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