On the out­side look­ing in

One of our best bi­og­ra­phers turns the spot­light on her­self. Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham ap­plauds the re­sult

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Mem­oir A Life of My Own Claire To­ma­lin (Vik­ing, £16.99)

AL­WAYS self-ef­fac­ing in her award-win­ning bi­ogra­phies, Claire To­ma­lin was never go­ing to be a self­ind­ul­gent or long-winded mem­oirist; her in­stinct is to do jus­tice to a sub­ject, but also to be con­cise. This ex­em­plary mem­oir ful­fils my chief cri­te­rion for good non­fic­tion writ­ing: ‘Say it and move on; say it and move on.’ She doesn’t shirk from writ­ing about the most painful times of her life, but she knows that a few well­cho­sen words can say a great deal.

She’s suf­fered more than her fair share of per­sonal tragedy. Her third­born child lived for only a month. Her hus­band, the jour­nal­ist Nick To­ma­lin, was killed in 1973 when the car he was driv­ing in Is­rael was hit by a mis­sile. Then, in 1980, one of their three daugh­ters, Su­sanna, be­came de­pressed and com­mit­ted sui­cide while a glit­ter­ing Ox­ford un­der­grad­u­ate.

Of this, the au­thor writes with typ­i­cally non-self-in­dul­gent clar­ity: ‘Now I know we should have pro­tected her fiercely, and that had we been given more and bet­ter ad­vice, we might have saved her.’ In that short sen­tence, the whole worlds of parental guilt and of the fail­ings of the 1980s NHS are con­tained.

I al­ways no­tice whether the name ‘Claire’ has an ‘i’ in it. Hers does; her fa­ther, Emile Delave­nay, was French. Her mother, Muriel, was a mu­si­cian and com­poser from liver­pool; for both, london was the place of their dreams, but their mar­riage was un­happy and they di­vorced. The young Claire boarded at Hitchin Girls’ Gram­mar School; she re­calls the des­o­la­tion of be­ing sent to bed at 6pm in the sum­mer term and not be­ing al­lowed to read in the cu­bi­cles.

As a zest­ful and ex­ot­i­cally sur­named un­der­grad­u­ate at Newn­ham Col­lege, Cam­bridge, she was never short of men in love with her. She ad­mits that she and her best friend ‘agreed that, good friends as we were, we gave our first loy­al­ties to men. It sounds shock­ing to­day… but it was so in 1951’.

In this spirit, she al­lowed her­self to be swept off her feet by the hand­some young pres­i­dent of the Cam­bridge Union, Nick To­ma­lin, and, even hav­ing achieved a First, she agreed to go straight from Cam­bridge to Mrs Hoster’s Sec­re­tar­ial Col­lege to learn to type and do short­hand.

Oh, for the days when you could snap up a whole house in Prim­rose Hill for £8,500! Those days of early par­ent­hood in Glouces­ter Cres­cent sound such fun: the pet shop, the book­shop, the junk shop, the Ital­ian restau­rant, the Greek gro­cer, Ge­orge Melly and Beryl Bainbridge as neigh­bours, chil­dren go­ing in and out of each other’s gar­dens.

Nick’s un­faith­ful­ness was the only damp­ener. long af­ter his death, she found a stash of ‘im­pas­sioned love let­ters to him, from a whole se­ries of women’. She threw them away, as there was ‘too much else to worry about’.

As a newly wid­owed 40-yearold, she was as­sailed by suit­ors: ‘I lost count of the friendly men who in­sisted on ex­am­in­ing the wiring in the house, de­clared it un­safe, and of­fered to fix it for me.’ She did have an af­fair with the 25-year-old smoky-voiced Martin Amis and she moved more and more in lit­er­ary cir­cles, be­com­ing the lit­er­ary edi­tor first of the New States­man and then of the Sun­day Times, from which she re­signed when An­drew Neil an­nounced they were mov­ing to Wap­ping and sack­ing the sec­re­taries.

It was not un­til her mid fifties that she found her true vo­ca­tion as a full-time bi­og­ra­pher. ‘My story should be cheer­ing to any­one who is find­ing it hard to es­tab­lish a ca­reer they find con­ge­nial,’ she writes. It should also be cheer­ing for any­one find­ing it hard to es­tab­lish a mar­riage they find con­ge­nial: at the age of 60, she mar­ried Michael Frayn and they are supremely happy to­gether. ‘Mid­dle-aged love,’ she writes, ‘proved stronger than any­thing I had known be­fore.’

Claire To­ma­lin in the 1960s

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