After a career spanning 50 years, 40 books and about a million parties, Anthony Holden has written a memoir. Based on a True Story is bookended by touching accounts of his childhood and old age. Born in 1947, Holden grew up in Southport. His adored grandfather, Ivan Sharpe, played football for England, winning gold at the 1912 Olympics. In later life he was a sports writer, and would take the young Holden to the press box at Liverpool or Everton, tasking him with noting down the game’s statistics. Holden dates his journalistic ambitions to the early thrill of ‘seeing my numbers in print in the very next day’s edition of the Sunday Times’.
In 2017, Holden suffered a stroke that left him wheelchair-bound. His warmly good-humoured account of the tedious road to partial recovery gives a sense of a man much loved by his friends and his three sons (by his first wife, the translator and librettist Amanda Holden, who died in September). Though the book concludes with ‘the journalist’s perennially optimistic sign-off... more follows later’, the closing pages are elegiac, as Holden contemplates, from his retirement home, the recent deaths of many of his contemporaries.
He has more contemporaries than most to lose. Between childhood and old age, Holden goes everywhere and meets everyone who is anyone. His memoir is long, but there is still barely room for the breathless list of jobs and books and schemes. The personal is peripheral: his two marriages take place strictly in the margins of this glorified ego-file.
Holden casts himself as a chimeric cat with many lives, lapping up literary lunches and always landing on his feet. His translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon was published before he left university. As editor of Oxford’s Isis — owned at the time by Robert Maxwell, who once locked Holden in his sauna for a joke — he was the first person to publish Christopher Hitchens. He then completed a journalism traineeship, spending two years on the Evening Echo in Hemel Hempstead. The trial of the murderer Graham Young provided material for a book, The St Albans Poisoner — the first of many biographies, including three of Prince Charles.
His next beat was the Sunday Times, chasing stories all over the world during journalism’s good old bad old days of expense accounts, first-class travel and endless freebies. (‘You could take your wife out to dinner and put her down as a government minister’). As custodian of ‘Atticus’, the paper’s diary page, Holden interviewed Henry Moore and Rudolf Nureyev among many others. In 1978, he became the Washington correspondent of the Observer, covering the 1980 election and the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Then it was back to the Times — now in Murdoch’s hands — as assistant editor during Harold Evans’s short-lived reign.
When Evans resigned amid much controversy in 1982, Holden loyally quit in protest and found himself in ‘journalistic purdah’, writing for the Sunday Express. But with so many pals eager to lend a helping hand, the next tropical holiday was never far away. As the theatre critic for Tina Brown’s Tatler, he was permitted to ‘go to all openings, but write only positive reviews about shows or performances I admired’. He spent a year playing poker and wrote his bestselling book, Big Deal, about the experience. More royal commentary followed; a sycophantic acquaintance with Princess Diana; biographies of Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare; a stint in New York, full of ‘galactical’ parties; several years as classical music critic of the Observer (even though he didn’t read music), and a side hustle as president of the International Federation of Poker.
Holden repeatedly insists on his great good fortune: he is ‘delighted’ and ‘thrilled’ on approximately one page in five. Squint between the gush, however, and a more irritable narrative emerges in which he was robbed of the Times editorship, promised to him by Evans (‘Think of it, lad — editor of the Times at 40! I’ll groom you’), and reduced to writing those biographies of a man he hated — Prince Charles — because his hand was forced by the colossal sums of money on offer.
Based on a True Story is interesting as an account of a time not so very long ago that already feels like another era. And the second-rate prose is a period piece too, full of ‘whences’, ‘whithers’ and ‘luminous’ women. There is more than a touch of Jane Austen’s Mr Collins, who amuses himself with ‘suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions’. Holden reproduces compliments to himself, and quotes good reviews of his own books. Many anecdotes end with some joke that he told decades ago. The chapter titled ‘A-changing’, for example, features the immortal moment in 1981 when he explained to an old-fashioned colleague at the Times that they were going to do things differently now: ‘The Times, it is a-changing.’
Sometimes I feel sorry to have missed the golden age of literary parties and five-figure freelance contracts. This book made me feel glad that the times they have a-changed.