biography& history 80. THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON VOL 4: THE PASSAGE OF POWER ROBERT A CARO
63. THE PERIODIC TABLE PRIMO LEVI
Best known for his memoir of Auschwitz, If This Is A Man, Primo Levi later wrote this wholly original work – part autobiography, part essays, part short stories, part treatise – in which each chapter takes its theme from a different chemical element. Levi was a chemist by profession. He saw chemistry as truth, and unverifiable creeds (not least, Nazism) as the enemies of truth. Each element in the Periodic Table represents the primacy of fact. In one essay he writes about the time he thought he caused an explosion by using potassium instead of sodium. ‘The differences can be small, but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switchpoints; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of those differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.’
64. SPEAK, MEMORY VLADIMIR NABOKOV It glitters like a diamond, this playful, episodic and gorgeously exact recreation of the novelist’s aristocratic childhood in St Petersburg, immediately before the Revolution that forced his family into exile. 65. THE VERY BEST OF THE DAILY TELEGRAPH BOOKS OF OBITUARIES EDITED BY HUGH MASSINGBERD
From Bunny Roger, who claimed to have advanced through enemy lines during the Second World War with his chiffon scarf flying as he brandished a copy of Vogue, to ‘Big Bambino’ Rizzo who said, ‘I’m gonna be so tough as mayor of Philadelphia, I gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot’, all human life is here, and celebrated in style.
66. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS ROGER LEWIS
The crazy, monstrous, self-deluding chameleon got the biographer he deserved. Lewis is encyclopaedic in his research and merciless in his execution, but he is also a master at getting to the heart of what makes any given performer unique. And he’s very, very funny, too.
67. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING JOAN DIDION
Joan Didion’s husband of 40 years had a fatal heart attack while their daughter was in intensive care. This is an account – spare and undeceived – of what happened next. Moving despite itself, it’s a study in grief, or rather, of the way in which the madness of grief can tear even the steeliest mind asunder.
68. BRIEF LIVES JOHN AUBREY
Surely the punchiest and most gossipy work of historical biography ever written. Aubrey (16261697) realised that a single colourful detail is worth a thousand words. It is a lesson many of our more dogged biographers would do well to remember today. Who can forget his description of sex up against a tree between Walter Raleigh and a young lady friend? At first, she gasps, ‘Sweet Sir Walter’. Then, ‘as the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher, she cried in ecstasy, “Swisser Swatter, Swisser Swatter!”’
69. OUT OF SHEER RAGE GEOFF DYER
A book about not writing a book. Geoff Dyer set out to write a biography of DH Lawrence and ended up by writing this hilarious book about never quite getting round to it.
70. EMINENT VICTORIANS LYTTON STRACHEY
Whoever said biography had to be balanced? In his portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold and General Gordon, Strachey may often swap fairness for laughter, but he always gets a terrific exchange rate. The philosopher Bertrand Russell read it in Brixton prison and laughed so loud that an officer felt obliged to remind him that prison is a place of punishment.
71. THE QUEST FOR CORVO AJA SYMONS
The flakiest people often inspire the finest biographies. Baron Corvo was one of a number of identities assumed by the pathologically unreliable Frederick Rolfe, who wrote a wonderfully camp, batty, baroque novel about the only English pope, ‘Hadrian the Seventh’. The Quest For Corvo reads like a detective story, with the biographer pursuing the most elusive of quarries.
72. A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL JOHN PRESTON
The most charismatic and popular British politician of his day plots to have his former lover murdered. It would, he says, be ‘no worse than killing a sick dog’. He then pays a comically clumsy would-be assassin out of Liberal Party funds, at which point the assassin loses his nerve and shoots the lover’s Great Dane. I thought I knew every last detail of the Jeremy Thorpe affair but John Preston taught me much that I didn’t know, and told the bizarre tale with just the right amount of relish.
73. MARGARET THATCHER: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY VOL 1: NOT FOR TURNING CHARLES MOORE
You’d have thought that this first volume, which takes her up to the Falklands War, might be stuffy and reverential. Instead, it reads like an undiscovered novel by Arnold Bennett. Young Margaret Roberts, claustrophobic in her po-faced family – her father was a pious Alderman with wandering hands, while her mother, writes Moore, ‘had no pretensions to good looks, style or display’ – plots her escape, starting at Oxford where her contemporaries ‘did not know her terribly well, and were not strongly attracted by what they did know’. Now read on...
76. THE RULES OF THE GAME, BEYOND THE PALE NICHOLAS MOSLEY
Even in 2018, Sir Oswald Mosley continues to hit the headlines. The name of the upper-class English fascist remains a byword for wickedness, for opportunism, and also, happily, for failure. This complex, moving two-volume memoir by his eldest son Nicholas (also a brilliant novelist, incidentally) is, like
Father And Son (right), a brave, endlessly subtle attempt to explain the deep rift between the two men, and to explore the father’s Jekyll-and-Hyde character. ‘While the right hand dealt with grandiose ideas and glory’ writes Nicholas, ‘the left hand let the rat out of the sewer.’
74. THE LAST DAYS OF HITLER HUGH TREVOR-ROPER
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of books about Hitler have appeared since his death, but this was the first, and still, quite possibly, the best. In 1945 Trevor-Roper, a young intelligence officer and historian, was appointed to find out what had happened to the German Führer, who seemed to have disappeared without trace. He expanded his report to this extraordinarily vivid account of everyday life in the godforsaken bunker. Published hot-off-the-press in early 1947, The Last Days Of Hitler combines the urgency of great journalism with the heft of great history.
75. SELLING HITLER ROBERT HARRIS
Harris has gone on to write a string of highly acclaimed best-selling novels, but his skill as a journalist can be enjoyed in this madly entertaining recounting of the tale of the fake Hitler Diaries. It is populated, like so many cases of trickery, by many willing victims – not least elderly British historian Trevor-Roper – who allowed their intelligence to be outwitted by wishful thinking.
77. FATHER AND SON EDMUND GOSSE
‘This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs. It ended, as was inevitable, in disruption. Of the two human beings here described, one was born to fly backward, the other could not help being carried forward. There came a time when neither spoke the same language as the other, or encompassed the same hopes, or was fortified by the same desires. But, at least, it is some consolation to the survivor that neither, to the very last hour, ceased to respect the other, or to regard him with a sad indulgence.’ A beautiful memoir about the clash between a stern fundamentalist father and his wayward, liberal son.
78. DUVEEN SN BEHRMAN
Half connoisseur, half con-artist, Joseph Duveen managed to convince the first great American tycoons – Rockefeller, Hearst, Mellon – that the path to immortality was paved with Renaissance masterpieces, and that he alone was the gatekeeper. An elegant dissection of a man and an epoch, beautifully balanced between admiration and disbelief.
79. THIS BOY ALAN JOHNSON
The amiable former UK home secretary’s first volume of autobiography, dealing with growing up in extreme poverty in London’s Notting Hill in the late Fifties, looks like becoming a classic, and rightly so. Written without a hint of selfpity, it becomes a story of salvation through kindness. ‘I’m going to be president. I was meant to be president,’ LBJ said to anyone who would listen during his years as Senate leader. Offered the chance of the vice presidency by JFK, whom he despised, he did the maths. ‘I looked it up: one out of every four presidents has died in office,’ he told a lady friend. ‘I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.’ Three years later, a bullet killed Kennedy, and LBJ’s gamble paid off. The Passage Of Power charts LBJ’s overnight change from sidelined, resentful vice president to decisive, social-reforming president. ‘To watch Lyndon Johnson during the transition is to see political genius in action,’ writes Caro. Likewise, to read Caro on Johnson is to see biographical genius in action.
Thatcher’s biography reads like an undiscovered novel by Arnold Bennett
81. A SULTRY MONTH ALETHEA HAYTER
June 1846: temperatures rise to 90 degrees in the shade, and everything seems to be going pearshaped for Benjamin Haydon, painter of unfashionable historical canvases. Within a mile or two, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Dickens, Wordsworth and Tennyson are all milling around. Before the month is out, Haydon has committed suicide, his latest exhibition having been upstaged and outsold by General Tom Thumb’s show next door. Alethea Hayter offers a fascinating and wholly original new approach to history in this slice of-life portrait of artistic London over the course of a single sultry month.
84. TALES OF A NEW JERUSALEM DAVID KYNASTON
A multi-volume chronicle of Britain (including Modernity
Britain, above) from the end of World War Two to Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979, covering everything from Bronco toilet paper to the birth of the motorway. Kynaston’s curiosity is insatiable, his research painstaking, his style flowing and his range panoramic.
82. THY NEIGHBOR’S WIFE GAY TALESE
When this unconventional survey of the sex lives of modern Americans was first published in 1981, it was overshadowed by the media’s bogus outrage at its distinguished author’s overenthusiastic research, during which Talese had run a massage parlour, indulged in affairs, participated in orgies and joined a nude commune. Thirtyseven years on, it’s perhaps easier to appreciate the theatrical brilliance of this book’s construction, and the extraordinary portrait it offers of what adults got up to behind closed doors in the Seventies.
85. THE PAX BRITANNICA TRILOGY JAN MORRIS
Jan Morris’s exuberant threevolume history of the British Empire may have fallen out of fashion, as she found as much to celebrate as to regret. But it continues to show that history need not be dry as dust, and that with rich, sumptuous prose a vanished era can be conjured back to life.
83. LONDON: THE BIOGRAPHY PETER ACKROYD
It’s as busy and bustling as its subject, with different chapters covering topics as varied as noise, fog, murderers, fires, prisons, subterranean rivers, crowds, beggars and the colour red. Ackroyd treats London as a living, breathing thing, immortal and ravenous.
86. THE VICTORIANS AN WILSON
A N Wilson has written a wide range of books to celebrate, among them his novel The Healing
Art, a delightfully cranky memoir of Iris Murdoch, and God’s
Funeral, a history of the rise of atheism in the 19th century. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be The Victorians, his vivid, bustling, brilliantly detailed recreation of the age that continues to loom.
87. AKENFIELD RONALD BLYTHE
In the late Sixties, Ronald Blythe interviewed the residents of an English village – shepherds, gravediggers, doctors, labourers. Some of them were old enough to remember the era before the motorcar, when you were able to travel only as far as you could bicycle in a day, a time when the only art available was ringing the church bells, and when the servants had to face the wall when Her Ladyship walked past. It’s oral history as poetry; the poetry of the past.
88. THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF GEORGE ORWELL
There are all sorts of bones one could pick with George Orwell. ‘He could not blow his nose without moralising on the state of the handkerchief industry,’ complained his old schoolfriend Cyril Connolly. But his virtues – the clarity of his prose, his broadmindedness, his intellectual curiosity, his unpompous tone – far outstrip his occasional pieties. Such is Orwell’s power that nearly 70 years after his death, his views are as relevant as ever, and thinkers on all sides of the political debate still fight to claim him for their own.
89. DON JUAN LORD BYRON
I remember feeling on an endless high one summer when I first read this sexy, cheeky, melodramatic, outrageous, satirical and stupendously clever work. Who could ever imagine that a long verse novel could ever be such fun?
90. AWOPBOPALOOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM: POP FROM THE BEGINNING NIK COHN
I remember the thrill of reading this in the summer of 1970, when I had just turned 13. It told me what made rock music so exciting and gave me good reason to feel suspicious of the self-regarding prog-rock course on which it was about to embark. It also taught me that language should always go in tandem with its subject. When Cohn wrote that pop at its best was ‘fast, funny, sexy, obsessive, a bit epic’, he was also summing up his own prose style, widely imitated but rarely surpassed.
91. BIRDS AND PEOPLE MARK COCKER
The hummingbird beats its wings at up to 200 beats a second. The Manx shearwater flies from Wales to Argentina in a fortnight. The Emperor Penguin can dive over 450 metres, which is more than the height of the Empire State building. Helped by 650 birdlovers from 81 countries, Cocker produced a god-like book about man’s relationship with the creatures he loves, envies, admires and, sometimes, kills.
92. 20TH CENTURY WORDS EDITED BY JOHN AYTO
An endlessly fascinating etymological dictionary, dealing with words originating in the 20th century, complete with dates and first usage, from Abominable Snowman (1921) to Zit (1966) via Undies (1906) and Slaphead (1990).
93. FINAL CUT: DREAMS AND DISASTER IN THE MAKING OF HEAVEN’S GATE STEVEN BACH
There’s nothing quite so heartwarming as lying in bed reading about other people’s catastrophes. Steven Bach was a senior executive when United Artists commissioned the wholly unreliable Michael Cimino to make a new film. Heaven’s Gate turned out to be one of the most expensive and disastrous projects in the history of Hollywood and brought down United Artists. A tale of overwhelming vanity, duplicity, megalomania, greed and cowardice, it’s high time it was made into a film of its own.
94. REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD IAN MACDONALD
I’m a connoisseur of Beatles books, which are now produced at the same rate as books about Churchill and books about cakes. This is my favourite – a chronological anatomy of each of their songs, by turns anoraky and appreciative, sceptical and celebratory, with each and every page bursting with information.
95. THE NEW PENGUIN BOOK OF ENGLISH VERSE EDITED BY PAUL KEEGAN
It’s hard to imagine a world before Yeats and Coleridge, Larkin and Pope, John Donne, Christina Rossetti and T S Eliot. This vast poetry anthology, ordered year by year, is a treasure trove of the well-loved and the offbeat, the half-remembered and the utterly fresh.
96. WATERLOG ROGER DEAKIN
A joyous, uplifting swim around Britain in the sea, rivers, lakes, moats and even potholes. At the same time a bracing celebration of physical and mental freedom.
97. IN THE FREUD ARCHIVE JANET MALCOLM
I would read any book by the beady New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm. She has a laser-like intelligence, which she employs to disentangle moral conundrums. This is the hypnotically compelling story of the pushy young man who was placed in charge of the Freud Archives, and then used them to overturn Freud’s reputation.
98. SUMMONED BY BELLS JOHN BETJEMAN
Poet John Betjeman’s blank verse autobiography was pooh-poohed by the cognoscenti on its first appearance in 1960. Academia has still not caught up with it, but the rest of us can celebrate the keenness of its childhood memories, which, such is Betjeman’s skill, somehow become our memories, too.
99. MR PALOMAR ITALO CALVINO
In 27 little essays, the mild Mr Palomar, a figure not unlike Calvino, looks at a variety of things – a wave as it breaks, an albino gorilla in a zoo, a naked woman on a beach – and tries to make sense of it all, and his position in the universe. These meditations are performed with such delicate playfulness that it is easy to underestimate their intellectual brilliance.
And finally... 100. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME MARCEL PROUST
You should always have something you’re saving up to read. But how long can you wait? For the past 40-odd years, on and off, I’ve been dipping into Proust’s multi-volumed work. Each time, I’ve loved entering his world, following him down the strange corridors of thought and memory. But I still haven’t read it all from start to finish. Instead, I tell myself that I’ll save it up for when I have more time. But how much time do I have? It’s fast dawning on me that there’s no time to lose.
Such is Orwell’s power that nearly 70 years after his death his views are as relevant as ever