Writing a memoir: Jeremy Paxman on telling it like it was

Writing a memoir: Jeremy Paxman on telling it like it was

I have just published a memoir. This means I am probably more on-trend than I have been since I bought a pair of chisel-toed black suede boots in the 1960s. There do seem to be a lot of them around.

Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run explains how he’s made English public school boys wish they were New Jersey working class. John le Carré throws off a little of his cover inThe Pigeon Tunnel. Katie Price is so upset by what she has disclosed in volume six of her autobiography (the former “glamour model” is all of 38) that she can’t bear to read it. Sports stars Joey Barton and Damon Hill have sweated over their laptops. Ed Balls and Nick Clegg have had the chance to settle political scores with tales of life not quite at the top. David Cameron is said to be planning to spend the next few months selectively remembering his time at Downing Street.

In theory, autobiography or memoir-writing (the distinction is confused — do write in if you have a good one) ought to be the easiest form of literature: no wrestling with rhyme or metre, no grasping at believable plots or plausible dialogue. Just tell it as it was.

But how was it? There is a corrosive fear that L’esprit de l’escalier trumps accuracy every time. No two accounts of an event are ever precisely the same and we are all guilty of recalling things as we want to remember them (though this may be no more serious an offence than recounting a conversation having excised all uses of “um”, “er” and “you know”).

Then there’s the problem of recollecting. “For lack of a natural memory, I make one of paper,” as Montaigne put it. Most of our lives are so full of “stuff” that it often feels as though the latest experience displaces some previous incident, like water slopping over the edge of a bucket when a new drop enters. When Auberon Waugh was invited to write about his life, he sent letters to all and sundry asking if anyone knew what he’d been doing for the past 30 years. It helps if you’ve kept a diary, but they are always solipsistic things. I found the recollections of friends and colleagues a useful antidote. The cliché about older people recalling incidents from their childhood more clearly than what they had for breakfast is true. It is not just that the tedium of waiting for the end makes the tedious business of earning a living seem positively thrilling, but that the younger you are, the more life is lived in primary colours. First experiences only happen once.

Which is why even the most dismal of all memoirs, the political autobiography, can have some sparkling early chapters. After that, unless they are someone like Denis Healey, whose The Time of My Life (1989) remains one of the towering modern accounts of the man behind the politician, the climb up the greasy pole is not particularly interesting. No one gets anywhere in public life by impersonating a shrinking violet, yet rehearsing the injustices they overcame is almost as dull as their triumphant progress through the corridors of power. (The awful warning is Norman Fowler’s Ministers Decide (1991), which is said to have achieved the sort of sales one might expect from Jeremy Corbyn’s Guide to Power Dressing.)

For me, the best politician’s memoir of recent years has been Alan Johnson’s This Boy(2013), because it was hardly about his political career at all. Poignant, surprising and charming, it was wonderfully amusing on, among other things, Johnson’s dreams of becoming a pop star. Johnson’s book succeeded because it had one essential quality: it smelt real. “Authenticity is all,” says Jonny Geller, the literary agent who brought le Carré’s memoir to market.

That pompous curmudgeon Samuel Johnson (no relation to Alan, as far as I know) observed in 1759 that writers who told their own story were in undisputed command of the facts.

“Certainty of knowledge not only excludes mistakes, but fortifies veracity.” By the turn of the century Benjamin Franklin, Casanova and Rousseau had all produced accounts of their lives. They were followed in the 19th century by hundreds of others — philosophers, artists, soldiers, explorers and politicians — of greater or lower esteem. The Scottish novelist, Henry Mackenzie, remarked that confessing to yourself was like confessing to a priest, but with the certainty of an easy absolution.

This is why just about every American president or retiring British prime minister is offered a goodly sum of money to get their version of events out there before historical orthodoxy is established. But disrepute can be just as lucrative a line. From the memoirs of Peg Plunkett, an 18th century Dublin brothel-keeper, through to Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker, which sold millions of copies in the 1970s, and the more recent works of Belle de Jour, everyone enjoys reading about other people’s experience of the second-most private of activities.

So to the perpetual question with memoirs or autobiographies: who is entitled to write one? This is another way of asking why you should assume anyone gives a fig what you did with your life. Much of the Victorian literary establishment believed autobiography ought to be the preserve of people who had something important to say or were, as Blackwood’s Magazine put it in 1829, figures of “lofty reputation”. That was the splendid joke behind the Grossmith brothers’ hilarious novel, The Diary of a Nobody, published 60 or so years later: the self-importance of the autobiographer, Charles Pooter, is undercut by his insignificance to everyone else.

Anyone writing a memoir — and it was certainly true in my case — lives in the shadow of Pooter. First, why on earth do you imagine anyone has the faintest interest in your life?

Second, what entitles you to lay your one-sided view of events before others? Third, what right do you have to trample on the privacy of others? I answered this last question by deciding my family were entitled to make their own decisions about what they shared with the world, and therefore left them out of the narrative. As for most of the friends and colleagues who featured, I tried to check that our recollections coincided. As for the first two questions — the truly disconcerting ones — there just comes a point when you have to leap.

Pity the memoirist who, unlike Mr Pooter, has no diary to fall back upon. But the problem with all diaries is their utterly ambiguous nature. Spending half an hour or so every evening with a journal or recorder is not a normal thing to do, and, once they have emerged from the acne and crushes stage of adolescence, anyone writing a diary does so with an eye to literary tradition. Bridget Jones nodded to Jane Austen, Tony Benn to Richard Crossman. At what point does the apparently frank recording of events become the fashioning of things to suit personal prejudice? It is often said that all fiction is autobiography. Might the reverse be true?

“All autobiographies are lies,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1896. “I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies; I mean deliberate lies. No man is bad enough to tell the truth about himself during his lifetime, involving, as it must, the truth about his family and friends and colleagues. And no man is good enough to tell the truth to posterity in a document which he suppresses until there is nobody left alive to contradict him.” It is a characteristically Shavian epigram — generalised, bombastic, and in the end as unsatisfying as so much of the vegetarian food he wasted his time promoting.

Of course, autobiography — and memoir — are limited, for their purpose is to describe how things seemed to the protagonist at the time. I was at the 1992 conference in Maastricht that created the European Union. Like most journalists, I was penned in an enormous press enclosure, escaping occasionally to attend a briefing given by one of the governments present or to relay what one had learned from conversations with diplomats. John Major’s memory of the conference will be entirely different, as, doubtless, will be that of Jacques Delors. Their accounts are more important, but none is invalid. Each description of the event can only be partial: it is the nature of experience.

But what authenticity can we attach to memoirs that aren’t even written by their notional author? Choosing the right words and getting them in the right order is not easy.

Footballers, entrepreneurs, generals and gangsters are therefore provided with ghostwriters who will coax recollections from them for a fee.

A hack job, perhaps, but is it any less worthwhile to knock out a serial killer’s life story than to defend him in court?

By the early years of the new millennium, the “memoirs” of singers, soap stars and boneheaded sportspeople had supplanted the celebrity novel. The critic William Gass said all there is to say about this genre in Harper’s magazine, talking of “celluloid whores and boorish noisemakers whose tabloid lives are presented for our titillation by ghosts still undeservedly alive”. Yet Gass slightly misses the point. For so-called celebs, the memoir is not a literary enterprise but a vital transit-point. Having words on paper, between glossy covers with your name emblazoned large, retains its allure because — perversely — disclosing your life facilitates a transition from human being to brand.

As with every other oversaturated cultural craze, the fashion for celebrity memoirs may have peaked. Nowadays, I suspect most people would rather buy a cookbook. “The market’s changed,” confesses a senior figure in one of the more commercial publishing houses. This drop in sales reflects the increasingly fatuous use of the term “celebrity”, which is now generally interchangeable with “who?” Publishers know that once The X Factor finishes its run, no one will give a monkey’s about the winner.


In place of junk food for the brain have come more thoughtful books, such as Helen Macdonald’s soulful H Is For Hawk (2014) and James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life(2015), showing the punishing chores behind the rural idyll. The critical acclaim and commercial success of each testifies to an increasing desire to interrogate our inner lives. Books such as these make us question our own purpose in a way celebrity bragging can never do. “Being held gently by the hand and told stories through the experience of your narrator is a friendlier way of reading than tackling some academic or daunting texts,” reflects Arabella Pike, publishing director at William Collins (and my own long-suffering editor).

By comparison with a well-crafted novel, however, most autobiographies are thin fare. They tell what are generally simple stories (for most lives are simple), simply. They are not great exercises in creativity, juxtaposing viewpoints, contrasting motivations. They are, as Daniel Mendelsohn put it in the New Yorker in 2010, “‘like a drunken guest at a wedding … constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction) — spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends — motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the centre of attention”. I know what he means.

Some things are better left unsaid. I am naturally a private person, and the memoirist is a streaker.

There was hardly a 6am start that went by without my wondering, “Why on earth am I doing this?” A lifetime of cranking out words to meet a deadline helped. Better, always, to be your own ghostwriter: it makes you see it as a job to be completed. The physical artefact at the end of the process isn’t much but, like all acts of communication, there is a satisfaction in being able to say, “Yes, that was how it seemed to me”, and to believe that perhaps it answers a question in someone else’s mind, or enables them to understand something a little better.

For memoirs do offer the reader a way of understanding their own life through the lives of others. Looking back at my small contribution to the genre, I see I favoured the negative over the positive — my father’s fury, but not my mother’s tolerance, the coldness of my schooling, but not some of the lasting good it did me. It is a partial picture, which bears out the general impression that what we recall most vividly are the days of storm and thunder, not the weeks of sunshine. This is true for all of us.

The deeper social question is why, as a nation, we’re consistently interested in reading someone else’s account of their past — whether it is from a musician, politician, or a “nobody”. “The memoir is the trench-coated flasher in the parking lot,” was how one Los Angeles Review of Books reviewer put it. He’s right — public confession fits the mood of the times: everyone is always outing themselves or someone else, on Facebook or Twitter, in therapy or a recovery programme. Privacy is dead.

The decision for the memoir-writer, then, is how much to disclose. After a year of cudgelling my brains to recall what the hell I had done with my life I sent off the manuscript for A Life in Questions. Two days later, I discovered the notebook in which I had listed stories I had thought I wanted to mention. I had forgotten to include every one of them. I’m not sure that many are missed, because the arresting elements of a memoir are those things that are unexpected.

So when Jeremy Corbyn writes his memoir, a few sentences on his attitude to clothes might help us to understand him.

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