Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

Or actually, disgruntled of London SE13. Let me tell you why…

A month ago, I attended my second ever meeting of my book club. As discussed in an earlier post (Getting More Out Of An Evening With Your Trollope), the first one wasn’t all I’d hoped for. The second, despite having roughly half the number of people present, was much better. We were discussing John Lanchester’s Capital – highly recommended – and the conversation bubbled along merrily over character, plot and voice.  On departing, we were handed the book for our next meeting: Artemis Cooper’s highly rated biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. artemis-cooper-patrick-leigh-fermor-an-adventure-summer

Now, I’ll be honest: my heart sank. The last biography I picked up was when I was about 13 and had ordered David Niven’s The Moon’s A Balloon from a book club, thinking it sounded like a humorous teenage novel, or possibly nonsense verse.  It was duly confiscated by my mother who said it was “rude”.  Needless to say, that was reason enough for me to dig it out again the moment her back was turned, but I was sadly disappointed: not rude at all, just dull.

This may very well be an unfair judgement. I was 13, and reading about the life of an elderly, gay actor I’d never heard of was always going to be an uphill struggle. Fast forward a couple of decades (alright – a couple of decades and a bit) and reading about the life of a dead travel writer I’d similarly never heard of wasn’t exactly appealing either.

I steeled myself, however. I told myself that reading books I wouldn’t pick out for myself was one of the points of joining a book club in the first place.  Surely, I thought, I’m intelligent and grown-up enough these days to find this interesting. It has, after all, had glowing reviews.

And so I began.

It was fairly obvious from the first pages that reading about a writer whose work I’d never read left me at a distinct disadvantage. If I’d been more committed to the task, I might have got my hands on one of Mr Leigh Fermor’s books – but then, I don’t much like travel writing either. So I soldiered on.  In the first three weeks I managed the sum total of 50 pages.

Still, there’s nothing like a deadline to galvanise the spirit, and with Thursday’s meeting approaching I picked up the pace.  I skimmed rapidly over paragraphs, pausing now and again to cross-refer one of the characters to their photo, learning about Paddy – I now felt we were on first name terms – and his travels, his exploits in Greece during the Second World War, his various affairs, his long-suffering girlfriend and eventual wife (long-suffering being my term: the biographer preferred “not emotionally jealous”), and his struggles with writing and the curse of procrastination. I quite liked that last bit.

Even so, it was hard work. Paddy evidently inspired quite different reactions in people, and I’m afraid I’d have been one of those who found him rather an irritating arse. Plus he was surrounded by a cast of characters where every woman was beautiful and talented and vivacious, and ever man was clever and dashing. What an exhausting bunch!

And when it comes down to it, the truth of the matter is that I like my stories told as stories, not reportage, no matter how well written. I’m confirmed in my view that biographies just aren’t for me. That probably makes me irredeemably unintellectual, but there we are: at least I’ve learned something.

But none of that makes me Disgruntled of SE13.  The cause of that was quite simple: after dutifully completing the whole book I missed the meeting! 

I can be quite smug about the reason for this: I was working away at the rewrite for my novel, and for once was concentrating so hard that I forgot the time. The smuggery associated with this (“Oh, I was so caught up in my writing, the hours just flew by!”) is not, however, full recompense for all that biography-reading time I’ll never get back. And what to do now with the handful of observations I’d managed to garner?

Well, there weren’t many of them. Probably just enough for a para or two about why I didn’t much like either Paddy or biographies generally.

Maybe just enough for a post on my blog…


11 thoughts on “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells

  1. Just a Little Background Noise 2.0

    Royal Tunbridge Wells – that’s not too far from me. I went a couple of times to see bands – Kula Shaker played the Forum, I think it’s called – before they were famous-ish… Isn’t the Queen’s jeweler based there? Grrr, this made me smile anyhoo. I love your wit!

    1. yakinamac Post author

      I remember Kula Shaker – whatever happened to them, I wonder? Sorry if your comment took a while to appear – WordPress very rudely had you down as spam! Salutary warning to me to make sure I check my spam folder properly.

  2. vicbriggs

    Plus he was surrounded by a cast of characters where every woman was beautiful and talented and vivacious, and ever man was clever and dashing. What an exhausting bunch!
    – HA HA HA You know, I have to say, I do love your style. I hope one day this small world might get us together in the same café together and we can moan about the worst reads we’ve had and praise the best.
    I was chuckling nicely along to your story, but when I reached this paragraph I laughed out loud and had to look over my shoulder to make sure no one was near enough to think me crazy.
    What made me laugh was the fact that this reminded me so closely of the first ever draft of my novel. I learn the hard way that perfect characters do not a perfect story make. 🙂
    Thank you for the reminder though. It’s a lesson that is best remembered again and again.

  3. vicbriggs

    Just noticed that I used *together* twice in the same sentence. Apologies. I meant it mind, that’s why it crept in a second time. 😉

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Ha ha – wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out! There is genuinely nothing I like better than a hot beverage and a good old moan – one of these days..!

      And yes, I know what you mean about perfect characters. If I had more experience of reading biographies I’d feel on surer ground saying this, but I’ll say it all the same: I wonder if there’s something about the medium that encourages that kind of perspective on the characters? I mean, these are all real people, so the law of averages alone suggests they can’t ALL be that wonderful; but I’d hazard a guess that people willing to devote the level of time and industry required to write a whole book on someone else must qualify as a bit of a fan. Perhaps it’s therefore more likely than otherwise that they’ll see everyone fortunate enough to have known their idol as somehow special, bathed in their reflected brilliance? Then again, you hear enough stories about so and so being upset with their biography – so perhaps that’s a rubbish theory.

      1. vicbriggs

        I think you may be on to something there. If someone idolises the person they are writing about, that would colour how they view not only them, but everyone who surrounds them. On the other hand, those who are “professional” biographers and out for a best seller are probably more likely to focus on scandal and other controversial aspects in order to get more readers 🙂

  4. jackiemallon

    Well, let me commend you for your dedication to the book club’s requirements by getting your hands on the book and skimming through key paragraphs. I don’t think for one second that some reverse procrastination technique was at work where your writing suddenly seemed significantly more urgent when reading the biography was the only other option. Although this writer’s mind is a labyrinth of such sneaky plots and schemes, I don’t think that’s the case in your situation. Not at all. 🙂


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