Friday, April 17, 2009

I want to tell you a story!

Recently I have been thinking a lot about telling stories, not the telling of tall stories, or fairy stories, but, the telling of our own stories. DGR in her blog got me thinking about this when she reviewed The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman which is a biographical account of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor. The project had initially received the support and blessing of Elizabeth’s family, but, when the book was published, the family were outraged by some of the material that had been uncovered during research. They were especially upset about quotes from some letters which had been kept by her one time confident and lover. These letters were from a period in her life before she was married to the father of her children and husband of many years. ET herself had destroyed all the correspondence and papers that were in her possession before she died and so these early letters were the only ones handwritten by her available for the research. The book winds up to various conclusions and the family have since withdrawn their authorisation of the book.

A huge debate ensued on the blog about why so many people seem fascinated by biographical accounts of peoples’ lives; are we really voyeurs or just interested in fixing a frame around people we admire or have heard of. In the discussion we touched upon the unique responsibility and ethical challenge a biographical writer may face should they uncover something that would be perceived as negative about the subject they are researching; if that writer should withhold such information from publication in order to protect the subject and the family of the subject or if they should go ahead and tell the truth about the findings. It got me thinking about the whole issue of the responsibility one has to speak up for oneself and how we have to face the fact that if we do not tell our story then someone else may well come along and do it for us - and we may not like the outcome! This also lead me to think, which is the truer account, autobiography which is written with hindsight and very possibly a selective memory, or, biography which is based on the trail of whatever evidence is left behind? I came to the conclusion that this is not as easy a question as it at first appears.

In my last blog I reviewed Hilary Mantel’s book Beyond Black and I was struck by her comments at the end of the book when she was talking about what drove her story, she said:

“The thing that frightens me most is confiscation of history. If you don’t own the past, and can’t speak up for it, your past can be stolen and falsified, it can be changed behind you. I am interested in the way people remember, and just as the way they won’t remember.” we have several very juicy and difficult things to tackle here. I'd love to know what you think.


Speaking of autobiographies, I recently re-read Joanna Lumley’s No Room For Secrets which is a very clever, stylish and witty account of her life. She tells her story by taking the reader on a journey around her home. From the outset she works on the premise that because of her many TV appearances over the years, she is likely to have been a visitor to your home and that it is only polite for her to invite you into hers, via the account in this book. What unfolds is a rare book of travel and discovery as she cleverly describes each room in her house and what it is used for. She talks about pieces of furniture, draws full of trinkets, old paintings hanging on walls, racks of clothes and costumes, collections of old photos and an assorted collection of eclectic possessions and what these mean to her and the part they have played in her life.

Here is a tiny excerpt just to whet your appetite:

“We bought that gorgeous place, and with astonishing speed and competence, under the dangerously demanding eye of Pat Lorimer, our architect, a road was built (only a farm road, nothing spivvy needed or wanted)”

Can’t you just hear her rich and deliciously plummy English accent resound in your head when you read those words – I can! It is a wonderful book about the life of a remarkable woman and I urge anyone who has not read it to track a copy down as soon as possible.

Here are some photos of a few rooms in my house, whilst we are on a theme!

Here is the spiral staircase in our lounge. The panel paining on the wall was a gift from my brother and sister-in-law to thank us for arranging their wedding last year which took place in Hong Kong - Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry - don't you just want to get married there with a name like that! The sculpture on the writing desk is one we picked up from Hamilton Island in Australia when we took a family holiday there in 1999. The dolphin is called Diana and was a local celebrity in and around the Island, loved by locals and tourists alike. She often turned up very close to shore and was responsible for raising the alarm several times when swimmers and sailors got in trouble at sea.

This is our sitting room and I am perched on the cream sofa (on the left of the picture) right now typing this blog. As you can tell, books are a big part of life in this house and the bookcase is one of three we had especially made when we first moved to the US several years ago. The painting on the wall is a hand painted batik on silk and depicts a dragon. This was from the Malay Village in Singapore and I swore I would go back for the tiger, but, I never got round to it! The jester's head is an original wood carving which we bought at a summer fair in Tennessee in 2005. We got caught in a terrible summer storm that day and I had to stuff the carving under my t-shirt to get it home undamaged.

Last, but not least, for today that is, here is my reading corner, resplendent with more books and comfy sofa's. The painting on the wall is one by the brother of a good friend of ours from Singapore days, the artist Raymond Jennings. It is a relief painting of another larger one we have which depicts a house on a street in San Francisco. The chair first appears in the large painting as a part of a table and chair set parked outside the front of the house. In this painting the chair is shown in detail.

You see, it is possible to piece together stories around rooms and possessions. Of course, Ms Lumley's attempt is much better than mine here, but, you see what I mean.


  1. Hi Kim, what beautiful pictures, it looks so peaceful and relaxing in your home. Is that a photo of Thomas and Michael when they were small I could see? I'm sure its one I remember seeing before, but it was such a long time ago. I get the feel that you are enjoying writing your blog and I must say you are very good at it, making it interesting and insighting.
    Love Sue x

  2. Hi Sue, yes, a couple of photos of the boys when they were small. Thanks for your comments, I do enjoy writing so it's easy, allbeit a little time consuming sometimes. This is a beautiful place we live in, we are very lucky indeed. Kxx

  3. I love Hilary Mantel's books but like you was actually glad to finish this one! It was dark but the humour enabled me to enjoy it.

    I have recently started reading biographies but have to like the person I think to pick it up! I think the autobiography often is therapeutic to the author when they are able to put into print things that otherwise they wouldnt choose to face though interestingly like you say, may omit things that biographers maybe dont hold back on. I recently heard Melvyn Bragg interviewed re his autobio being released in paperback. Apparently he couldnt handle the media when it was first published in hardback as his emotions were so raw from recounting his first wife's suicide. Reading your blog has just reminded me to look out for it next time Im in Waterstones.

    Love the photos. Wish I had taken my pc with me to show Mum. She is looking forward to seeing you and Steve and experiencing HK -once the journey is over as quite nervous over travelling alone - understandably. Lol xxxxxxxxx

  4. Angela, some noteworthy bio's and autobio's I can recommend include David Profumo - Bringing the House Down which is an account of his mother (Valerie) and father (Jack), their relationship, some detail around the Profumo Affair and the loyalty and love a wife shows her husbund during a time of merciless public scrutiny. I enjoyed it. Martin Booth - Gweilo is Tuesday's blog so look out for it. The Opposite of Fate - Amy Tan, interesting musings. No Room for Secrets - Joanna Lumley, as above. There's Something I Hate About My Neck - Nora Ephron, very funny. Kate Aide - The Kindness of Strangers. Tiziano Terzani - A Fortune Teller Told Me. Holy Cow - Sarah McDonald and Eat, Prey, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert. Actually, just noticed that they are all autobios with the exception of David Profumo, interesting!
    Looking forward to seeing Mum next week. I won't be blogging as much- I'm trying to build up some blogs so I can keep posting whilst she is here. I'll call her re pick up so she can relax about the travelling a little - it's not easy to get stuck or lost in an airport - that is, not unless you are Tom Hanks, of course!! Love Kxxxx

  5. Actually, the title of Nora Ephron's book is 'I Feel Bad About My Neck' - not as above and the Gweilo review follows this one.