Memoir

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

Robyn Davidson explores yet another foreign country – the past

Robyn Davidson never set out to become a writer. ‘It did not form my identity,’ she tells us early on in her memoir Unfinished Woman. ‘In my own mind I had simply pulled another rabbit out of a hat. As I had done all my life with everything.’ The rabbit, in this case, is the ability to capture an exciting and complex life with insight and humour. When she decided to leave the underworld, she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint Born in 1950 on a cattle station in Queensland, Australia, Davidson was the second daughter of a handsome war hero from a privileged background. Home was a place full of

Too many tales of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

A book about hedgehogs is not the obvious next step for Sarah Sands, the former editor of Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, and before that editor of the Evening Standard. But then Sands has had a rough time of it lately. In The Hedgehog Diaries, she recounts the death of her father, Noel, the news broken to her by her brother, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who had to climb through a window of her Norfolk house to do so since she wasn’t answering her phone. Hesketh-Harvey, who was a writer and performer and a great favourite of the King, died not long afterwards of heart failure. Julian Sands, the actor made

Another tragic case involving medical incompetence and cover-up

It was only eight lines into O Brother that I realised I was in the hands of a good writer. John Niven’s landline phone has rung. His partner hands it to him. ‘I take the phone from her as she watches me in the intense, quizzical way we monitor people who are about to receive Very Bad News.’ I can’t recall a writer noticing that before (I presume a few have), but we have noticed it ourselves. And the narrative masterstroke is that now the reader is looking at the page in an intense, quizzical way, for we want to know what the Very Bad News is. The VBN is

Who would be a farmer’s wife?

On the opening page of The Farmer’s Wife, Helen Rebanks quotes George Eliot’s famous passage from Middlemarch. Dorothea adds to ‘the growing good of the world’ through her ‘unhistoric acts’ and by having ‘lived faithfully a hidden life’. With this enchanting, funny, fearless book, Rebanks brings her own ‘unhistoric’ life unequivocally out of hiding. The blood, mud, slog, exhaustion, bureaucracy and financial angst of farming are ever-present She lives with her husband James (a bestselling writer) and their four children in the Lake District on their farm shared with six sheepdogs, two ponies, 20 chickens, 500 sheep and 50 cattle. Writing in the present tense, she describes the rhythm of

Sticky, slithery, squelchy, smacky: the authentic Chinese food experience

During the early days of the pandemic, a video clip of a Chinese celebrity slurping bat soup went viral – no matter that it was taken from a travel show filmed in 2016 on Palau, a Pacific island some 2,000 miles from the Huanan wet market in Wuhan, and regardless of the fact that the Chinese don’t like munching on bats in any case. Wuhan was Covid ground zero, and filthy Chinese eating habits were to blame. In Invitation to a Banquet, Fuchsia Dunlop sets out to skewer misconceptions about what she calls ‘the world’s most sophisticated gastronomic culture’. This contention may surprise foreigners brought up on sweet-and-sour pork balls

The man who loves volcanoes

Being a volcanologist demands a quiverful of skills. You need to be in command of multiple branches of science, including geophysics, geochemistry and seismology. But you must also understand people for whom science matters less than sorcery: people living near volcanoes, for whom they are sacred places, homes to ancestors, sites of miracles, mountains where God’s intervention in human affairs is made manifest in ash, fumes and flame. And you have to be brave. When it comes to studying volcanoes, risk and reward go hand in hand. So a volcanologist must be willing to peer over the edge of a crater, breathing in smoke ‘inconvenient to respiration’, crying acid tears.

Tales of the Midwest: The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard, reviewed

Jo Ann Beard has said that one of the stories in this collection, although she does not specify which, took her more than 20 years to write and that there was a gap of eight months – during which she was working on the piece five days a week – between two of its sentences. It is true that her writing is remarkably condensed, not least in ‘Cheri’, the story of a real woman who had a particularly hideous case of terminal cancer (exacerbated by the fact that all pain medication made her vomit). Cheri Tremble contacted Jack Kevorkian, a euthanasia expert sometimes nicknamed ‘Dr Death’, so that he could

The sleepless lives of great writers

To sleep or not to sleep – that is the question the French writer Marie Darrieussecq asks in her latest book, which explores the insomnia that has haunted her for 20 years since the birth of her first child. From that date, she writes, it ‘has attached itself to me like a small ghost’. Darrieussecq is best known for her surreal novel Pig Tales (1996), but Sleepless is an account of her search for a cure to insomnia and the solace she finds in discovering writers such as Franz Kafka (‘the patron saint of insomnia’), Marcel Proust, Georges Perec, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mahmoud Darwish, Haruki Murakami, Aimé

Violence overshadowed my Yorkshire childhood

We might be twins, Catherine Taylor and I. We were both girls growing up in Yorkshire in the same decades – I in the West Riding (where an alley is a ‘ginnel’), her in the south (where it’s a ‘gennel’). We are children of the Yorkshire Ripper years, conditioned to be constantly scared of the murderer, the dark, and our independence. We were both fatherless too young – mine dead, hers departed to another household; and we both had strong mothers keeping the remaining family afloat and forced to take in lodgers – in our case, Polish, German and French, in hers, Japanese and Senegalese. Much of this bookis familiar

A vision of what it means to be blind

To give us a sense of precisely how blind Selina Mills is she asks us to cover our right eye completely with our right hand and put a fist up in front of our left eye, so it blocks our central sight. ‘Now imagine the remaining sight is murky and blurry, as if covered in Vaseline or clingfilm.’ That really is quite blind. Born completely blind in one eye (a hand-painted glass eye was fitted when she was ten), Mills has been gradually losing sight in the other. Now, with just 15 per cent of her sight left, she is ‘legally blind’ and has had a social services person round

A feminist finds fulfilment in derided ‘women’s work’

Marina Benjamin writes with a frankness, depth and wisdom that recalls the self-exploratory but world-revealing essays of Michel de Montaigne. In A Little Give, she turns her exacting philosopher’s mind, and opens her capacious heart to, her own life. Her essays, Tardis-like in their complexity, depth and range, scrutinise what has made and unmade her feminism, and then enabled her to make anew the feminism that has given her life both its personal and political trajectory: While I’ve never stopped identifying as a feminist, I am less and less certain what it means to live as one. I don’t mean how to organise and mobilise collectively. I mean simply how