Sunday, February 11, 2018

Recent Reads - February 2018

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

I do like a blue-stocking and Claire Tomalin is a blue-stocking par excellence. This is the highly readable autobiography of the writer who made the transition from literary journalist to successful biographer of Dickens and Jane Austen. Tomalin doesn’t spare herself unpleasant truths: we hear about her womanizing husband Nicholas Tomalin who was killed while on assignment in Israel, her handicapped son, and the tragedy of her talented daughter who committed suicide. Tomalin was ambitious and a high achiever from university days and made sure she moved in the right circles. There is a certain smugness in her harping on about the intellectual and artistic heft of the area she chose to live in in London.  She bought a house with Nicholas in Gloucester Crescent and her neighbors we are told included Jonathan Miller, Vaughan Williams’ widow Ursula, George and Diana Melly, Beryl Banbridge and Alan Bennett. It seems like a L’Age D’Or for Guardian readers. She ultimately ended up married to Michael Frayn, the playwright, who also happened to be a neighbor in her increasingly gentrified area. She left the Sunday Times on principle at the time of its move to Wapping, and found her true vocation afterwards when she began to write biography. The only weakness in this entertaining read is the way it peters out at the end when she moves from her own life to her explorations of the lives of others. The last 50 pages or so seem rushed and cobbled together.

Form - My Autobiography by Kieran Fallon

This is mainly for those interested in the world of horse-racing. It’s hardly a master-piece of silver-lined prose but unlike most sports biographies it errs on the side of frankness and honesty. Fallon freely admits his cocaine use, his drinking problems and one memorable incident where he dragged a fellow-jockey off a horse (after the winning post it should be said). However, his sincere affection for horses comes across. Retired now, rather than sipping rum in the Bahamas, he still rides out every morning for the sheer love of it. For those who know their racing the best bit are his affectionate pen pictures of characters like Jimmy Fitzgerald, Sir Michael Stoute, and Aidan O’Brien. Of the latter he describes how well O’Brien treats even the most lowly member of staff at Coolmore. He never got close to Henry Cecil (nor, despite tabloid gossip, to his wife)  but nonetheless gives us some respectful insights into that withdrawn and austere figure. The book also contains a tactical master-class on riding in the Derby - a race he won three times.

Wounds - A memoir of War and Love by Fergal Keane

Dark doings down south during the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. Keane is the son of Abbey actor Eamon Keane who theatre goers in the 60s and 70s will remember - I do. His family came from Listowel and the story centers on the doings of his grandmother’s brother Mick Purtill and his friend Con Brosnan. The murder of an RIC man, Tobias O’Sullivan, and the reverberations within the community in which both the victim and killers lived form the backdrop to an account of those troubled times. It’s a chilling book not least for the implacable righteousness with which the IRA went about their business despite their awareness of the vicious and random brutality from the Tans and the Auxiliaries that would follow. The detailed description of how James Kane was kidnapped and executed by the IRA for being a spy is an intimate account of how these things happened. He was allowed make a will, write letters to his family, and then knelt down with his captors to say a decade of the rosary before they shot the still kneeling man. Hard times.