Sinclair, Andrew 1935-
Sinclair, Andrew 1935-
Born January 21, 1935, in Oxford, England; son of Stanley Charles (in the British Colonial Service) and Hilary (a writer) Sinclair; married Marianne Alexandre, 1960 (divorced); married Miranda Seymour, October 18, 1972 (divorced June 6, 1984);
married Sonia Melchett (a writer), July 25, 1984; children: (first marriage) Timon Alexandre; (second marriage) Merlin George. Education: Trinity College Cambridge, B.A. (double-first honors), 1958; Cambridge University, Ph.D., 1963.
Agent—Christopher Sinclair, Stevenson, 3 Sount Terr., London SW7 2TB, England.
Writer, educator, historian, and film director. University of Cambridge, Churchill College, Cambridge, England, founding fellow and director of historical studies, 1961-63; University College, London, London, England, lecturer in American history, 1965-67; Lorrimer Publishing, London, managing director, 1967-91; Timon Films, London, film director and screenwriter, 1969-95. Writer and filmmaker; director of films, including Under Milk Wood, 1971, and Rosslyn and the Da Vinci Code. Military service: British Army, Coldstream Guards, 1953-55; became lieutenant.
Association of Cinematographers and Television Technicians, Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Society of American Historians (fellow), Scottish Knight Templars (named Knight Grand Cross; affiliated with International Order of Gnostic Templars).
Commonwealth fellow, Harvard University, 1959-61; American Council of Learned Societies fellow, 1963-64; Somerset Maugham Literary Prize, 1967, for The Emancipation of the American Woman; Venice Film Festival award, 1971, and Cannes Film Festival prize, 1972, both for Under Milk Wood; named to International Order of Gnostic Templars.
The Breaking of Bumbo (also see below), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1959.
My Friend Judas (also see below), Faber & Faber (London, England), 1959, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1961.
The Project, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1960.
The Paradise Bum, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1963, published as The Hallelujah Bum, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1963.
The Raker, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1964.
Gog (first volume in trilogy), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
Magog (second volume in trilogy), Harper (New York, NY), 1972.
The Surrey Cat, M. Joseph (London, England), 1976, published as Cat, Sphere (London, England), 1977.
A Patriot for Hire, M. Joseph (London, England), 1978, published as Sea of the Dead, M. Joseph (London, England), 1978.
The Facts in the Case of E.A. Poe, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1979, Holt (New York, NY), 1980.
Beau Bumbo, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1985.
Farthest Distant: The Last Novel of Them All, Lorrimer (London, England), 1986.
King Ludd (third volume of trilogy), Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1988, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1993.
The Far Corners of the Earth, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1991.
The Strength of the Hills, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1992.
Prohibition: The Era of Excess, introduction by Richard Hofstadter, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1962, published as The Era of Excess: A Social History of the Prohibition Movement, Harper (New York, NY), 1964.
The Available Man: The Life behind the Masks of Warren Gamaliel Harding, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1965.
The Better Half: The Emancipation of the American Woman, Harper (New York, NY), 1965, published as The Emancipation of the American Woman, 1966.
A Concise History of the United States, Viking (New York, NY), 1967, revised and updated, Sutton (Stroud, England), 2000.
Guevara, Lorrimer (London, England), 1968, published as Che Guevara, Viking (New York, NY), 1970, revised edition published as Viva Che! The Strange Death and Life of Che Guevara, Sutton (Stroud, England), 2006.
The Last of the Best: The Aristocracy of Europe in the Twentieth Century, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
Dylan Thomas: No Man More Magical, Holt (New York, NY), 1975, published as Dylan Thomas: Poet of His People, M. Joseph (London, England), 1975, revised as Dylan the Bard: A Life of Dylan Thomas, Constable (London, England), 1999, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000.
The Savage: A History of Misunderstanding, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1977.
Jack: A Biography of Jack London, Harper (New York, NY), 1977.
John Ford: A Biography, Dial (New York, NY), 1979.
Corsair: The Life of J. Pierpont Morgan, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.
The Other Victoria: The Princess Royal and the Great Game of Europe, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1981.
(With Ladislas Farago) Royal Web: The Story of Princess Victoria and Frederick of Prussia, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1982.
Sir Walter Raleigh and the Age of Discovery, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1984.
The Red and the Blue: Intelligence, Treason, and the Universities, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1985, published as The Red and the Blue: Cambridge, Treason, and Intelligence, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1986.
Spiegel: The Man behind the Pictures, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1987, published as S.P. Eagle: A Biography of Sam Spiegel, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1988.
War Like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the Forties, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1989, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
The Need to Give: The Patrons and the Arts, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1990.
The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America, Crown (New York, NY), 1992, Birlinn (Edinburgh, Scotland), 2002.
Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, Crown (New York, NY), 1993.
In Love and Anger: A View of the '60s, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1993.
Jerusalem: The Endless Crusade, Crown (New York, NY), 1995.
Arts and Cultures: The History of the Fifty Years of the Arts Council, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1995.
The Discovery of the Grail, Century (London, England), 1997, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1998.
Death by Fame: A Life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Constable (London, England), 1998, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Blood and Kin: An Empire Saga, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 2001.
The Secret Scroll, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 2001.
An Anatomy of Terror: A History of Terrorism, Macmillan (London, England), 2003.
Rosslyn: The Story of Rosslyn Chapel and the True Story behind the Da Vinci Code, Birlinn (Edinburgh, Scotland), 2005.
The Reivers' Trail, Sutton (Stroud, England), 2007.
The Grail: The Quest for a Legend, Sutton Publishing (Stroud, England), 2007.
Man and Horse: Four Thousand Years of the Mounted Warrior, Sutton Publishing (Stroud, England), 2008.
The Rebel Masons: The True Story behind the Solomon Key, Sutton Publishing (Stroud, England), 2008.
My Friend Judas (adapted from Author's novel of same title), produced in London, England, 1959.
(Adapter) Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade (produced in Hampstead, England), 1965; produced in Washington, DC, 1970), Dent (London, England), 1967, New Directions, 1968.
The Blue Angel (adapted from a screenplay of the Josef von Sternberg film), produced in Liverpool, England, 1983.
Before Winter Comes (based on Frederick L. Keefe's short story "The Interpreter"), Columbia, 1969.
(And director) The Breaking of Bumbo (based on author's novel of the same title), Associated British Pictures, 1970.
The Voyage of the Beagle (television film), CBS Films, 1970.
(And director) Under Milk Wood (based on Dylan Thomas's play of the same title; produced by Timon Films, 1971), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1972.
(And director) Blue Blood, Timon Films, 1972.
Martin Eden (television film; based on the novel by Jack London), RAI, 1981.
Also author of television films The Chocolate Tree, 1963, and Old Soldiers, 1964. Author of documentary film Rosslyn and the Da Vinci Code: The Story of the Grail.
Selections from the Greek Anthology, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1967, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1968.
(With Carlos P. Hansen) Bolivian Diary: Ernesto Che Guevara, Lorrimer (London, England), 1968.
(With former wife, Marianne Alexandre) Jean Renoir, La Grande Illusion, Lorrimer (London, England), 1968.
(Author of introduction) Homer, The Iliad, translated by W.H.D. Rouse, Heron Books (Portland, OR), 1969.
Inkydoo, the Wild Boy (children's story), Abelard (London, England), 1976, published as Carina and the Wild Boy, Beaver/Hamlyn (London, England), 1977.
(Editor) Jack London, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, introduction by James Dickey, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1981.
(Editor and author of introduction) Jack London, The Sea Wolf and Other Stories, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1989.
(Compiler) The War Decade: An Anthology of the 1940s, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1989.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic, Harper's, London Observer, London Guardian, Spectator, New Statesman, Granta, Texas Quarterly, and Transatlantic Review.
In works that range from allegorical fiction to biography to historical fiction, British writer, historian, and filmmaker Andrew Sinclair explores historical figures, periods, and places from a modern perspective. Among the prolific writer's best-known fictional works are several plays and a novel trilogy that includes Gog, Magog, and King Ludd. In this trilogy Sinclair blends fiction, history, and myth as he examines Britain's past and present through the eyes of two half-brothers. In a more academic vein, he also explores his interests in British and American history in books such as A Concise History of the United States, In Love and Anger: A View of the '60s, The Last of the Best: The Aristocracy of Europe in the Twentieth Century, and The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America. Biographies round out his long list of works, among them Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, Death by Fame: A Life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, and several volumes focusing on twentieth-century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. In praise of Dylan the Bard: A Life of Dylan Thomas, Donna Seaman noted in Booklist that Sinclair's "fresh and vivid" biography "captures the ambience of Thomas' chaotic life, the essence of his roiling spirit, and the indelible power of his timeless writing."
The names Gog and Magog appear frequently in folklore, and as superhuman creatures they have their roots in the Bible as well as in Roman myth. Traditionally viewed as the guardians of the City of London, Gog and Magog are considered the twin giants of British legend, and their statues stood guard over London's Guildhall until they were destroyed by German bombers in 1940. As Richard Freedman explained in the Saturday Review, Sinclair's modern revisioning of these age-old figures "symbolize the best and worst people and events from ancient Albion to Labourite Britain." Gog begins following the close of World War II, as a seven-foot-tall man washes ashore on the coast of Scotland, naked and suffering from amnesia. After a brief convalescence, the man—who remembers only that his name is Gog—sets out for London, hoping to learn more about his identity and, therefore, his past. The bulk of Sinclair's novel chronicles Gog's many adventures as he journeys south. In the picaresque tradition, Gog meets a variety of fictional, historical, and mythological characters along the way. Some display concern and offer him assistance and advice; others (including his own wife and half-brother) regard Gog with ridicule and derive pleasure from victimizing him. By novels end the once-innocent man develops a more pragmatic attitude toward life, one that acknowledges the existence of evil and corruption and the need for each person to fight his or her own battles.
Gog received a mixed reception from critics, some viewing Sinclairs novel as an unsuccessful attempt at sophisticated satire while others deemed it highly ambitious and imaginative. In the New Statesman, Kenith Trodd characterized the novel as "a series of funny production numbers: droll, but the laughs are hollow where they need to be edgy; the wrong sort of punch." Frank McGuinness found the novel to lack the proper "punch," writing in London magazine that Sinclairs novel exhibits "perhaps more satirical pretensions than the authors talent for ribald and extravagant inventiveness can finally support." Noting that "the novel is not without distinction as a study of a mind hovering between sanity and madness," McGuinness added that "its satirical aims are lost in a welter of scholarly clowning, crude farce and … glib cynicism." Although he viewed Gog as "much too long," Roger Sale commented in the Hudson Review that the novels "end is [a] rich and satisfying" culmination of "a book the likes of which I have not seen in a long time." In his study The Situation of the Novel, Bernard Bergonzi praised Sinclairs "extraordinary imaginative exuberance" and termed Gog "an intensely personal book" enriched by "Sinclairs preoccupations, knowledge and temperament." Rachel Trickett praised the novel in the Yale Review as "most extraordinary and ambitious … at once realistic and a fantasy, didactic and mythical, precise and comprehensive." "Self-indulgent and undisciplined," in Tricketts opinion, Gog "nevertheless shows a clumsy but powerful genius which can only leave one astonished, occasionally repelled, but consistently grateful for so much imaginative vigor and breadth."
Magog examines many of the same social, political, and moral issues Sinclair raises in Gog. This time the perspective is that of Gogs half-brother and spiritual opposite, Magog, described by Trickett as a "symbol of power, authority, centralization, the tyranny of material success and fashion." As a sequel to Gog, Magog begins at the close of World War II, as Magog, a young civil servant, finds his promising career with the government coming to an abrupt end when an investigation reveals the extent of his dishonest dealings. Despite this apparent setback, Magog moves on to successively more powerful positions as head of a film production company, an urban developer, and, finally, master of a new college at Cambridge University. Sinclair focuses on Magogs career and on what Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Judith Vincent referred to as the protagonists ultimate realization: "that his material success is hollow and that an inevitably changing order must deprive him of power."
Reviewers greeted Magog with mixed reviews. According to Patricia Meyer Spacks in the Hudson Review, the novel is "funny sometimes, sometimes even sad, but the lack of sharp authorial perspective makes it seem purposeless." Commenting in the New York Times Book Review, Anthony Thwaite wrote that the book "suffers, as sequels are apt to do, from the disabilities of its predecessor: lumbering in its episodic movement, spotty in its characterization, arbitrary in its action, and megalomaniac in its overview." In contrast, Oswell Blakeston cited Sinclairs "ear for civil service dialogue" in his Books and Bookmen review of Magog and in the New Statesman Kenn Stitt praised the work as "a rich and complex book, mirroring the complexities of the world it is set in, its strands intricately and carefully interwoven."
King Ludd, the last novel in the trilogy, begins with the story of the Luddites, British laborers who, rendered unemployed by the introduction of machines in the nations factories in the early 1800s, began an unorganized rebellion against mechanization. King Ludd was the name given to the mythical leader of the Luddite rebellion. In Sinclairs version of British history, Gog discovers that King Ludd was in reality based on one of his ancestors. Gog also believes that he can hear messages from the old Celtic gods, and he sees vestiges of the ancient Gogam script of the Druids in such present-day activities as cryptography. Gog, D.A.N. Jones explained in his Times Literary Supplement review of the novel, "is a mixomythologist." "What we have here is Gogs version of the history of the Luddites," explained Robert Nye in his review for the London Times, a version that is "married to an exhaustive account of the mythology of communications from the time of the Gogam script to the present day." Speaking of the trilogy as a whole, Nye concluded that "Sinclair succeeds in engaging and holding our attention. I think these books are important, and that theyll last."
As Sinclair once explained to CA: "Gog is based on [T.S.] Eliots principle that time past and present and future are all the same. It also attempts to bring alive the legendary and mystical history of Britain as seen in the struggle of the people against the power of the government, of London, of King Ludds town. There is no resolution to the fight of Gog against Magog, of the land against the city, of the ruled against the ruler, but in that fight lies the spirit and the glory of Albion, whatever it may be. Magogs world is the machinations of power, and how its misuse drove Britain down after the end of the Second World War. King Ludd deals with England from the time of the Luddites opposing the industrial revolution through the neurosis of the 1930s to the odd conflicts of today, where the descendants of the Tolpuddle martyrs now have their unions and use the workers power to oppress the rest. When brother fights brother, Magog and King Ludd will always rule."
As an historian, Sinclair is particularly noted for his studies of American history, a subject he specialized in during his career as an academic. First published in the mid-1960s, A Concise History of the United States was described by Margaret Flanagan in Booklist as an "evolution of a great nation in a nutshell" and an "excellent introduction to U.S. history."
Turning further into the past, in The Discovery of the Grail, Sinclair traces the stories that have grown up about the Holy Grail, from pre-Christian myths to the writings of psychiatrist Carl Jung. While the Grail is commonly defined as the chalice that held Christs blood, Sinclair widens his focus to include other holy relics, such as the philosophers stone, cornucopias, the Ark of the Covenant, and the dish bearing the severed head of John the Baptist. The texts he analyzes are as diverse as Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, Dantes Divine Comedy, and the Aeneid by Virgil. This wide focus and a presumption of the readers knowledge on a great many subjects make his book "daunting to the general reader," in the estimation of a Publishers Weekly writer. However, the reviewer concluded, "no one … can doubt Sinclair's religious fervor and the sincerity of his deeply personal quest." More critical of the work, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., wrote in Library Journal that in The Discovery of the Grail Sinclair includes "simplistic pronouncements" that render the work "closer to the ethereal musings of Deepak Chopra than a serious study of the Grail."
In Jerusalem: The Endless Crusade, Sinclair recreates the history of the holy city in a way that Stephen Howe described in his New Statesman review as reminiscent of his fiction. While describing the books text as slightly "above the level of an earnest Ph.D. thesis," Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper wrote that "Sinclair has not only done his research but also feels the awe that Jerusalem … is capable of inspiring." While "it may take a bit of effort to wade through this slow-moving account," Cooper concluded, Sinclairs book contains "an ultimate payoff: a thoughtful portrait of a city that has fascinated humankind for more than two millennia."
The authors familiarity and firsthand knowledge of postwar British social and cultural history undergird several of Sinclairs books, among them In Love and Anger and Arts and Cultures: The History of the Fifty Years of the Arts Council. Jill Neville, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, described In Love and Anger as "an insiders account which reveals the unconquerable naivety of the period," while Spectator contributor Charles Saumarez Smith asserted in his review of Arts and Cultures that "Sinclair writes from inside the fold, benefitting from access to unpublished information and providing a useful who was who."
Sinclair melds biography with social history in Francis Bacon, a colorful biography of the twentieth-century painter whose work was described by Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Jeffrey Hogrefe as having "been equated with the pain and suffering of the 20th Century." In another biography, Death by Fame, he draws parallels between Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who lived from 1837 to 1898, and the ill-fated Diana, Princess of Wales. Like Diana, Elisabeth was beautiful, had an eating disorder, was trapped in a bad marriage, and sought to alleviate her unhappiness through constant travel and charity work. While Princess Diana met her end in Paris in a highly publicized automobile accident in 1997, Elisabeths fate was equally tragic: she was killed by an assassin.
Sinclair explores the history of his family in a number of books. The St. Clairs were originators of the name Sinclair. According to some sources, Sir Henry St. Clair, first earl of Orkney, led a colonial expedition to North America in 1398, searching for a refuge for the Knights Templar, an outlawed religious ascetic order. As Templars, the Sinclairs would have eventually become Freemasons, a group that had a definitive role to play during the late eighteenth century, as shifting world ties resulted in both the American and French revolutions. This so-called Age of Revolution serves as the backdrop for much of Sinclairs Blood and Kin: An Empire Saga. Described by Spectator writer Alan Wall as "nothing if not ambitious," and over 800 pages in length, the book encompasses the history of the Sinclair clan. From the time of the Highland clearances of the early 1800s through clan members endeavors throughout the vast British Empire during the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria, Sinclairs also endeavored to improve their lot during the empires convulsion and contraction as a result of world wars and economic shifts during the twentieth century.
The Sinclair saga is also the focus of a nonfiction trilogy that begins with The Sword and the Grail. The Sword and the Grail examines the familys relationship with the Order of the Knights Templar and Sir Henrys reputed expedition to the New World a century before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Basing his account on secondary sources as well as on information preserved in the Sinclairs family church, the historian argues that this trip did in fact take place. He also suggests that the Templars found their last refuge in Scotland at St. Clair Castle. Maintaining that Sinclairs "major documentary source is widely regarded as fraudulent," William F. Young maintained in Library Journal that the authors work is "compelling but questionable as history." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the volume "of interest mainly to history buffs and medievalists." Noting that parts of The Sword and the Grail are comprised of "family genealogy and overly dense detail," a Kirkus Reviews writer concluded that Sinclairs "vast knowledge and clever detective work … create a colorful, tantalizing study."
In The Secret Scroll Sinclair continues his three-part family history, discussing the discovery of the medieval scroll that contained a map pointing to a treasure secreted at Rosslyn Chapel, while Rosslyn: The Story of Rosslyn Chapel and the True Story behind the Da Vinci Code sets forth the early history of Clan Sinclair, from ancient times through the Jacobite rebellion that signaled the end of the clan system. Sinclair continues to research, document, and share the history of his clan and its relationship with the Knights Templar in his writings. In conjunction with his research of the subject, during the 1990s he oversaw the excavation of a crypt at Rosslyn Chapel that had been sealed for hundreds of years.
Andrew Sinclair contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
I always wanted to scribble from the first time that I covered my bedroom wall with scrawls from my mother's lipstick, and was spanked for it. The war made it likely that I would write, the divide between the dream and daily life, the desire and the conditions, the need to describe the differences and reconcile them.
War children, we were not the same. The adults remembered peace, they thought the war abnormal. To us, wartime was forever, in Oxford. We listened to a fairy story, often told, but always good to hear. Instead of "Once upon a time …," the story would begin, "Before the war when …." I was four years old when it began and I had no memory of peacetime. In those magic days, there were all the toys money could buy; but in the war, our tin soldiers were taken away to make Spitfires. Before the war, there was all the food we could eat, even chocolate and trifle; but in the war, there was the weekly cake queue at Oliver and Gurden's, where we could buy two shillings' worth of dry Madeira cake off ration, if we hung about the baskets and waists of housewives for a whole afternoon. It was no accident that the first very short story of mine, published in the school magazine when I was six, told the story of a small boy starving to death, nursed in his final illness by his mother in rags. I still remember the last sentence. "‘Give me an orange, an orange,’ said the boy, but there was none, and the cottage on the moor fell into silence again."
There was also the blackout. Before the war, the night streets were as light as day and the skies blazed with fireworks to remember Guy Fawkes on the Fifth of November even more brightly than the searchlights laying grids on the dark after the sirens sounded. But in the war, we felt our way along the pavements by touching the garden walls under the dead street-lamps, and we traced the numbers of strange houses in Braille with our fingers. The blackout was for ever, in Oxford.
Rationing was our existence. Coupons set the limits to what we wore and ate. Our desires were cut into coloured squares by the scissors of grocers. Children cannot live in last year nor imagine next year; the present is, is and always will be, until they grow up and remember forever what their youth was. So we were war children and our world was too dark and too cold, always makeshift and short of things, a world of the fourth-hand, the worn, the patched, and the drab. Our fathers were away fighting and our mothers tried to protect us from the war, but it squeezed them and us, reaching into every home in khaki gloves to pinch and scrape.
We had fled to Oxford when war was declared because there was a rumour that a secret agreement had been reached with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Although Hitler was no gentleman, we did have the riposte of the Royal Air Force to make him keep his word. The pact was said to be that, if we did not bomb Heidelberg, he would not bomb Oxford and Cambridge. The perfidious British naturally surrounded the university cities with aerodromes and filled the Oxford suburb of Cowley with war factories. But Hitler kept his promise; the nearest bombs fell at Boar's Hill and only killed some earthworms. So the war for me did not mean blitz and ruins, but shortages for ten years until rationing ended.
My mother, my elder brother, and I lived in an old brick semi-detached house in Po Road, a mile north of the city centre and a few doors down from where Lawrence of Arabia had spent his youth. He had a hut at the bottom of his family's narrow garden, where he used to dream of a desert empire from his tiny shed. Our garden, a few yards wide and a cricket pitch long, had a hen run behind the stumps. We had eggs for the duration, and the fact that we named each hen individually Whitey or Brownie did not stop us from enjoying them when they finally reached the pot. Eggs, pickled in great pitchers; hundreds of Kilner jars of bottled plums and apples and jams; occasional salt-dried meat biltong from South Africa and Spam from America: these were our luxuries, and Mannite on fried bread. The war made us all pioneers. My mother made and preserved food from scraps and ends, and she darned clothes until jerseys and socks were joined patches. We built whole battle fleets and tank armies out of pins and wood. What we could not make ourselves, we had to do without. So we learned how to fix things and imagine them into what they were not. Deprivation is a great improviser.
Memories of war. The androgynes in the ARP in dark blue fat-rumped trousers checking our blinds to see no streak of light showed. The mysterious airmen in lighter blue, flown from nowhere, about to go on their missions. The Yanks stopping me to give me gum tasting of rubber and peppermint.
"Are you sure you can spare it, sir?" I asked as I was taught to ask, and they laughed from great heights at such odd politeness from a kid with chilblains on his bare knees. The Spitfire grounded in St. Giles, where we could sit in the cockpit and pull the joystick, if we had sixpence to help buy another Spitfire off the conveyor belt. The doctor who stitched up my cut thumb without anaesthetic because it had all gone to the soldiers. "Don't cry, boy, there's a war on," and I bit my lip as the needle and thread went through the flesh, and I did not cry because I was eight and the soldiers did not cry, did they? Then the lodgers who were billeted on us, and they cried louder than children. They were the wives and parents of the wounded dying in the head hospital in St. Margaret's Road, where my mother visited, and where I used to sneak past four times a day on the way to school in case the nurses rolled out Frankensteins on wheelchairs with only a ball of bandages above their dressing gowns and slits to represent mouth and eyes. They almost always died in there, but the one survivor in ten would be rolled out as a mummy to scare a small boy witless.
Everyone worked and had no time. And when I first became old enough to understand the war, we had begun to win. In fact, we won so often that a sense of fair play made me wish for a few German victories. My games were filled with tanks and guns, dogfights and flak, convoys and submarines on the battle-map which my mother called her carpet. But there was a private world out of wartime behind the drawn blinds, when the coal fire scorched the grate and blackberry jelly covered the toast and my mother read us Dickens, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. He and Walter Scott, whose total work I read between the age of ten and eleven, were my interior escape routes under the barbed wire, the first a tunnel to slum and blood and thunder, the second a refuge of chivalry and fair ladies and gentlemen with maces.
Yet I had my little concentration camp for eight months of the year, an educational institution called the Dragon School, which taught me admirably, French at six, Latin at eight, Greek at ten, and precious little science. For obvious reasons, German was not then an option on the curriculum. The school fitted me to take a scholarship to Eton, where I decided to go because I lost an argument about the best of schools in the playground. I had a photographic memory until I was twelve, reading a poem at night, and remembering it perfectly in the morning. But puberty put holes in my head, and on the final speech-day, I burst into tears at last, completely forgetting how to continue with "O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being …. " Since then, I have been just as good at forgetting as remembering, and both are essential.
My best escape of all was down Poistead Road, across Walton Street, and up a little track called Aristotle Lane. There I ran away every holiday to fish for silver roach with scarlet fins in the onyx canal under the humped-brick bridge. From time to time, a red and yellow and black barge was pulled past by a clopping Shire horse, on to London, on to London, down to the Thames, and as far as Rio, where did the canal end, how did I know? And further up Aristotle Lane was the higher hump of the railway bridge with its sides of corrugated iron, where I could stand in the middle while the steam trains shuddered the boards beneath my feet and sent up smoke on either side to make a cathedral of cloud above me. And beyond was Port Meadow, where the horses and the cows grazed on the common land, rolling away and away to the bright river, with the swans so strong they would break a leg with their beaks or fly away gracefully to the ends of the earth.*
So I escaped the war at Oxford. And the war was over when I reached College at Eton. My parents were divorced now and gone to Africa, where my mother
had married again. Many holidays were spent with steprelations, who did not want to bother with me. So my room at Eton College became my home, with its folding bed and elementary desk. The scholars were set apart from the rest of the private school; in my case, because my family was not rich, my education was free. The school had originally been endowed by King Henry VI for seventy poor scholars, and so we were, the strongest and meanest of us pitted every year in the Wall Game against the best of the Oppidans, the 1,100 Etonians whose rich parents paid fees for their sons' exclusive education. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, Passchendaele and the Somme were fought to a draw in the Wall Game. Brutish, immobile, nasty, long, and without result, the Wall Game was a mudbath and a class war each St. Andrew's Day between the cleverest youths in the country and the most privileged ones. I ended as the leader of the game, the Keeper of the Wall, although the memory I keep of it is when I felt a still body beneath my boots, shouted the traditional "Air," the scrimmage broke up, and we hauled out a boy just alive who left his death-mask imprinted face down in the mud.
It was a classical education. By age seventeen, we were writing Greek hexameters and Latin lyrics. Homer was our Chaucer, and science was a joke, a faint smell of rotten eggs in a test tube. So many contemporary writers had been Collegers at Eton that my dreams of becoming one had a track record. Cyril Connolly had written a famous essay, Enemies of Promise, to try to prove that an education at Eton was the crippling of literary inspiration, but he was only trying to excuse his own failed promise. George Orwell, then called Eric Blair, was a Colleger. The Sitwells were from Eton, Henry Green, Anthony Powell. When Somerset Maugham with his old lizard's face came down to talk to our Literary Society, he declared that one in five of England's leading novelists came from Eton, as high a proportion as sat in the average Conservative cabinet: Harold Macmillan was an old Colleger too. Maugham discouraged us from becoming writers before the age of forty, recommending us only to copy out Swift and Defoe and his own works before then, but we reckoned that he feared our competition.
My last year at Eton, I had won a history scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, although I had to do two years National Service in the army before going up to the university. I was writing bad poems, although one was printed in a defunct magazine called Truth, and trying short stories. Fortunately, I edited the school magazines. I was also in "Pop," a self-electing group of school prefects in gaudy waistcoats who disciplined the rest of the school and were envied as only the very exclusive are by the exclusive and excluded. Yet I was penniless and homeless in the holidays, my father on colonial service in East Africa, my mother with my lawyer stepfather in West Africa. I had twenty pounds to cover the four weeks of an Easter holiday. I ventured into the boardinghouses of Bayswater, had my first affair with a South African student pianist who played the Park Lane bars to earn a living, thought I had plunged into low life and real life, and astonished my contemporaries in "Pop" with my adventures during the luxurious weekends I spent in their families' country houses. I was living at extremes of new experience, and I was hungry, with little to eat from the gasrings of Bayswater and less in the country houses, because I did not dare take much from the butler's passing silver tray and could not select from the armoury of knives and forks that flanked the crested plates. Only at the last meeting of the Literary Society did I read out an account of myself down and out in London and Bayswater, which provoked the headmas- ter out of slumber. "Oh dear," he told a friend of mine when I had left, "I see Orwell strikes again."
My stepfather died, and my mother came back to England, distraught and needing me. I had to listen all that summer and realize that I had become the only man in my mother's life: my elder brother was wasting out his National Service behind barbed wire by the Suez Canal. My stepfather had been a major in the Coldstream Guards; his wish was that I should try to join the Brigade of Footguards and his old regiment. By a combination of toughness, risk, and luck, I managed to survive the Brigade of Guards' training camp at Caterham and do well at the Officers Training School at the old ducal home of Eaton Hall. I was accepted as an ensign in the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, then posted on public duties in London, which meant living in Wellington Barracks by Buckingham Palace, and guarding it, St. James's Palace, the Tower of London, and the Bank of England in a succession of quaint ceremonies and military rituals that made us both the security and the chorus line of the London scene and season.
The debutante dances and the Royal Garden Parties, the Trooping of the Colour and the Ceremony of the Keys, the manners of London Society and the Officer's Mess, these arcane observances were the material for my first novel, The Breaking of Bumbo, written in five concentrated weeks in a summer vacation at Cambridge at the age of twenty-two. I had been shocked as if I were still a child in the war. The state imposed its conflict and authority upon me. As a Cambridge undergraduate, I was an Army Reserve Officer, and I was called up during my second year at Cambridge for the Suez crisis. I refused to go and set off to fight for the Hungarians against the Russians instead. I had been reading political philosophy as well as history at Cambridge, and the intervention at Suez struck me as imperialism and murder, while the Hungarian revolt against Russian control seemed in the just cause of liberty and human rights. I never even reached Budapest owing to the intervention of my mother. I returned, my heroism between my legs, to Trinity. The Brigade of Guards in its wisdom decided not to court-martial me for desertion, and I was left to write a black comedy about a young Brigade of Guards officer who fails to lead a mutiny at the time of Suez, and is blessed and received into the British Establishment.
The short novel was an immense critical and commercial success. It was published at the right time and on a left subject. With John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and John Braine's Room at the Top, my little novel was held to be the work of the soi-disant "Angry Young Men." It was the only one of these works written from within the Establishment. I used to explain the difference between myself and the other Angry Young Men—all older, incidentally, and in their thirties—by saying that they were kicking their way in, while I was kicking my way out. They did, indeed, all move towards the right wing while I moved towards the left.
Cambridge was my time of trial, of change, of awakening. In an essay for an unpublished collection written by young Oxbridge contemporaries to be edited by the blind Indian writer Ved Mehta, I analysed at the time what I thought the university had done for me.
Two and a half years at Cambridge had taught me that conviction was another name for prejudice, that the closed book of the probable truth was only visible to the open mind, and that Socrates was always right by never saying that he was. I had learned a little of the amused, suspicious, responsible, skeptical tolerance of English humanism. My chief commitment seemed not to be committed, especially to any unseen fiction. Creeds were only for those weak enough to need them; they should not be imposed on others. Even my subject, history, was meaningless except for the meaning that I wanted to give it. I had been taught reasoned doubt and reasoned belief. For a difficult person like myself, who could only envy those cradle-believers, the pure in heart, both doubt and belief needed to be approached warily. I began to learn this approach at Cambridge.
In another summer-long vacation, I wrote my second novel, My Friend Judas. It was about an orgiastic May Week at Cambridge after the Tripos Examination and my first frustrated love affair. It was in an overwrought prose, a mixture of J.D. Salinger, Dylan Thomas, current slang, and the King James Bible. It was also successful, and I found myself, with William Golding, as Faber & Faber's leading novelist. My contemporaries were breaking through into the theatre and the media as rapidly as I was. In a piece I wrote at the time about why the war children burst through so easily in the late fifties, I used the word "satire" as the reason that we succeeded.
Our glory was to knock, knock, knock. And as we knocked, from The Breaking of Bumbo to Beyond the Fringe, the walls came tumbling down. For the whole edifice of class and Empire and the great white gentleman was rotten and was garrisoned by men, who had lost heart and were tired. There was no resistance to the war gang. As we knocked Britain and its institutions, we found we were knocking at a creaky door that swung open at the first bare knuckle. And our knocking proved to be more for our own opportunity than for our elders' doom.
So came the nineteen-sixties. And the war gang swept into the media. My Cambridge contemporaries were media professionals almost before they left university—Jonathan Miller, Michael Frayn, Trevor Nunn, many others. The war children were inventive and adaptable and took to the new communications techniques like sparrows to a dust-bath. They were used to risk and improvisation, skilled in the daily survival that war imposes on the young. They were contemptuous of the mistakes of the past that had given them such a harsh childhood and adolescence; but that same harshness had schooled their takeover and had whetted their greed. So the war gang hooted and sneered and carved out its own positions of power. As they attacked the Establishment, they replaced it.
In my first two novels, I had exhausted the material of my life. Tony Richardson wanted to put on a musical version of The Breaking of Bumbo at the Royal Court Theatre, starring the emerging actors Peter O'Toole or Albert Finney. But I had taken a Double First in History at Cambridge, and graduate work in America lured me across the Atlantic. I was given a Harkness fellowship to do research on my subject, Prohibition. I chose to study under the best of the social historians, Oscar Handlin at Harvard University and Richard Hofstadter at Columbia University. The two years I spent in the United States, traveling by car from coast to coast, made me see it as a continent of vast diversity, and Great Britain as two small islands with large pretensions and a larger literature.*
I married a French girl, Marianne, who had nothing in common with me. Her different values and American values made me question all my own assumptions. Going abroad does not always make the heart grow fonder of the home country. It can make the fatherland seem dull and strange.
I returned to live with Marianne in a small apartment under the roofs of Soho Square and to become a founding fellow of the new scientific foundation at Cambridge, Churchill College. Soho was still its bohemian, raffish self, and we loved it, while most of the Nobel Prize winners in science passed through Churchill College. My social history of Prohibition was published and received well and gained me a doctorate. Another career as an American historian opened up. Although I left Churchill College after two years to spend another year traveling on a fellowship in the United States in order to write a prophetic book titled The Emancipation of the American Woman, I returned to lecture on American history and political philosophy at University College London. My twenties were years of a growing reputation as a social historian, but three more short novels showed that I had run out of material. My married and donnish life was without the fire and brio of my military and student days. Only a move to a house on the river in London's bombed dockland provided a terrible isolation, where I might do good work.
Until I wrote my first long novel, Gog, I thought that experience was something that happened casually to me. The material for my fiction would come from my normal life. But gradually, as I felt more in command of my style in the novel, and as I grew more to recognize my obsessions, I realized that I did not have to wait around for experience to occur. I could go out and find the experience I wished for the themes that I needed for my novel. Gog took three years in gestation and another two to write. It demanded a great deal of research into the byways of mythology and the details of popular revolt in Britain; it also demanded a huge grubbing into the facts of being alive in 1945, something which I had largely forgotten. But it made me do another thing, which I began in terror and ended in gratitude. It made me tramp some four hundred miles without any money along the old right-of-ways in England and Scotland.
This experience of tramping, which gave me all the details I needed about season and sight and hunger and cold and just moving, was not a real experience of being a tramp, as George Orwell's was, when he described his years of poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London. I was tramping towards a perfectly good house in the London docks and a perfectly secure income from academics and writing. I was only playing at being the tramp, with my shorn hair and assumed accent. Yet the sensations which I experienced were all true enough. An empty belly is no forgery, sleeping on a moor, soaked to the skin, is no lie. Lying out in a gale all night on the site of an old Roman camp by Hadrian's Wall gave me a better picture of the feelings of a Roman sentry on guard duty nineteen hundred years ago than I could reach in my imaginings or researches in London.
Approaching somewhere with the same physical sensations as one's hero makes all the difference in the description of a place. York Minster does not look the same to a fat man after a good night as it looks to a hungry man after a week out. People do not behave the same toward a dirty, stubbled hiker as they do toward a car driver with a crease in his trousers. These are all simple observations, but vital ones. Until I had condemned myself out of my own mouth to a host of friends, and until shame drove me out to tramp as I had boasted that I would, I was one of the complacent authors who claimed that memory or plagiarism or inspiration could provide a far better description of a thing than the thing itself. It would be convenient if this were true, and far more comfortable. But it is not true.
Good novelists may make bad newspaper reporters, and good reporters may make bad novelists. Yet the novelist has to stir his stumps and become something of the reporter. The gifted may, perhaps, suffer all the wrongs of man by a process of telepathy, a sympathetic transference of themselves into the condition of other men. All novelists have to do this in some small degree; it is the necessary trick of their trade. Joyce Cary could not have been further in character from Gulley Jimson or Mister Johnson; but his characters breathe as if the author had puffed the air of their paper mouths. Yet without his detailed knowledge of Africa and of the life of the failed artist, would Cary have convinced us about the truth of his two major creations in character?
It is fine if a writer can suffer at a distance for others; but it is better and more sure if he suffers close. It is fine if the ordinary course of life brings the experience and material which are necessary for writing novels; but it is more sure if the writer goes out to experience and gather material on the theme that he has chosen. The deluge of suburban and university and business and young-married novels that flood the book stores with what Benjamin Franklin once called "happy mediocrity" would be channeled into more original pools if writers looked out for the detail needed to describe their dreams rather than submerged themselves under the detail of their rutted lives.
It is difficult to plan a novel on an original and curious theme, and then to find the time and money and energy to pursue that theme to the limits of mind and body. But it is that very difficulty which forces the writer into more originality, it is the chosen experience that becomes the different experience and distinguishes one particular novel from all others. The will to write should dominate everything, even a way of normal life; it did mine only when I wrote Gog. During the two years of its walking and writing, hardness was all, and a vision as blinkered as the Blackwall Tunnel.
I ended the book to find myself losing my wife to one of my friends, a long slow sharing that seemed to have no turning. I used to say that every woman needed two men to give her enough time and conversation, while every author needed half a woman to give himself enough time to write alone. My statement was only a defence, which did not even convince me. For company, I had an Abyssinian cat called Mishkin, which used to sit on my lap while I typed until it decided to join in with its paws, making my manuscript rather surreal, or it would sleep in my bed with its head on my pillow, waking me in the small hours by walking across my face as it left on its nightly errands and me to my solitude.
I was offered three professorships in American history in England, the United States, and the Antipodes; but they all meant running a department and gave me no time for my double life as an historian and a novelist. I had no reason to choose security, half a wife, and no child, so I decided to become a free lance and break my spears wherever there was a fight. I was chosen by the executors of the Estate of Dylan Thomas to adapt for the stage his unfinished novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade. It was staged in the tiny Hampstead Theatre starring a then-unknown actor named David Hemmings. Then the hazard of celebrity changed all our lives. Michelangelo Antonioni saw Hemmings' charismatic performance as the young Dylan and made
him the star of the film Blow-Up. Tennessee Williams saw the play and pronounced it the best in London. I was offered a serious original screenplay to write for a fortune, and I took the offer. Incredibly, the film went straight into production for Columbia Pictures. It was called Before Winter Comes and starred David Niven, Topol, John Hurt, and Anna Karma. I became a script doctor for Columbia and CBS Films and spent a couple of years traveling between Hollywood, New York, London, and Paris. I was overpaid, overrated, overseas, and under the weather, doing what writers tended to do for the money and knew they should not do.*
Then another political crisis changed my life, the failed revolutions of 1968, that year when the young and the workers were in revolt and most of the capital cities of the world thundered with protest and blazed with petrol bombs as they had in 1848, one hundred and twenty years before. I was in the Beverly Hills Hotel removing the warts from some script when I received a telephone call from Havana, where the cigars come from. It was from my wife: we had been reconciled for a time the previous year. I had to go to Havana to rescue her. She was pregnant and had run away to Cuba to present the child to Fidel Castro and the Revolution. If born a boy, it was to be called Che. If a girl, Tania the Guerrillera. She had lost her nerve, and the Cubans had taken away her passport. Could I get her out?
I have never looked for drama nor danger. They were wished upon me, as they were wished upon Graham Greene's hero in Our Man in Havana. My telephone calls to Cuba from Hollywood were so heavily monitored that my wife might have been Mata Hari. "Baby" to the eavesdroppers seemed the code for "bomb." I was followed around Hollywood by a football squad of American agents, while half the passenger list of the aeroplane to Cuba were British or French security men. In the event, baby meant baby, and I had to bring him out of there in the womb, or he would be born a Cuban citizen, perhaps for his good, certainly for our ill.
My fortnight in Cuba was a black comedy beyond credulity. My heavily pregnant wife had made friends with Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers, who usually arrived in Cuba after hijacking a plane because they had broken jail and could not afford the fare. As they were considering the invasion of Mississippi in a reverse Bay of Pigs adventure, four against America, they were embarrassing Fidel, who did not fancy the odds or the retaliation. They had barricaded themselves in their Havana apartment with all their weapons. Paranoia ran high. They thought the Cuban army would come to take them out. My wife and I seemed to be their only visitors. They seized upon my past in the Coldstream Guards and at Cambridge and Harvard. I gave them lessons in stripping automatic weapons, in fire positions, in African history, and in political philosophy. A strategy then presented itself to me. If we all became unpopular enough, Fidel would not attack us, he would deport us. And so it proved to be. My pregnant wife, breaking all airline regulations, was flown out with me, while Cleaver and his criminal comrades were expelled a week later. I have never felt so happy to be an undesirable alien in all my life.
This display of Cuban roulette, however, did not mend my marriage. My wife could give up the Revolution, but not my friend. She simply could not choose, and I could not stand sharing any more. My son was born in Paris, but I sold my dockland home in a week and bought one of the largest mansions in London on a short lease, a Nash terrace house in Regent's Park, vast and six stories high with a mews at the end of the garden. "There's one thing about Andrew," my friend William Golding always says, "he needs space to write."
For the next fifteen years, I lived in these spaces piled upon spaces, and I tried to write, publish, and make films. I had started a company to print the illustrated texts of classic screenplays such as Grand Illusion and The Blue Angel, Greed and The Third Man. I used to joke that I doctored bad screenplays in order to publish good ones. My Hollywood career ended suddenly after my Havana caper. The studios in the late sixties were no different than those in the early fifties: they wanted nothing to do with those who meddled with revolutionary countries. I used all my screenwriting money, however, to buy the rights to classic films and to publish them. The list grew to a hundred titles: more than a million copies were sold across the world: a whole generation of filmmakers learnt to appreciate the well-made screenplay. Unfortunately for me as a writer, the publishing firm gobbled up too much of my time and my income. It is the folly of writers to believe that, because they are good at words, they are good at business. I was not. The publishing firm always made a loss because of its good intentions and bad management. As its reputation grew, its fortunes fell. Its survival is a tribute to the survival of the virtuous and the unfittest.
Gog was the novel of my life, and I always meant it to be part of a trilogy. It had been the story of the struggle of the people against power, of Gog against his half brother Magog, both nicknamed from the twin giants of Ancient Britain who used to guard the city of London, mythologically built by King Ludd. Magog was to be a novel about the corruption of power, about a man who joined the Establishment, about the decline of England in the two decades after the end of the Second World War. Magog was even to live in my own huge house in Regent's Park, although I was not he. Yet half of me was Magog, a man who knew about power and the waste of it. Half was Gog, the anarchic fighter for liberty and self-expression. It seemed to me a struggle for some people throughout history that could not be resolved, even in the book intended to complete the trilogy, King Ludd.
The seventies for me were the years of Magog, and in the course of those years, I wrote Magog. Novels of
disillusion and social decline are rarely as good as those of creation and prophecy. I felt the divine spark dying in me. I began to make films of my own. I directed a version of The Breaking of Bumbo, updated to the "swinging" and radical London of 1968. Then I bought the rights to Dylan Thomas's radio play Under Milk Wood and made a film of it: as talking pictures go, there was more talking in it with the pictures than any other film ever made. The Italian subtitles looked like a withered forest when the film opened the Venice Festival in 1972. René Clair shook me by the hand and said he wished he had made it. I replied that I wished he had made it too. I had directed the three biggest British stars of the time in the world—Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O'Toole—and two of them had given magnificent performances. There was a magic in the film and a trick, the use of a panning camera which slid between shots so that the film appeared as continuous as the words of the First and Second Voices, rolling like one wave from the living to the dead, from dream to reality, as if all were in one sea of imagination.
The making of Under Milk Wood was the unmaking of me. Having made one good film that did not coin money, I thought I could make more. I was wrong. I was offered worse subjects and had to take more financial risks in trying to shoot new films. On one catastrophic occasion, I found myself in Athens with the two weightiest actors of them all, Orson Welles and Oliver Reed. I was trying to shoot a modem Faustian legend. The English stock market crashed, the producer ran away, and I was left with two megaliths who took my credit card out of my pocket, sat me between them in the best restaurant in town, consumed every dish in the place and twenty-two bottles of wine during the next fourteen hours, while they were discussing who would murder me first. Films were no longer my forté, but my ruin. I persisted in trying to make them for too long.
I married again, a younger English woman, fresh from the counties, apparently the sort of debutante that I had pilloried in The Breaking of Bumbo. I knew her to be intelligent, quick, a funny and fabulous liar, and what the Mitford sisters called "a bolter." She stuck with me for ten years, filling up the emptiness in the Nash terrace, and she gave me another splendid son, who grew to love his French half brother. The disaster that my friends had predicted for my second marriage was a slow one, the story of a woman trying to escape from my shadow and live as a writer in her own right. She left in the end, and I was alone in my vast spaces again.
We had also bought a Venetian ruined villa in Corfu, and I had to earn too much money to keep up a style of life that I did not deserve, unless the film money flowed. As that money usually flowed in the wrong direction, I found myself dependent on writing biographies for a good living. I had written a political biography of Warren Gamaliel Harding. Now I wrote on Jack London and John Ford, the film director, and J.P. Morgan. I also was permitted to enter the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle to write the biography of Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, later the Empress of Germany for ninety-nine days.*
The writing of biography is more than a discovery of another person. It is a matter of self-discovery. If the subject of the biography is not too alien or repugnant, the writer goes through a painful process of immersion in another's life, a baptism by research. There is the following process of separation and definition, painful and discriminatory. He or she, the subject, is not I, the author. I do know myself better. I am not he or she. Even if I do understand another so well, I must not pardon, but explain and judge.
For me, both literary and historical biography are a plunge, an identification, and a divorce. I try to choose subjects with whom I have sympathy and whose society I have considered. The process begins by an inquiry, whether there are papers and what are the terms of access to them. Biographers may not always have the troubles detailed in The Aspern Papers, but they do have the problems of family or state censorship. If and when I am given access on reasonable terms to papers and witnesses, then I plunge. First, I try to fill my own library shelves with everything written about my quarry and his background. Then I go to my favourite libraries, the London Library or the Widener at Harvard, where topics are still listed by subject and are put in the stacks by subject, and I am given entry to the stacks. There I read books by the yard and have the relevant pages copied. Then a rough filing system, then the preparation for the quest—an inquiry by place and time and survivor.
There have been admirable works of imaginative biography, in which the search for the truth by the biographer is almost as significant as the subject of the biography. The voyage in the Odyssey fascinates me more than the historical accuracy of Ulysses, king of Ithaca: Boswell is more intriguing than Dr. Johnson. The Road to Xanadu, The Quest for Corvo, and The Man Who Was B. Trewen illuminate the inquirer, who comes like Childe Harold to the dark tower, or knocks like the traveler on the moonlit door, asking, "Is there anybody there?" It is essentially a journey to all the places and people who can answer the right questions. And it is an imaginative journey, on which the biographer can stand and stare, look and hear with the same eyes and ears as the person he seeks to describe.
The journeys I took while writing on Jack London and John Ford were a discovery of America as well as of my subject and myself. So was the journey I had to take in order to write a short novel, The Facts in the Case of E.A. Poe, for it contained a short biography of Poe. It pretended to be written by a modem man who identified himself totally with Poe. His therapy was to visit all the places where Poe had been and to write a biography of Poe so as to separate himself from his alter ego. The act of visiting all the areas of Poe's life gave me personally as well as my hero/biographer an exact opportunity to compare ancient and modern sensibility as well as historical awareness. A black comedy, the novel itself mocked psychiatric techniques as used in biography, but contained a valid method of writing both historical and literary biography by description of place and comparison of time.
Autobiography, even the short one that I am attempting, is notorious as a method of whitewash and blindfold. The memories of Bismarck, for instance, rival those of Gypsy Rose Lee in hiding more than they reveal. The proper study of mankind may be man, but not myself. Even the writer of a secret diary such as Pepys hoped for its posthumous discovery, or else he would have destroyed it before his death; he too wrote not only for himself, but for the eyes of others and possible publication. If there were no biographers, the writers of diaries and autobiographies would have to invent them. Or who would ask the right questions and set their records straight?
I do not distinguish overmuch between the writing of political or literary or artistic biographies. These all depend on the materials available, the approach to those materials, the ordering of them, and the nature of the biographer and his time. A biography is, after all, never finished. It exists only to be rewritten. From lack of other documentation and competition, the lives recorded by Plutarch and Tacitus will always remain seminal and basic to Roman studies. But their judgements have been questioned by playwrights and historians, from William Shakespeare to Michael Grant. No biographer can escape from the sensibilities and values of his age. We are caught in the same process of time from which we seek to rescue our subjects. As we explain others to our contemporaries within their terms of reference, so we date ourselves in front of our sons and daughters. For when they become adults, they will demand biographies written in the terms they understand.
The last climacteric in my life was a separation from my second wife and two years of solitude rebuilding the Nash terrace in order to sell it. I lived in the gutted ruin in the one habitable room, feeling like the hero of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. I would walk up a stair to find it ended in nothing. I was desperate and unable to write, in debt and without inspiration. Then at the only cocktail party I had attended in a year,
I had what I call a recognition. I looked at a woman of extraordinary beauty and intelligence and sympathy and grace, and she looked at me. She had been widowed ten years before and courted by hundreds of desirable men for a decade. But our recognition was total and absolute. We had both given up the idea of love, or commitment, or sharing, or living closely together. But in a year, we were married and happy beyond the dreams of romance or destiny. We were, as they say, made for one another and had been looking for each other all our lives. We met too late, but perhaps hurt enough to appreciate our good fortune.
I moved to a house in Chelsea, long and low, beautiful and spacious. I gave up any involvement in the cinema, and I am lessening my involvement in publishing. I wrote The Red and the Blue about Cambridge University between the twenties and the fifties, the time of inconsiderable traitors and scientific discoveries. I agreed to write a last biography on the last of
the great creative film producers, Sam Spiegel, a friend of my wife. But I was clearing the decks to write King Ludd, for the time had come historically to tell about the Luddites, who first wrecked the new textile machines, through the story of the printers like Francis Place who defended liberty, on to the sad end of the print unions through new technology, locked out by barriers of barbed wire while journalists set their own copy for the Times at Wapping. Contemporary events have given King Ludd its shape. That would complete what I called The Albion Triptych, from mythology through history to the present day.
Sinclair contributed the following update to CA in 2007:
Anniversaries may prescribe our choices. After fifty years, some remembrance of 1939 and the Second World War was looming by the early 1990s. I had been a child then. How would I assess it now from an odd corner? That angle would have to be British culture, now that I appeared to be one of its minor representatives. To my delight and surprise, I discovered a vibrant and brave blossoming of the arts, almost another Renaissance in a war-torn country. If it was not quite the produce of the old conflicts between Milan and Florence and the Holy See, it was still engendered by the war against Berlin and Tokyo and modern Rome.
So I researched and wrote a book, War Like a Wasp. For the Second World War gave Britain a sting, a stimulus and an endurance. On the home front or on service abroad, there was action and the fear of death. The Blitz concentrated the mind wonderfully. The arts flowered, poetry and painting, cinema and dancing. "I would rather have been in London under siege between 1940 and 1945 than anywhere else," John Lehmann said, "except perhaps Troy in the time that Homer celebrated."
Then came a terrible victory with the knowledge of atom bomb and concentration camp. The postwar years of austerity prolonged rationing and deprivation until the end of the forties. The arts that had bloomed now withered and dispersed. A myth grew of a lost decade, when we had won a war, lost a peace and not done much else and not much good. In fact, these were the years of the best work of Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, of T.S. Eliot and George Orwell, of Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier. This was a decade of miraculous invention.
I was trying to recreate the world of the 1940s with its encounters and its characters, its conflicts and its discoveries, its hopes and its disillusions, the scene of pubs and clubs, where scarce drink could be found and the fighting forgot. This was the time of the short piece, the poem, the story and the sketch. Anyone who knew someone in the loose coterie of Fitzrovia that took over from Bloomsbury could have anything published. Everything printed was read by a nation, avid for learning and waiting for action.
This was also a feverish and democratic time, using the language of the period in small magazines. For even paper was rationed. Those who served in the armed forces or on the home front had a short attention span. Action and orders were always calling them to duty. They read in fits and starts in an age made for anthology. So I edited The War Decade, the first home collection to view the global struggle and the postwar years as a whole. My selection told the national story from the outbreak of hostilities until the Festival of Britain in 1951, which signaled the end of austerity. Many of the pieces were by little-known writers, some of whom were ultimately killed in action. I tried to capture the feel and shock of these years, to show how everyone from all walks of life reacted to sudden attack and long waiting, to black-out and rationing, and so I endeavoured to recreate the pains and the fears and the hopes of that exceptional time, in which I had grown from a child into a very young man.
Asked to write a sequel, I turned a cultural history of the 1960s into something of an autobiography of that decade. In Love and Anger chronicled my perceptions and my mistakes. The problem with looking back into ones own life is that remembrance is spiced. The petites madeleines of Proust were hardly the fare in the Co-existence Bagel Shop and City Lights in the San Francisco of the Beat era. One also must avoid self-excuse, although that is hardly my way. I judge myself merely by what I have done. I would rather condemn myself than redeem. This is not masochism, but an effort to straighten the road.
The work dealt with the fall of the revolutionary dream into a chic red tinge, as delusionary as Mao's handbook. That was the consequence of an urban culture, passing from a desire to change the world into a fricassée of instant celebrities. The menu was now the message. Commitment was being replaced by public relations. If we were not seen, we were has-been. Fluency was more important than integrity, and religion was no longer the opium of the people. The drug itself was the delight of the intellectual.
I tried to hymn the older ways of civilisations in two works, The Need to Give, about the patrons of the arts through the ages, and Arts and Cultures, a retrospect of the Arts Council of Great Britain on its fiftieth anniversary. Over four years, I had the opportunity of meeting most of the great and the good in the funding of our culture, although their fine intentions were often limited by the avarice of governments. Yet the creation of a National Theatre, in which my wife Sonia sat on the board, and a vibrant network of dance and drama and festival, spread over the whole land, was a grand achievement, in contrast to the increasing dumbing down in broadcasting and television and the cinema. Particularly in language and literature, I felt with a few friends that we were standing on the bridge with Horatius, facing a howling mob, determined to muzzle our tongues and blunt our pens.
If one prates about the arts, it is good to know a few artists. My greater grace and privilege has been to encounter four of the few genii of our time. Meeting him often in Soho and Limehouse, I managed to write a biography of the painter Francis Bacon. For me, his pictures were as definitive of the century as any prose. His first retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, in 1962, was what he also described it as—a history of the past thirty years. His language formed our way of seeing. Bacon's vision in his art, and later his view of life, was to confirm my own: a certain exhilarated despair, the wish to live life intensely as if each day were the last. When we talked more later, we found we shared the same interest in Greek drama and in one particular line of Aeschylus: "The reek of blood smiles out of him."
During the seventies, William Golding had largely stopped writing, until he recovered that inspiration, which led to his later superb works and the Nobel Prize. He would stay with me almost every year, and I would give a dinner for him, always believing that he was the greatest novelist of our age. After one of these dinners with Gregory Peck and Harold Pinter, he saw the devil in the middle of the night and tore apart a foam dummy of the singer Bob Dylan, which I had bought as an icon of the times, and which he condemned as an idol out of hell.
His matter was always the struggle between the divine and the base, original sin and free will, the glory and the mud, the spirit and nature. Such was also the matter of Ted Hughes, who retired to isolation on a sheep farm in north Devon, misjudged for the suicide of his two wives merely from the intensity of his passion for them. Seeing him rarely, I could only watch a Heathcliff come again, a demonic and compelling figure doomed for ever to be at odds with the judgement of this world.
Harold Pinter was my neighbour in Hanover Terrace, and I had put his wife Vivien Merchant in my film, Under Milk Wood, where she played Mrs. Pugh to the harsh housewife made. At the time he was writing No Man's Land which, I realized much later, when I saw him playing the lead in it, was about the isolation of fame. The hero, indeed, lived in a park attended by a strange duo of unease. Pinter solved the problem, which I had always had, of acknowledging the words that he had once written and were now almost forgotten. I visited him with a horror picture producer, who had also produced the film of Pinter's The Birthday Party in earlier days, when art meant as much as blood. It was a fraught meeting at which, in the producer's words, Pinter was like "a flung knife, quivering in the wood of the door". But he had seen the rushes of The Birthday Party and had begun to ask, "Isn't that the scene when …?" And Pinter had interrupted. "I said—or rather—I was heard to say—I know—I wrote it."
I know, I wrote it. Neither Descartes nor Beckett ever made more conclusive a statement. The daemon of these four creators with their signal influence upon me denied the temper of the age. Their work was both contemporary and timeless, and it made historical analysis useless. They suggested that the personal lives of artists were more important than public affairs, because the detritus of the past would salvage their works, and not those of the rulers and the statesmen, who were held to be significant.
What was admirable in that disparate quartet was their fierce retirement from cliques of opinion, their original opinion in defiance of current trend, the incandescence of their inner vision which they had imposed upon millions of readers and seers as an insight into the human condition. These were the very few in our time who stated: I AM AN ARTIST. THIS IS WHAT I THINK AND SEE. I DO, THEREFORE WE ARE. After the death of William Golding, Ted Hughes read from The Inheritors at the memorial service at Salisbury cathedral, as if Golding had in that novel and in The Spire discovered in truth the secret of the fall of man.
We had moved now to a beautiful sky-high apartment in Pimlico, again on the riverside. From the North bank of the Thames, we could see the sun rise in the morning and the moon at night. I was writing in an octagonal tower room, the sacred shape of the Templars, the Knights of the Grail books I was researching. After being intrigued about my heredity in several visits to the St. Clair chapel and castle at Rosslyn, I had become involved in their building. In a series of books on the Grail romances and on a medieval Orkney scroll and the Border tombstones which I found, I believed that I discovered many of the Templar secrets and the design of Rosslyn as a Chapel of the Grail in this quest for the thousand years of the genealogy of my family.
Closer to home, I wrote a factual novel of the Sinclairs, Blood and Kin. As Rudyard Kipling celebrated, the Scots had been the soldiers and the engineers and the officials and the servants of the British Empire—my father being the last of several generations. Produced at a time when the Scots were feeling more nationalistic, such an inquiry was not always acceptable to the old and forthcoming country. The noted novelist Allan Massie, however, compared the work in the Times Literary Supplement to a northern War and Peace, and the author to Tolstoy and Proust, the Norse Sagas and John Buchan.
Time past moves to time present and time future, but then, many philosophers and T.S. Eliot had declared these processes were seamless. After several visits again to Jerusalem under both Arab and Israeli rule, I wrote a history of that city, coming to the conclusion that the only solution to its destiny would be like that of Vienna in 1945, divided internationally between the Jewish and Muslim and Christian holy places. Some of that argument percolated into a book of mine, called An Anatomy of Terror, in which I set out the Ten Commandments of terrorism and its practices over the ages.
I had been personally connected. I had proposed to Sonia in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the Twin Towers. Once before, I had seen a wrecking iron ball swinging from a crane to demolish my first attic flat in Soho Square. I had wept then, I wept now, for a personal loss and for the 3,000 innocent gone. As in all wars, the murder of comrades and homes binds people together. The grief of the person makes the patriot.
Another change in publishing and film-making altered my possibilities. I made the first film biography of Dy- lan Thomas, Dylan on Dylan, using his own words. The digital revolution reduced my film crew from forty on Under Milk Wood, to four, and the finishing processes from twenty to three by computer. Anyone could make a cheap movie now, as anyone could have a book printed in a small run for very little. The problem was always distribution, but with the rise of the Internet and payment on line, we might have a thousand Eisensteins or Hemingways, where we had only had one.
Of course, the question of true talent would remain. And as usual, faced with the slow stroll of mortality towards me, I became more interested in the spiritual. I wrote a Gnostic inquiry into Afterdeath, praised by Harold Bloom of The Western Canon fame. Its publication may be prolonged, for I may not return from the dead to verify that we have a soul.
Twenty years ago, a friend of mine was given a tour of the morgue at the London Times. He was asked whether he would care to see the obituary of anyone he knew. He chose mine. When he next came round, he spoke of what he had done.
"So what was your verdict, Joe?"
"Better die now," he commented. "It'll never get any better."
He would have been right, except I met Sonia and have had more than twenty years of peace with periods of delight. My demons were turned into will o' the wisps. My seventy years had also taught me how impossible it was to describe them. Except for the admirable Thucydides, all historical writing was a form of autobiography, at least a revelation of the current prejudices, which informed the writer. I had been trying to express this thinking by interweaving social history with my life. Occasionally and often unwillingly, we do find ourselves briefly a part of what has gone by. At the end of many thousands of days, what was the result of my incoherent performance?
Ageing, because I could not avoid it. Feeling more, which was equally inevitable. Becoming a nibble of the past in William Blake's terms, when he claimed that eternity was in a grain of sand—and so suggested that the doings of each of us might contribute to some moments, which might endure in the smallest of ways. Taking some responsibility, because of the needs of the few I loved. And above all, surviving the cruel disillusions of middle age to pan into a golden sunset and a surmise that if most actions were useless, some printed words and graven images might cause quite a few people to consider and to make a difference.
We can only be a shallow inlet in the ocean of history, but we are accountable to it. Few of us wish to be. But when history impinges on us—a threatened invasion of our land, the moral choice of betraying a country or a friend—we cannot avoid what to do. We have coasted through the past most of our lives, but sometimes we have been in the rapids. We discuss our times, but then we are plunged into them. Social history is a million million biographies of different lives, from which we make a small selection. What happened to each one of us individually may have affected some or many of us. In the little may lie the large.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bergonzi, Bernard, The Situation of the Novel, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1970.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 14, 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Morris, Robert K., editor, Old Lines, New Forces: Essays on the Contemporary British Novel, 1960-1970, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976.
America, August 3, 1996, Alan J. Avery-Peck, review of Jerusalem: The Endless Crusade, p. 28.
Art in America, December, 1994, Faye Hirsch, review of Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times, p. 31.
Booklist, September 15, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Jerusalem, p. 139; April 15, 2000, Margaret Flanagan, review of A Concise History of the United States, p. 1521; November 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Dylan the Bard: The Life of Dylan Thomas.
Books and Bookmen, May, 1967, review of Gog; June, 1972, Oswell Blakeston, review of Magog.
Contemporary Review, November, 2000, Joan Bridgman, review of Dylan Thomas: The Bard Revisited, p. 310; April, 2004, review of An Anatomy of Terror: A History of Terrorism, p. 252.
Hudson Review, winter, 1967, Roger Sale, review of Gog; autumn, 1972, Patricia Meyer Spacks, review of Magog.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, review of The Discovery of the Grail.
Library Journal, May 15, 1990, Robert E. Brown, review of War Like a Wasp: The Lost Decades of the Forties, p. 78; September 15, 1992, William F. Young, review of The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America, p. 76; May 1, 1993, Darryl Dean James, review of King Ludd, p. 118; September 15, 1995, Robert Andrews, review of Jerusalem, p. 82; November 15, 1998, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., review of The Discovery of the Grail, p. 68; December, 2000, Shelley Cox, review of Dylan the Bard, p. 138.
London, June, 1967, Frank McGuinness, review of Gog.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 10, 1994, Jeffrey Hogrefe, review of Francis Bacon, p. 4.
New Statesman, June 9, 1967, Kenith Trodd, review of Gog; May 5, 1972, Kenn Stitt, review of Magog; February 5, 1988, p. 33; August 18, 1995, Stephen Howe, review of Jerusalem, pp. 30-31.
New Statesman & Society, February 9, 1996, Stephen Howe, review of Jerusalem, pp. 36-37.
New York Times Book Review, January 22, 1967, J.D. Scott, review of Gog; July 2, 1972, Anthony Thwaite, review of Magog; September 5, 1999, Margaret Van Dagens, review of Death by Fame: A Life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, p. 17.
Observer (London, England), June 1, 1967, review of Gog; January 1, 1970, review of Guevara.
Publishers Weekly, May 11, 1990, review of War Like a Wasp, p. 241; August 17, 1992, review of The Sword and the Grail, p. 481; March 29, 1993, review of King Ludd, p. 48; August 7, 1995, review of Jerusalem, p. 451; October 19, 1998, review of The Discovery of the Grail, p. 67.
Saturday Review, September 16, 1967, Richard Freedman, review of Gog.
Spectator, September 18, 1993, Alan Ross, review of Francis Bacon, pp. 37-38; August 9, 1995, Charles Saumarez Smith, review of Arts and Cultures: The History of the Fifty Years of the Arts Council, pp. 28-29; February 10, 1996, Andro Linklater, review of Jerusalem, pp. 33-34; January 19, 2002, Alan Wall, review of Blood and Kin: An Empire Saga, p. 32.
Times (London, England), October 21, 1989, Robert Nye, review of King Ludd.
Times Literary Supplement, June 8, 1967, review of Gog; September 16, 1988, D.A.N. Jones, review of King Ludd, p. 1012; November 10, 1989, Humphrey Carpenter, review of The War Decade: An Anthology of the 1940s, p. 1231; September 24, 1993, Frances Spalding, review of Francis Bacon, p. 17; June 3, 1994, Jill Neville, review of In Love and Anger: A View of the '60s, p. 36.
Yale Review, spring, 1968, Rachel Trickett, review of Gog.
Andrew Sinclair Home Page,http://www.andrewsinclairtemplar.com (January 15, 2008).