Saturday, October 14, 2006

Stories from Life

Since I am frequently in the biographical business, it is heartening to see just how many readers are turning to true life stories in the shape of personal histories.

It was Plutarch who started all this, although his “Lives” amounted to little more than brief essays, but he pretty much cornered the market for years.

Young Will Shakespeare dipped into him for inspiration when he got fed up with writing about English Kings, the odd Scots monarch and a Danish prince, although he does not seemed to have bothered to have given him the courtesy of a credit line. His plays, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra and Pericles all owe a good deal to Plutarch. Perhaps he was mentioned in the programme notes.

Biographers soon found how to turn their skills to professional advantage, as many still do. William of Poitiers wrote a smashing eye-witness account of William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain, even though he was miles away from the action at the time and must have had extraordinarily good eyesight, and clinched the matter by following it with “The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans.” This eulogy paid off when William made him his personal chaplain, probably a better reward than the royalties from the book.

The early biographers concentrated largely on the rich and famous of the time and the others have their stories pieced together from the occasional anecdote or diary entry. Pepys diary was hardly autobiographical in spite of its interesting entries. He only kept it up for a few years and, at the time, no contemporary thought his life worth writing about.

The best know early biography must be that of James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” On the evidence of his own “London Diaries,” Boswell was a remarkably unpleasant and unprepossessing young man, and what Johnson saw in him, Heaven alone knows. But in spite of being like chalk and cheese, they seem to have got along remarkably well, so much so that Boswell spent much of his life writing the Doctor’s life story. For myself, I always think of Samuel Johnson as being a pompous pedant in spite of his invaluable contributions to the literary field. He was as unattractive physically as Boswell was morally, and that may have been the mutual attraction.

Biographers scouring around for possible subjects tend to home in on celebrities as being easy bait for the potential reader, but when I survey the Bio shelves of a modern bookstore, I find that only about two percent of the subject’s names are familiar. Admittedly this may be in part due to my total ignorance of sports personalities and stars of stage, screen and television, but it is also due to the number of biographies and autobiographies of real people (as opposed to the categories mentioned above!) that are now appearing.

This I find to be a heartening trend – for the stories of ordinary people can be fascinating. Remember, the radio series “The Archers” is still going after umpteen years and that was “Just an Everyday Story of Country Folk!”

It’s probably the voyeuristic instinct in us that makes these tales so interesting and, in spite of the tendency to embroider some autobiographies with spurious details, by and large they provide a valuable resource for the social historian as well as providing entertaining reading matter for the general public.

The caveat is, naturally, that they should be well written and this is where I get in a plug for my profession – that of the ghost writer. Often the manuscripts need little more than a little tweaking to make them acceptable to a publisher – sometimes, a complete rewrite, and a professional writer will be happy to advise without any obligation.

Now if you happen to be a multi-million dollar personality, don’t bother to ask me – just send the cheque. In fact, in 1760, author David Mallet had done just that, accepting a large sum from the Duchess of Marlborough to write the Duke’s biography. He never put a word to paper but seems to have got away with it. I bet I couldn’t.

No doubt if they were around today, Plutarch, or possibly Boswell, would have been given a crack at writing Wayne Rooney’s biography. But I'm sure they would have turned the job down!


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