Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Death to everyone, again

Over the last week, I’ve been enjoying three biographical books. First is Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s patient biography of BS Johnson. Despite Johnson’s unsympathetic humourlessness and self-obsession, it's surprisingly readable. Well, up to page 150 at least. At that point, I realised I was reading only to find out why he killed himself. With almost 300 pages still to go, I lost patience and read the final pages describing his last hours. Then I closed the book for good.

The second is Margrave of the Marshes, the autobiography John Peel was writing before he died in Peru a year ago last night. I thought it would be very moving. It is quite. It's also very funny. Peel writes lightly and self-deprecatingly (a phrase he addresses along the way). It reminds me of Well Remembered Days, a comic novel by Arthur Mathews, who co-wrote Father Ted. I know that Peel had read this as he said so on his show and loved it so much he offered copies in a competition, one of which I happened to win. So I read it too. It came with a postcard of Peel, but unfortunately no note or autograph.

After 165 pages, with the last word Peel having written in his book being ‘brothel’, his wife Sheila Ravenscroft takes over the narrative. She writes in the same light, charming, though slightly stand-offish style. Most of the stories will be familiar to anyone who had listened to the radio show for 20 years. Still, it’s not easy to stop reading. But then I got to page 200 and found myself reading the epilogue. Really, I wanted to know what happened in Peru. As might be expected, this is sidestepped. Perhaps it’s too tender a subject, yet the couple are otherwise quite happy to discuss sensitive issues such as Peel’s first wife, his dose of the clap and sexual abuse by public school boys (though not in that order). I was very disappointed.

The third book, Author, Author, David Lodge’s novel about Henry James, begins with the great author on his death bed. This is how it should be. I shall finish this one.

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