The air of madness in Michael Holroyd’s study is so charmingly baroque it must be contrived. Every surface is strewn with papers; two wicker armchairs have come to rest, like driftwood, near the desk; there is a sock by a table leg; and, among the clutter on the polished floorboards, a couple of cardboard boxes contain a handful of birth certificates, property deeds and albums of sepia-toned photographs. These are his family relics, the meagre detritus of three generations of turbulence and wilful eccentricity. As the sum of source material for Holroyd’s next book, the first draft of which he aims to complete this week, the contents of these boxes look unpromising. The caption under one Victorian group portrait doesn’t even name the sitters, just the dog: Spot. This is why the book is part autobiography, part saga about the declining fortunes of Holroyd’s once wealthy, tea plantation-owning family, and part investigative journalism.
The contrast with the subjects of Holroyd’s previous endeavours – especially the biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw – could not be greater. These three lives, consisting of nine volumes in total, represent 37 years of the author’s own life – if you include the past few years, spent abridging them to just three volumes (to be published next week, for the first time, as a complete set in paperback). For each, the research material came not so much in a brace of cardboard boxes as a fleet of skips.
During the 17 years, for instance, that Holroyd worked on his monumental, five-volume life of Shaw, the floorboards in this book-lined study at the top of his Ladbroke Grove house creaked under the weight of Shavian letters, manuscripts and diaries. Open a cupboard or drawer, manhandle a desk or chair and there would have been an avalanche of dog-eared prefaces, pamphlets and plays. The bearded superman wrote ten letters every day, more than 50 plays, and filled 40 volumes with his collected works (and more with his uncollected writings). With his shorthand and his secretaries, GBS could write in a day more words than Holroyd could read in a day.
The sheaves of paper scattered around Holroyd’s portable typewriter today relate mostly to the various literary committees he sits on in order to get himself out of the house. ‘I could stay closeted in this chaotic room quite amiably if I wasn’t forced to go out,’ he says. And while there is still an atmosphere of musty neglect in the room, which has you brushing away imaginary cobwebs before you sit down, there is no sense of Shaw’s presence any more, the vast archive having been returned to the various universities and literary estates from which it came.
Having the Shaw papers lying around the place was an important part of the writing process, apparently. By handling them, noting the crossings out, even smelling the mildew on them, Holroyd believes he established a sense of intimacy with his subject. ‘When it comes to my own family there is very little to go on,’ says Holroyd with a sigh. ‘Things were suppressed. The waters of oblivion quickly closed over the family scandals.’ The secrecy had a lot to do with his father being a bankrupt, with his parents having notched up five marriages between them and with the shame they felt in being unable to bring up their son – the boy Michael was raised in an atmosphere of glum gentility by his paternal grandparents in Maidenhead, Berkshire.
‘But I’m discovering new clues about them every day,’ Holroyd adds. ‘A will might have a bit of narrative. A trip to Somerset House might provide some embers that you can blow on to get a flame going. And I do have a degree of latitude because I know the tones of voice, the habitual phrases, the mannerisms.’ Hesitation. Thoughtful pursing of the lips. ‘This book is autobiographical only to the extent that I appear as echoes and reflections of what went on. I remember, for instance, overhearing my grandfather groaning, ‘What are we going to do about the boy!’ But the irony was that, with time, it was me asking the question, ‘What am I do with my father, with my aunt?”
The book, to be published early next year, will be called Basil Street Blues, after the street in London where Holroyd was conceived, where his mother modelled and where his father – who happened to be called Basil – had a business importing Lalique glass. As well as his memories and a handful of photographs to go on, Holroyd also has his own reflection in the mirror for inspiration. ‘You become the people who are missing,’ he says. Today Holroyd sits in a rumpled blue matelot jumper, half-rimmed spectacles on a cord around his neck and slippers embroidered with an anonymous coat of arms. He coils his legs each around the other, as if making himself smaller – and there is something of the chameleon about him, as if he is blending with his surroundings to avoid detection. His dusty brown hair is dishevelled, as though he has just risen from one of the siestas he lists as his recreation in Who’s Who (the English, as No‘l Coward noted, may detest a siesta – but Holroyd, born in London in 1935, is part Irish and half-Swedish, so he can nap whenever he likes). Holroyd’s downturned eyes, though small, tired-looking and watery, seem kindly and wise. His facial expressions, too, have a certain crinkly warmth. Occasionally they are accompanied by a gentle wheezy chortle. For he is very much a chortler – giving him the aspect of one of those avuncular bumbling characters you come across in Dickens.
As Holroyd rises from one of the wicker chairs, it complains with a creak. He rummages around in the nearest box, produces a photograph of his mother, Ulla, considers it for a moment and hands it over. Her face is handsome, her expression blank. ‘Blankly Swedish,’ Holroyd agrees. ‘She was an eyeful. She knew how to enjoy herself.’ An extrovert, multilingual au pair with a penchant for parties, she was only 19 when she gave birth to her son and rather resented the intrusion. Holroyd’s most vivid memory of his mother is of seeing her dancing on the table after dinner, champagne in hand, talking in tongues. By then she was 37, he a shy, self-conscious and painfully embarrassed 17.
Holroyd’s parents, who were unable even to agree on the exact date their son was born – his mother swore it was 27 August, his father said the 29th – divorced in 1944. ‘They would marry from time to time and hardly a holiday went by when I wasn’t supplied with a new step-parent or stepbrother and stepsister,’ Holroyd recalls with the studied nonchalance of the raconteur. ‘As my mother was Swedish, and I had a stepmother who was French and a stepfather who was Hungarian, I was considered an object of curiosity at school.’ He would try to drain himself of interest, keep quiet, make himself as inconspicuous as possible. ‘My childhood wasn’t as exotic as it sounded because I would often find myself in countries where I didn’t speak the language or understand the culture. This would just make me feel lonely.’
His father was a proud man who couldn’t cope with the shame of losing the fortune left to him by his own father, a major-general who had served in India and been given a tea plantation as a reward for action in the Mutiny. Holroyd recalls an almost tangible sense of nervousness in the family home. ‘Whenever someone knocked on the door we wouldn’t answer it. We absolutely froze.’ He gives the wheezy chortle. ‘Anything that came, a telegram or whatever, would, we now believed, be bad news. We had become pessimists. But what we dreaded most was people’s sympathy.’ He recalls playing tennis on a court belonging to a woman his aunt had known in better times. ‘We would creep up to the court, hiding behind trees so we wouldn’t be seen from the big house and offered hospitality.’
Despite his father’s bankruptcy, money was found to send Michael to Eton. ‘It was ridiculous. I now discover we had a double mortgage on the house and my father had gone to my stepfather, who we’d never met before, and asked him to pay for some of the school fees. He never mentioned it.’ Father and son were never especially close, and the only time words of reconciliation were uttered between them was when Basil was so old and deaf Michael had to bellow them out – which rather ruined the effect.
After an unimpressive career at school, Michael Holroyd was coerced by his father into training as a lawyer and articled to a depressing office on the bus route between Dedworth and Gravesend. Here, Holroyd discovered a talent for amiable inertia and the dullness of the job was only broken on two occasions: the time he was shot at while serving a writ, and the day he was accidentally locked into a butcher’s fridge.
In 1955 National Service offered Holroyd a means of escape from the legal profession but, because of his enthusiasm for inactivity, he was reluctant to seize it: in his medical he claimed everything from water on the knee to bow-legs and an allergy to Elastoplast. Disaster. He was graded ‘3’, ensuring not exemption but two years in the Pioneer Corps, digging field latrines. He appealed for clemency and was re-graded ‘1’.
In the army, he says, he learnt the art of partially eclipsing himself, not going missing exactly but always going unseen. He would strut around with an expression of the sternest vacancy so that it became difficult to focus on him. No one was even sure what his name was. He was once standing in the middle of his barracks when a sergeant looked in, said ‘No one here,’ and left. Holroyd considered it a triumph. Eventually someone came across his records and noticed his mother was a native of Sweden, a neutral country. He was confined to barracks for several weeks, before drifting back into anonymity.
Holroyd grins at the memory. Perhaps more than he realises, he is given to using comedy as a way of diffusing – denying even – the family situations he recalls. ‘In retrospect humiliating events can seem funny,’ he says. ‘Especially when it comes to my family. There is a tragi-comic theme to my parents. I mean, we were ridiculous.’
One consequence of his unorthodox, displaced upbringing is that, as an adult, he seems excessively driven by a need to be liked. We all are to an extent, but his urge is so powerful it has won him a reputation for niceness that even Michael Palin would find unpalatable. After several hours’ conversation, I came away with an impression of bluff geniality. But if you weren’t in the right mood for it, his manner could seem ingratiating and emollient, his stories overly polished and a little smug. Indeed, his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble, once said to him on an airplane that looked like it was about to be hijacked, ‘Please don’t try to disarm them with your British Council lecture, dear.’
In his biographies Michael Holroyd has always striven to feel sympathetic toward his subjects, but not sentimental. He is, he says, aware of the dangers of reducing painful episodes in his own life to twee jokes. ‘I’m trying to guard against it. Some scenes do get to me. Once I was standing over my aunt’s bed shouting at her. Not very pleasant. She was paralysed and yet refused to leave her huge five-bedroom house, which she, we, couldn’t afford to keep, and move into a smaller flat adapted for a disabled person. I felt stressed. I felt angry. But my aunt’s position was that she would rather die in one place than live in another. It was an impossible situation. But I was forced to make her move.’
In his teens and early twenties, Holroyd was, he says, in a permanent state of apprehension. He turned to writing biographies so that he could escape into other people’s lives. ‘I think it was a way of dealing with it. He wrote his first biography, of the writer and critic Hugh Kingsmill, at the age of 23. His two-volume life of Strachey was published to acclaim in 1967 and 1968, and his equally successful Augustus John in 1974 and 1975. Shaw was published between 1988 and 1992.
And as Holroyd played a part in the posthumous reputations of Strachey, John and Shaw, so they have played a part in his actual life. Like a method biographer, getting under the skin, Holroyd became infected with many of the ailments Strachey described in his plaintive correspondence – faulty digestion, apathy and self-loathing. He also found himself becoming more liberal, dry and bohemian in outlook the more he came under Strachey’s spell. Being pathologically nice and well-mannered, he secretly wished he were more brittle and rude, like Strachey. Being shy with women as a young man (he says he could never speak when his beautiful 19-year-old half-sister was in the room), he wished he were more sexually confident, like the swashbuckling, womanising John. When Holroyd researched John, he found himself becoming more hedonistic, cheerful and visually aware as well as more flirtatious. Shaw made him more confident and politically robust.
Holroyd himself would disapprove of such reductionism. Then again, his own conclusions can seem too neat at times: the defining characteristic of Shaw, he argues, was that he was governed by the child within. John’s was that he tried to kill his intellect through alcohol because it tortured him; Strachey’s that his acid wit and misanthropy stemmed from his homosexuality. When it was published in the Sixties, Lytton Strachey broke new ground – and caused a scandal – in its detailed and dispassionate account of Strachey’s sexual proclivities in particular and those of the Bloomsbury Group in general. Perhaps what shocked the Establishment most was that its author seemed to empathise.
‘Of course I’d been to public school and so had some knowledge of homosexuality as a way of life. It had very much been in the atmosphere and there had been rumours and frissons and there may have been the odd expulsion. I think we all had innocent crushes. I certainly had one. The point about being invisible as a biographer is that you don’t intrude or obtrude in the text: ticking people off for this, commending them for that. You have to go with the current of energy. Homosexuality was extremely important to Strachey. I found it difficult at the start to get into step with him. Took about a year of reading his letters and diaries.’
Not that Holroyd became too sympathetic. He is resolutely, if shyly at first, heterosexual. ‘Having been in all these male-dominated institutions I found dating agony. I was very glad when the Sixties got going and a lot of women became ‘manisers’ and said, ‘For God’s sake, take some initiative.’ I made up for lost time. With one exception I don’t think anyone got hurt. On the whole I’ve stayed friends with people I’ve been involved with.’ When asked how many times he fell in love he says, ‘a good six or more.’ Several days later he rings to correct this figure to three or four: ‘Sorry to be pedantic about this, let’s say three and a half.’
In 1982, Holroyd gave driving lessons to his friend, the novelist Margaret Drabble, and these became a form of courtship which resulted in an unconventional marriage. For 13 years they were known as the couple who lived apart to stay together. Her home was in Hampstead, his in the bottom half of the five-storey house off Ladbroke Grove. ‘We found ingenious ways of getting to each other’s houses by car, shaving a couple of minutes off here and there.’
Drabble said they were so polite and so hated using the phone that they would write each other postcards saying, ‘Would you be free for dinner tomorrow?’ When the top half of Holroyd’s house came on the market, it so happened Drabble had just finished her Oxford Companion to English Literature as well as her biography of Angus Wilson. ‘There seemed no point in her rattling around on her own in her house. This’ – he spreads his hands – ‘is really two offices and a home. Can you hear her now?’ Silence. ‘And Maggie can’t hear me.’
It is quite a double act; a my-wife-next-door sitcom. It is Drabble, a brisk Yorkshirewoman with a pageboy haircut, who answers the front door when you arrive – because her book-lined study is on the ground floor. She hands you over to Holroyd who is hovering at the top of the first flight of stairs and then melts back into the shadows of her study. Before marrying Holroyd, Drabble was married for 15 years to the actor Clive Swift with whom she had three children. Holroyd gets on well with them and says he has no regrets about not having children of his own. ‘It wasn’t something I planned. It’s not something that worried me. I’m not against children. I don’t go around Heroding. My creative energies have gone into my books and maybe I would be less affected by reviews if I had three children squabbling around my ankles. Do I fear death more because I don’t have the sort of immortality provided by children? Maybe. But it may also be because my mother and grandfather both had terrible, protracted deaths. I try not to think about death. The curtain will go down, I tell myself, and everything will be all right. I see my biographical work as offering a chance to retrieve a little from death. Giving the people I write about a chance to carry on.’
Michael Holroyd’s muscular, wry and elegantly written biographies give him a pretty good claim on literary immortality. It is possible that the definitive Shaw has yet to be written, but probable that any future biographer who feels tempted to try writing it will first sleep on it, wake to a balmy spring morning filled with the song of skylarks and say to himself, ‘Oh sod it, life’s too short.’
And this is probably why, despite his best efforts to seem self-effacing, vague and socially inept, Michael Holroyd is actually rather pleased with himself. But there are chinks in his armour of self-satisfaction. What if, in devoting his own life to studying – indeed vicariously living – the lives of others, Holroyd wakes up one morning with the horrible feeling that he might have somehow neglected to live his own? Is this why he has now turned the pen on himself? ‘It’s true, when writing Shaw I worried desperately that my life was disappearing. I kept lying to myself about how long it would take. And I was worried that I was making a complete ass of myself. Am I, I wondered, running this marathon having taken a wrong turn somewhere? I sometimes had to tear up 50 pages because it didn’t lead anywhere. I worried that I might die before it was finished; that the house and with it the only copy of the manuscript might go up in flames.’
An even more uncomfortable thought occurs. On his deathbed, Holroyd might suddenly come round to the view, held by some, that biography is fundamentally immoral, and that biographers – people Oscar Wilde called the bodysnatchers of literature – have no right to the intimate secrets of someone else’s life. How would Holroyd himself like it if he knew someone would be poring over his personal effects once he was gone? ‘I wouldn’t like it one bit. I wouldn’t wish a biography of me to be written while I was alive. I discriminate between the rights of the living and the dead – that is my ethical position as a biographer and I can’t exclude myself from it. When we’re living we need all our sentimentalities, our evasions, our half-truths and our white lies, to get through life. My family certainly did. I do. When we are dead different rules apply. You can sometimes ask the dead to contribute a little more to the living world than when they were alive – because they will no longer be hurt. It’s funny, you can sometimes find out more about someone’s life than they themselves knew. You read the lovers’ diaries that they never saw and you find out why love affairs really ended.’
The death of his parents left a gaping hole in Holroyd’s life. So did the completion of the final volume of Shaw. It’s safe to assume the collected works published next week will, too. The autobiography he is writing is, he acknowledges with a sanguine smile, an attempt to plug these gaps. He makes light of it. But metaphysical terror lies behind the affable weariness in his smile. And if the air of charming madness in his study seems contrived, the sense of mortal panic in his eyes does not.