Memoir

The joy of hanging out with artists

Lynn Barber is known as a distinguished journalist, but what she always wanted to do was hang out with artists. This book feels like a marvellous cocktail party, packed with the painters and sculptors Barber has interviewed over the years: Howard Hodgkin, Phyllida Barlow, Grayson Perry, Maggi Hambling. Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin eye one another warily from opposite sides of the room; Salvador Dali’s ocelot weaves between the guests; everyone, naturally, is smoking. Lucian Freud is a no-show – though having refused Barber’s many interview requests, he did send a scrawled note explaining he had no wish to ‘be shat upon by a stranger’. Feuds and gossip are the

The endless fascination of volcanoes

Volcanoes, volcanoes, volcanoes. You wait years for a good book or a film about volcanoes to come along and then they blow up all at once. In 2022, Sara Dosa’s incredible, unmissable – incroyable! incontournable! – documentary about the eccentric French filmmakers and volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, Fire of Love, was nominated for an Oscar. It should have won. Then, last year, volcanology’s own Brian Cox, Clive Oppenheimer – professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge and Werner Herzog’s companion and guide in his documentary film about volcanoes, Into the Inferno (2016) – published Mountains of Fire: The Secret Lives of Volcanoes. Now erupting on to the scene

The traditional British hedge is fast vanishing

Five years ago, a documentary about the Duchy of Cornwall featured the then Prince of Wales in tweeds and jaunty red gauntlets laying a hawthorn hedge. It was a brilliant piece of PR. If Charles was a safe pair of hands with a hedge – something as quintessentially English as a hay meadow or a millpond – he was surely a safe pair of hands full stop. A cuckoo in one breeding season needs to eat about 22,500 hairy caterpillars Focusing on a hedge in south-west Wiltshire, Hedgelands combines history, celebration, lament and warning. Christopher Hart is a companionable writer, and makes a powerful case that, at a time of

What do we mean when we talk of ‘home’?

Given that I know the author, would I feel inhibited about reviewing her new book critically, I asked myself. But other than meeting her once at a party for two minutes, I realised that I know Clover Stroud only through her raw, ravishing memoirs and – like the rest of her 37,000 Instagram followers – the intimate and honest way in which she documents her life. Perhaps more than any other writer, Stroud has taken the elegant, elliptical memoir and forged it into the genre of life writing. She has lived a lot of life. The Wild Other documented her mother’s life-changing brain injury as a result of a riding

A GP diagnosed me with ‘acute anxiety’ – only to exacerbate it

In 2008, after his first child was born and before he was due to get married, Tom Lee began to unravel. It was as if, he explains in his fragile and unforgettable memoir, ‘some internal switch had been clicked or shorted, leaving my body and mind in a state of unrelenting and unsolvable emergency’. The breakdown began in his body: tight headache, nausea, a stiffness in his hands so extreme he couldn’t hold a pen. Welts erupted on the surface of his skin; he ate only bananas, one half at a time. The discarded halves blackened around the house. He was unable to work or sleep; but these early weeks

Living in the golden age of navel-gazing

If you are under 40, you probably already know of Joel Golby. He writes stream-of-consciousness personal essays and the satirical ‘Rental Opportunity of the Week’ column for Vice. For older readers, think, say, William Leith or Caitlin Moran. For even older readers, think maybe Thurber, Perelman or Dorothy Parker. And for the truly ancient, see Hazlitt?  Self-obsessed, self-vaunting, self-deprecating, self-excoriating: there is, of course, a long tradition of highly personal, witty, scratchy, sniffy essayistic writing going back to Montaigne and beyond. And we’re currently living through a Golden Age of Hot Take Navel Gazing. Sometimes it seems like every other book is a collection of sad, wry, funny reflections by

Must Paris reinvent itself?

In this odd book, the Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper narrates his experience as an expatriate ‘uptight northern European’ living in Paris with his family. His American wife, Pamela Duckerman, also a journalist, is the author of Bringing Up Bébé, a culture-shock memoir about having children in Paris and discovering French child-rearing ways, which are often radically at odds with American ideas and habits. Impossible City touches on some of the same territory (Kuper’s French acculturation through his children’s schooling and socialising), but it aims at a more comprehensive portrayal of rapidly evolving 21st-century Paris, warts and all; or, as he puts it, in a phrase that some may find

To Salman Rushdie, a dream before his attempted murder ‘felt like a premonition’

Salman Rushdie has long hated and struggled against the idea that the 1989 fatwa pronounced on him after the publication of The Satanic Verses should define his career or his life. It was, as he frequently pointed out, a book he published only a quarter of the way through his career. He wanted the life of a writer, and for his books – even ‘that book’ – to be read as books rather than as footnotes to an episode in his biography or tokens in some pre-digital culture wars. Two nights before the reading, Rushdie dreamt he was attacked by a man with a spear in a Roman amphitheatre He

Murder in the dark: The Eighth House, by Linda Segtnan, reviewed

It takes a Scandinavian mother to write like this: ‘Why murder a nine-year-old girl? She wasn’t raped. Rape is the only motive I know of for the murder of little girls, unless the killer is a close relative.’ Linda Segtnan’s The Eighth House benefits from this bluntness. Its author, a historical researcher based in Stockholm, was browsing through a newspaper archive in 2018 when a photograph of nine-year-old Birgitta Sivander caught her attention. The girl lived in a village called Perstorp in southern Sweden until one evening in May 1948 she went out to the football field and did not return. A search was organised, the human chain making its

A magnificent set of dentures still leaves little to smile about

John Patrick Higgins is unhappy about the state of his mouth. His teeth resemble ‘broken biscuits’, a ‘pub piano’, ‘an abandoned quarry’ and ‘Neolithic stones. It’s all I can do to keep druids from camping out on my tongue each solstice.’ So he invests in a series of expensive interventions. He has seven gnashers removed, followed by three root canals, and acquires a natty set of dentures. They feel a bit weird at first (‘it’s like having an internal beak’), but ‘I look like the actor playing me in a Hallmark movie of my life.’ In this slim, refreshingly unpretentious memoir, Higgins, a middle-aged English filmmaker living in Belfast, chronicles

‘Now I have been made whole’: Lucy Sante’s experience of transition

Lucy Sante concludes her thoughtful and occasionally poetic memoir with the words: ‘Now I have been made whole.’ Before transitioning at the age of 66 she had lived her life as a deeply divided man. This is an affecting book that could help move the trans debate forward from its currently undignified state of abuse and polarity. Sante interweaves the story of the first 18 months of her transition with that of the first three decades of her biography. Her parents emigrated to New Jersey from Belgium, initially when she was four (there were subsequent toings and froings). She writes a lot about her identity as a working-class Walloon, an

My prep school scarred me for life

On one blissful, cloudless day during the summer holidays of 1972, Charles Spencer, who had just turned eight, surveyed the scene in his mother’s garden in Sussex. He’d spent the morning cycling and swimming, and a barbecue was being prepared. He remembers thinking: ‘This is too good to last.’ And he was right. A date he was dreading, 12 September, arrived. His father drove him the 100 miles from his house on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk to Maidwell Hall, the boarding prep school in Northamptonshire where Spencer would be a pupil for the next five years. We all remember that end-of-summer-holidays dread: the savage haircut, the putting on of

Stories of the Sussex Downs

This amazing book is itself a little like a flint, a misshapen stone egg of the Sussex Downs. It resists the reader at first, coated in the calcite rind of the author’s slow, scholarly journey, missteps and all. But when you persist, breaking the book’s spine or, as it were, knapping the flinty nodule, you find treasure within. Alexandra Harris quotes the painter Paul Nash writing in 1937: ‘If I broke all the shells of all my wild stones, I should find that precious yolk which is like precious stones, the black core of the flint.’ From Nash, it’s a hop and a skip to Henry Vaughan, the metaphysical poet

On the road with Danny Lyon

A Google search for ‘Danny Lyon’ produces more than eight million results in 0.30 seconds, yet the celebrated American photojournalist and filmmaker is little known in the UK. This superb, quixotic, bare-all memoir ought to change that. Starting in 1962, Lyon not only photographed the heroes of the US civil rights movement as staff photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced ‘snick’), but in a way was one of the heroes himself, risking jail, beatings and abuse. He’s had prizes galore and two solo shows at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2016 he had a major retrospective in San Francisco and at the Whitney; and also a

The true valour needed to go on pilgrimage in Britain

Every summer solstice, thousands of people gather at Stonehenge to greet the longest day of the year. Judging from the druids in the crowd, you might think this tradition dates back to pagan Britain. In fact, it was started in 1974 by members of a hippy commune who decided to host a free festival among the stones. The Pope, the Dalai Lama and John Lennon were invited, along with a handful of British Airways hostesses. These ‘interactions between ancient and modern faith’ fascinate the travel writer Oliver Smith. On This Holy Island is a journey across Britain, telling the story of a dozen pilgrim destinations and the spiritual seekers drawn

The healing power of Grasmere

William Wordsworth’s life is the foundational version of the nature cure. After a disrupted, troubled childhood, sent to live with unsympathetic relations after his mother’s death, a chaotically disaffected time at Cambridge and a muddled youth, fathering a child on a woman he loved but scarcely knew in France, Wordsworth refused all his family’s urgings to a nice career in the church or the law. Instead, he stumbled towards the kind of poetry he wanted to write and looked, with his sister Dorothy, for a sense of home in Dorset and Somerset. Finally, he returned to the Lake District, and in December 1799 came to Dove Cottage and Grasmere, where

A war reporter bravely faces death – but not from sniper fire

When you are a foreign correspondent and have covered wars in dozens of countries, the last place you’d expect a threat to your life to come from is your own cells. Yet this was the predicament in which the New York Times reporter Rod Nordland found himself in July 2019. Despite close shaves in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America and Darfur, he only really became aware of his mortality after collapsing with a seizure in India and discovering the existence of a ‘space occupying lesion’ (SOL) in his brain – a euphemism for a growth, benign or malignant. On transfer to a hospital in Manhattan, Nordland learned that his was

A mother-daughter love story

In Splinters, the American novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison leaves behind the issue of her addiction and recovery – the subject of her previous memoir, The Recovering (2018) – and takes us through her pregnancy, experience of childbirth, marriage, divorce and post-separation dating life. Each stage of her journey is related with the author’s trademark love of the telling detail: On the postpartum ward my window ledge filled up with snacks from friends: graham crackers, cashews, cheddar cheese, coconut water, oranges with tiny green leaves. Someone hands her a form to fill out. ‘Did I want bone broth?’ We can assume she does, as bone broth appears later on. Much

The summer I dwelt in marble halls

The discovery of a cache of long-lost love letters might be an over-familiar inspiration for a memoir, risking a bit of a dusty lane indulgence – a charming, nostalgic featherbed flop into a past romance. But although the events described by this delightful nonagenarian first-time author took place three-quarters of a century ago, there is nothing sepia-flattened about Gill Johnson’s writing. This is a book which shimmers with remarkable recall as the author returns us to the post-war vibrancy of Venice and the dazzling inhabitants who transformed her young life. The youngest of four children, Gill reached adulthood in Blitz-scarred, rationed 1950s London. She shared a depressing, claustrophobic Westminster flat

The mystery of Werner Herzog

Many movie actors are famous for their unmistakable voices – people like Sean Connery, John Wayne and Peter Lorre, who all pub comedians mimic. But how many directors are like that? Only one: the German auteur Werner Herzog, hero of the New German Cinema, who at the age of 81 has published this headspinning, free-associating memoir. Its German title, Jeder Für Sich Und Gott Gegen Alle, was also the original, anarchic title of Herzog’s 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, based on the true story of a boy reportedly brought up in an isolated darkened cell. Herzog’s rasping, lilting, inscrutably sibilant and sinister voice, a vital part of all