On biography

Is it possible to write in August? When England make the most dramatic turnaround I’ve ever seen in an Ashes series? When the football season starts almost before it seemed to stop? When there is so much thing to do in London that you can’t walk across the street without stumbling into another festival?

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Well, sometimes you have to. In August I had a deadline to complete a chapter for an edited collection on South African cricket.* My chapter discusses the career of Percy Sherwell, the first player to captain South Africa on a tour of England in 1907 and the first player to captain South Africa to a win at home against a touring MCC side a few years earlier.** My idea was to examine Sherwell, a largely forgotten figure nowadays, as a representative of the British South African community and the way in which his career as a businessman and sportsman was exemplary of the hyphenated existence of Anglo-South Africans. And that’s what it did.

All I was interested in as a historian was Sherwell as symbol and I assembled my material and wrote the piece thinking I’d done a decent enough job from that point of view. It took one of my fellow authors to point out to me what a dunce I’d been (more politely than that it has to be said) in writing the piece for myself and not for the reader. The book after all is a book about South African history but it is also about cricket history. Any potential reader is likely to be interested in Sherwell as a man in the world as well as a symbol. They would want colour – what kind of a man was he? What other achievements did he have aside from the bare bones of his cricketing career?

So I redrafted the piece to add in the biographical elements and rather enjoyed it. Academic writing often forces you to jettison material that isn’t strictly relevant to the thesis you’re proposing, which means that a lot of interesting stuff gets left on the cutting room floor in the pursuit of intellectual rigour. And I enjoyed writing the piece much more for being reminded that sometimes a reader likes to be entertained.***

It wasn’t the first time I’d written a biography; last year I was asked to write a handful of entries for the Dictionary of Caribbean and Latin American Biography. Trying to encapsulate the achievements of Sir Vivian Richards on and off the pitch in less than a thousand words was something of a challenge (a vastly enjoyable one!) and not really what I would count as a proper biography of such a significant political and sporting figure. But having written those pieces and with Sherwell in my mind I started seeing biographies everywhere, especially in documentaries.

In Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish A Room, Roddy Cutts (a bland post-War Tory MP) interjects into a conversation about family members who have died in service,

I don’t like hearing about death or people dying in the least. It upsets me even if I don’t know them – some film star you’ve hardly seen or foreign statesman or scientist you’ve only read about in the paper. It thoroughly depresses me … Let’s change the subject.****

A modern day Cutts would be very uncomfortable in our current times when it seems that every other documentary is about the early death of a musician. Kurt: Montage of Heck, Heaven Adores You and Amy are the standouts of recent years but I’m sure there are more. The common theme of these films is that their subjects had troubled personal lives and self-inflicted early deaths. I haven’t seen any of them.

Of the three the one that I was most tempted to see was the Elliott Smith. I first started listening to him when I had no idea who he was, what his life was like or even that he’d appeared at the Oscars due to his having written a song that was included in Good Will Hunting (a film I’ve never seen).***** As I bought more of his albums I learnt more about him but was only marginally interested in the factual tragedy – I was hungry for his artistic output. Tempted as I was to watch the biopic (I’m not sure if it’s on general release or has been on general release in the UK, I only came across it in an article in Le Monde) I didn’t seek it out. Why?

For one thing, the kind of performance footage that a documentary can assemble, by contrast to the pre-YouTube era when you might be excited at seeing an alternative or live version of a song you’d only heard of in print, is there now at the end of your fingertips on your phone if you want it. It’s in your pocket and you don’t need an editor to slide it in between a talking head or muffle it with a voiceover telling you how so and so felt when they were there.

Secondly, who are these documentaries for? Are they for people who love the music or for people who love the tragedy? I liked Winehouse’s music but I don’t believe I ever saw a second of her being interviewed or read a story about her in a newspaper. I had as little interest in her non-musical life as I do in any other troubled individual with whom I have no tangible relationship. Ditto with Cobain, a man who died when I was at sixth form and for whom, while he was alive, I had a pretty healthy contempt as a ‘voice of the generation’. Having grown up (relatively) a little since then I realise that he didn’t ever claim to be such a figure and my teenage self was being a judgemental little prick who couldn’t tell the difference between the nonsense that the NME wrote about him and the sense that he himself wrote in his songs. 

I mistrust these biographies as being produced by people who wish to condemn the sources of pressure that made lives hell for their subjects while at the same time wallowing in the same screwed up mix of exploitative brand-building and rancid tragedy-hunting that first reared its head in my adult lifetime with the death of the Princess of Wales.

Even cricket isn’t immune to such impulses. Of the men in the picture of the 1907 South Africans the most famous is probably Aubrey Faulkner, sitting at the bottom. Faulkner was a fine batsman, the finest South African batsman of his generation. His fame, however, largely lies in the manner of his suicide in 1930. David Frith, a usually reliable cricket writer, included his story in his book By His Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides.****** The thesis that cricket as a sport is uniquely given to provoking suicide seems too slender to merit more than a newspaper article. To focus an entire book on such a study seems to privilege the private tragedy of the individuals concerned above their public performances on the pitch.

So it was refreshing to go to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this week that didn’t pretend to any great psychological depth or hint at personal tragedy. Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon, produced in collaboration with the film star’s family, is frank in its presentation of the surface rather than the depths of her life. It’s the kind of honest dishonesty that seems a more adult proposition than the dishonest ‘honesty’ of the music biopics. Hepburn’s image was tightly controlled from very early on – as a ballerina, as a model, as a minor English starlet, as a major asset of the Hollywood star system and finally as a woman in control of her own career and image. The exhibition joyfully lays out how the intersecting worlds of photography, film-making, fashion and PR combine to produce a figure, ‘Audrey Hepburn’, that is as much an outstanding artistic production as any song by Kurt, Elliott or Amy.

Similarly, while I was happy to trace the movements of Sherwell around the Empire and note his performances as a cricketer I had no desire to find out if he kicked his dog, hit the bottle every night or slept with his neighbour’s wife. His interest for me as a historian lies in how he was presented as a role model of Anglo-South African manliness, and as a sports fan for how he thrillingly held his nerve to hit the winning runs in South Africa’s first win over England in 1906. As for those singers – why should I have some right to their personal sadness? I’d rather go to the extraordinary music they made and feel how they transformed their experience into a work of art that talks to me about the life around me now. Roddy Cutts had some sense.

* All going well it is due to appear in 2015/16. It will be a successor to B. Murray and G. Vahed (Eds.), Empire & Cricket: The South African Experience (UNISA: Pretoria, 2009). My own contribution to the first volume was something of an addendum to some excellent work by a range of cricket historians.

** Non-cricketers might not be aware that back in the day England tours were officially billed as tours by Marylebone Cricket Club with only the international or test matches being designated as England games.

*** All writing should of course be at least mildly interesting; aspiring to entertain even when serious.

**** Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish A Room (Arrow: London, 2005), p. 88

***** He doesn’t appear comfortable. In Wes Anderson’s Royal Tannenbaums his Needle in the Hay is used very effectively. I hear it and it sends a shiver down my spine at the intensity of the feeling that Smith communicates. The same way now as it did the first time I heard it by chance on the radio years and years ago.

****** David Frith, By HIs Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides (Stanley Paul: London, 1991). Ironically the foreword is by Peter Roebuck.

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One Response to “On biography”

  1. On a rugby conference | Levett's Life in London Says:

    […] Yeah, I know, I bored on about him already didn’t […]

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