went with him in his Zodiac or Zephyr. These were cars in which he took much pride at a period when there was little else to be proud of. He liked talking to me about their gears and engines, their speeds-per-second – and I liked listening to him as we whizzed along. He was a poignant optimist and enjoyed being on the move, hurtling merrily towards his disappointing destinations.
He also liked travelling back in time as he steered into this bleak future, and would tell me stories of the happy, affluent days when he was growing up in the large house at Maidenhead. I picked up the exaggerated notion that this house had teemed with attics and cellars full of cheerful servants. In the early years of the twentieth century the family owned a carriage and pair, but in 1908 (the year after my father was born), they bought a modern automobile: the four-cylinder Allday Autocar manufactured by Alldays & Onions, the Pneumatic Engineering Company which (like my grandfather) later went bankrupt. The ex-coachman drove it during the week and my grandfather took over the wheel at weekends. But this new technology disturbed him and he did not drive it for long. Apparently the car had no ‘self-starter’ and had to be brought to life by turning a handle at the front. This procedure often got the better of my grandfather. According to my father, there was also a petrol tap that had to be turned on to allow the petrol to flow from the tank to the carburettor – a fact my grandfather usually forgot. When they were children my father and his brother enjoyed hiding behind the garage and watching him struggling to start the car. I asked him if his mother, my grandmother, ever drove the Allday. ‘Certainly not,’ my father said. ‘Though she was one of the most accomplished backseat drivers in the country.’ Only fast women, it seemed, drove cars before the First World War.
But this changed after the war. Both my mother and my aunt drove cars. I believe my aunt saw her little Ford (the car that later came to rest in our garage) as a means of escape – rather as I used my bicycle. In the early thirties she had fallen deeply in love with a charming fantasist who invented an imaginary life for himself, using his racing car and his yacht to get away from the inauspicious facts of his life. He loved trains and boats and planes (having been in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War). And he loved the romance of travel, the speeding, racing, moving on from or rising up above people close to him whose existence he denied: such as the living parents he pretended had died in a car crash and the series of women he had married, left and forgotten. He kept his fast car and a little biplane at Brooklands, the famous motor-racing track in Surrey, and collected silver cups to show the many races he was supposed to have won. My aunt had to drive some sort of car if only to keep up with him, to keep him in sight. But he went abroad during the Second World War and married a young Italian girl in Rome – after which my aunt did not need the car or the records they had played. In a sense, they were her gifts to me.
*   *   *
At school my mother used to arrive in a wonderful blue Buick that belonged to her Hungarian husband. It had a dickey at the back where I could sit in the open air with a friend as my mother drove us off for lunch. I was immensely proud of this car, but it vanished after my mother’s next divorce. She liked cars but preferred to be driven by other people.
My father, however, wasn’t at all keen on being driven by other people: he didn’t feel safe with them. This was probably why, though he liked talking to me about cars, he never suggested teaching me to drive one. His divorces and remarriages in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t slow down his driving. During the period when he lived alone in Surrey, I went down by train at weekends to see him and he would often drive me over to Maidenhead to visit my grandparents and my aunt. Sometimes, when the weather was fine, he took them on excursions into the country – though my aunt, whose main occupation was walking her dogs, never joined us. I would go into the garage and see my old alma mater. Everything was as it had been, nothing had changed. I found these visits both comforting and disturbing.
In less favourable weather my father enjoyed driving me to meet several women in Surrey with whom (possibly unknown to them) he was contemplating marriage. They came and went over the years, these women, to my father’s evident surprise – and also mine. Sometimes, to my embarrassment and theirs, I muddled up their names. All this seemed good material when in the late fifties I began writing a novel. It was frankly autobiographical and the character based on my father was often seen in his car. ‘It was always a bit of a relief to be at the wheel and ponder over things in comparative peace…’ I wrote in my father’s voice. I measured his drive to the office by the miles he covered, breaking up his thoughts into sections divided by his mileage: Two miles … Four miles … Seven miles, etc, until the twelve-and-a-half-mile journey was completed. The narrative of his journey back from the office in the evening was divided by the red, amber and green traffic lights that interrupted his journey. On this return journey he is racing another car. ‘The two cars roared and jumped forward, slowed momentarily as the gears were crashed down, and then shot on again, wheel to wheel,’ I wrote. It is true that my father resented being overtaken by other cars. In this fictional race between the two cars he slows down a long way before the red light and then accelerates as it is about to turn to amber, shooting ahead of his rival. ‘Yes he had done it. She would never catch him now. He grinned to himself, a song rose in his throat and he began humming … A fine-looking female, though, he thought with a tinge of sadness.’ He had won the race but in the excitement had not recognised the driver in the next car as his ex-wife, a character based on my mother, who is trying to signal to him – possibly about me.
I gave the typescript of this novel to my father to read and he was extremely angry. If I published it, he said, he would have to leave his job – no one who drove like this was safe on the roads, no one would employ him. He had not realised how much I disliked him – and the rest of my family. This was a most painful time for both of us. I offered to rewrite the objectionable scenes. He said it was all objectionable, every page, and he wrote to my publishers, promising to take them to court if they brought out the book. So it was never published in Britain – though it later appeared in America and I was able to use the money I made from it to help my father out of his gathering financial problems.

Copyright © 2012 by Michael Holroyd

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