Richard, Elizabeth, Roger and Jake: lives pinned upon the page

‘The illusion of biography is that real people are not perishable and that they can be restored,’ writes Roger Lewis in the opening pages of his soon-to-be published biography of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor Erotic Vagrancy. ‘But people are perishable. They come to an end, go out of fashion, require exegesis… The nearer you get to the subject(s)-in-hand, the more distant they now appear.’

I’ve been reading Lewis’s exhilarating, exasperating book for some time now (it’s over 700 pages long) and am nearing the end. It’s an unusual work, an intense fever-dream of a book, and it is one that makes you think about what one looks for in a biography.  Is it accuracy and fairness that matters or entertainment and readability?

There is no doubt in Roger Lewis’s mind.

‘Biographers, it seems to me, affecting a universal authority, see or notice only one thing at a time, remain on the surface, where they make themselves busy handling circumstances, tidying them up. A place for everything and everything in its place, as my maiden aunts used to say in South Wales.’

At some point during the 13 years he was working on this book, Lewis decided to abandon the conventionally structured approach he had planned in favour of spontaneity, of what he calls ‘the scrawled rapture’ of his early notebooks.

The result is biography as high-octane entertainment  – a wild and vivid splash of dazzling colours on a giant canvas. If you like your biographies to be balanced, judicious, fair, scrupulous and imbued with a basic respect for its subjects, then this is not the book for you.

I loved it. Even as my inner good-chap was wincing at some outrageous opinion, or eye-wateringly bad-taste joke or faintly demented digression, my inner bastard (the true me in other words) was cheering on the side. Roger Lewis, an opinionated and very funny writer who is out of step with more or less everybody, has clearly lived this book. It was been with him through two serious health crises and various professional setbacks. A magnificent obsession, it is as much about him – his view of the world and our culture, his fondness for the excesses of the golden age of light entertainment and Hollywood (C1963 – 1985) – as it is about ‘these two creatures’, Burton and Taylor.

‘In this book I try to evoke the age of Sixties excess  – the freaks and groupies, the private jets and jewels and steam yachts sailing in an azure sea; the mess and splendour of material goods; the magnificent bad taste and greed and money smelling like jasmine.’

It is always interesting reading a book before it has been published, and trying to guess what sort of critical reaction it will receive. Because we live in prim and conventional times, I have a feeling that Erotic Vagrancy will prompt much tut-tutting and disapproval among sober-sided critics. (The title, by the way, comes from a public rebuke of the Burtons in the Vatican newspaper, ‘You will finish in an erotic vagrancy, without end and without a safe port’). Even before publication, it is rumoured that one well-known writer has asked for his name to be removed from the acknowledgements.

I am currently on page 644 where Burton has just appeared with Sophia Loren in a film called The Voyage.  As he does every few pages, Lewis interrupts himself.

‘A brief digression about Sophia Loren, who had the same size booby-doos as Taylor and (if Peter Sellers is to be believed) Princess Margaret. Burton was much taken with her “vulpine, almost satanic face”, so he must have known some funny-looking foxes is all I’m saying.’

And off he goes, a wild, breathtaking gallop past Burton’s obsession with Welsh mines, his connection with Wagner, his virility, Mussolini. the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, how ill John Hurt always looked, the bureaucracy of evil, Quentin Crisp (a Lewis favourite), the Vatican, and then, several pages later, back to The Voyage.

Crisp, incidentally, is one of an impressive gallery of twentieth century figures to whom Elizabeth Taylor is compared, among whom are Dame Edna Everage, Sylvia Plath, Princess Margaret, Diana Dors and Dudley Moore (there were similarities between Richard & Liz and Pete & Dud, apparently).

From its opening pages, Erotic Vagrancy feels subversive and joyously defiant, like a loud fart in the High Court. Biographies shouldn’t be this subjective, so riotously opinionated. It is bad form for the biographer to play a lead part in his or her own book.

But is that right?

During the summer, a friend of mine Roger Deakin, who died in 2006, was the subject of a remarkable biography by Patrick Barkham called The Swimmer..

Coincidentally, Barkham, like Roger Lewis, faced a creative crisis while writing a conventional narrative and, again like Lewis, abandoned the original text to start again.  But instead of going for the scrawled rapture of his early notes, he went in the other direction. Using Roger’s own diaries, books and letters, with occasional narrative adaptations, as the backbone of the story, he absented himself as biographer throughout the book apart from its opening and closing pages. The story of his life is told by Roger himself, with interpolations from friends, family, wife, lovers and colleagues.

It makes for a fascinating read, which I recommend to anyone who has read Waterlog  or any other of Roger’s extraordinary books. Patrick Barkham’s adventurous oral-history approach has been widely admired by critics and readers alike. But, much as I enjoyed the book, I found myself missing the voice of a narrator to lead me through the thickets of occasionally conflicting memories, a quiet voice providing context from the wings.

To stand above the fray or to be in the thick of it? To be a self-appointed judge of your subject or to present the facts as they appear to you and let the readers make up their own minds. Roger Lewis and Patrick Barkham reached diametrically opposite conclusions.

The biographer’s dilemma was much on my mind when I read Beware of the Bull: The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray by Paul Thompson and John Watterson prior to its publication in August, and there was a personal reason for that.

Since writing a biography of my friend Willie Donaldson in 2005, I had not been tempted to write another life. Willie was a sweet, dangerous, morally complex man,  funny, perverse and unpredictable. I admired him and thought he was a significant figure of his times. I wanted to know what made him what he was, and ended up writing a book about him.

The songwriter and performer Jake Thackray could hardly have been more different but he too was a complicated, brilliantly funny outsider who was in many way ahead of his time. It seemed odd to me that his story had not been told and, immodestly, I thought I was well suited to tell it.

As it turned out, I was too late. What is more, reading Thompson’s and Watterson’s fascinating book, which I have written about in RnR Magazine,  I realised that they were far better suited to the job than I was. They are devoted Jake fans and, with consummate research and obvious affection, tell his story straight  – there is no scrawled rapture here. The biographers sensibly stay out of the limelight. And if now and then they gloss over  – or put a positive shine on – some of their subject’s weaknesses, does that really matter? They tell the important story in a grown-up, respectful way without stepping on to the stage themselves.

The danger with biography is that the writer’s preoccupations, hang-ups and prejudices can stand between the subject and the reader. Only a strange, swaggering talent like Roger Lewis can get away with it  – and then only with the right subject.