IN HER OWN WORDS

Eng­land’s lead­ing bi­og­ra­pher Claire To­ma­lin has fi­nally told the story of her own re­mark­able life at the age of 84

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By SO­PHIE ELMHIRST www.harpers­bazaar.co.uk

If you write lives for a liv­ing, how do you write your own? ‘I’ve tried to look at my­self as if I were some­one else,’ says the au­thor Claire To­ma­lin, lean­ing back on a sofa in the liv­ing-room of the large Rich­mond house that she shares with un­lim­ited books and her hus­band, the play­wright Michael Frayn. Be­hind her, through the win­dows, a vast lawn curves out of sight. On the grass sit two sun­loungers side by side.

To­ma­lin is a bi­og­ra­pher by trade. Af­ter a run of lit­er­ary sub­jects – Pepys, Hardy, Austen, Dick­ens – she has turned the lens on her­self, to tell the story of an ‘or­di­nary fe­male child’, she says. There’s noth­ing or­di­nary about it. Her new me­moir, A Life of My Own, is a cat­a­logue of in­fi­delity and bru­tal grief. It is a se­duc­tive por­trait of Lon­don in the Six­ties and Sev­en­ties when you drank at lunch and could buy an enor­mous house in Cam­den for £5,000. But it is also the story of fam­ily life, of how si­mul­ta­ne­ously to be a sin­gle mother to four chil­dren and the lit­er­ary edi­tor of the New States­man and The Sun­day Times. It’s a hymn to good nan­nies. And, ul­ti­mately, it’s a love story.

‘What started me off was think­ing about my par­ents,’ To­ma­lin tells me. ‘[My fa­ther] wanted to kill my mother when I was con­ceived.’ She isn’t be­ing glib. Her French fa­ther, Emile, se­ri­ously con­tem­plated push­ing her mother, Muriel, over a Cor­nish cliff, such was his ha­tred for her. He pre­served the thought in a me­moir, and showed it to To­ma­lin years later. ‘Did he think I ought to know? ’ writes To­ma­lin, still mys­ti­fied. It is the first ex­am­ple of what at times feels like an im­pos­si­ble chain of mis­for­tune through the 84 years of To­ma­lin’s life. Her first hus­band, Nick To­ma­lin, was killed while re­port­ing in Is­rael in 1973. Her third child, Daniel, died shortly af­ter birth. Her youngest, Tom, was born with spina bi­fida. Her daugh­ter Su­sanna suf­fered from se­vere de­pres­sion and com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of 22.

‘I did find it very dif­fi­cult, very painful to write,’ says To­ma­lin. ‘I think fi­nally now I have come through Su­sanna’s death, partly through writ­ing this book. But I be­came ex­tremely de­pressed, go­ing round and round think­ing about it. She blames her­self for not re­al­is­ing the depth of her daugh­ter’s suf­fer­ing. Writ­ing the book, she thought, might help oth­ers car­ing for some­one with men­tal ill­ness; to show, too, that life con­tin­ues. To­ma­lin has of­ten been pitied for the tragedies of her life, but ex­tends no such in­dul­gence to her­self. In­stead, she set out the facts. ‘I wanted to be clear,’ she says. ‘I like clar­ity.’

Grief min­gles with joy. The bo­hemian chaos of life on Glouces­ter Cres­cent (with neigh­bours in­clud­ing Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, and the poet Christo­pher Reid em­ployed as one of Tom’s carers) is spliced with ac­counts of Nick’s wild phi­lan­der­ing. ‘We got mar­ried very young,’ says To­ma­lin. ‘A ter­ri­ble mis­take.’ She de­lighted in the Six­ties, re­mem­bers her doc­tor giv­ing her a pill in a packet ‘and say­ing, “You might likethis.”’ She­hadaf­fairs. ‘For a lot of peo­ple, the only thing they know about me is that I had an af­fair with Martin Amis,’ she says with a weary smile. When she sent Amis the sec­tion of the book in which she re­counts their time to­gether, he replied fondly: ‘You make me feel so nos­tal­gic.’

You can see why. To­ma­lin con­jures a Lon­don in which ev­ery­one was writ­ing, ev­ery­one cared about writ­ing and where lit­er­ary crit­i­cism was the pulse of the city’s cul­ture. At the States­man, her col­leagues in­cluded Amis, Christo­pher Hitchens and Ju­lian Barnes. ‘It was ab­so­lutely won­der­ful.’ She was con­stantly pur­sued: ‘A lot of men made sex­ual passes at me, which I found com­pletely mean­ing­less,’ she says. ‘What I re­sponded to was love.’

To­ma­lin’s first ro­mance was at the age of 14 with a 21-year-old neigh­bour, Philip. They danced to­gether, ‘one of the most erotic ex­pe­ri­ences of my life’, and crept out of their houses in the mid­dle of the night to meet in the shrub­bery at the end of their gar­dens. Through the years there were more. ‘I think I made friends with all the men I had af­fairs with,’ she says now. ‘And that mat­ters to me.’

Then there was Frayn. They had been friends for years when he even­tu­ally left his wife and three chil­dren to be with her. Their mar­riage of­fered a sec­ond chance, a sec­ond life: peace­ful, con­tented, de­voted. ‘I have never looked at an­other per­son,’ she says. ‘I used to be quite sus­cep­ti­ble.’ Now both in their eight­ies, they have slowed a lit­tle. To­ma­lin might write an­other book, but she’s not sure. As with all things, she is clear-eyed on the sub­ject of mor­tal­ity: ‘I do feel very strongly that death is the end.’ She hopes she dies first, as Frayn has daugh­ters nearby who will look af­ter him. And so, in­evitably, her story will come to a close. ‘I’ve had a very happy time,’ says To­ma­lin. ‘I’ve done the things I wanted to do. I’ve been mar­ried to a man I love.’

‘A Life of My Own’ by Claire To­ma­lin (£16.99, Vik­ing) is pub­lished on 7 Septem­ber.

Left, from top: Claire To­ma­lin on

hol­i­day in the 1960s. With her baby Tom in 1970

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