Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

At first it seemed that writing a biography would come easily to a journalist. After all, it is only an extended interview: 100,000 words instead of 1,000. But then the obstacles began to appear: the subject’s self-regard, false memories, and, most worryingly, the clatter of skeletons tumbling out of cupboards1.

Also, whereas the journalist could feel supported by the power of the press, this would be an encounter of individuals, one to one. The biographer could become aware that his or her subject was so much more important than himself. Could one have half-emulated the feats of this war hero, or written anything half as memorable as this literary lion? Of course not.

So, first of all, a degree of inferiority must be overcome, but not to the extent that breeds cheek. The relationship between biographer and his living subject is a delicate one. Am I a magistrate or a counsellor? Am I asking what to him, or her, and to me, sounds an impertinent question because it is important to understanding, or because I want to cut him down to my size4?

When a biography is ‘authorised’ and the biographer depends upon his subject’s co-operation, the problems are obvious. Does he ask the embarrassing questions and, if so, does he accept an answer he suspects is, at best, evasive5? If the subject seems to have been careless and trusting, does he publish and be damned as a betrayer of confidences? If he sticks to the agreed rules and his subject’s veto, does he write a second book a couple of years later which, it might be argued disingenuously, is not hampered by such constraints? If the biographer yields to that temptation, he can expect serialisation in a Sunday newspaper and also, perhaps, blackballing by the literary club he had hoped to join.

Having attempted two books about living people and recognised that, because of the scruples, the portraits were not as rounded as they might have been, I turned to subjects who had died within living memory. On these voyages of discovery, the surf could also be heard breaking on the reefs. Families and friends may have cultivated fond legends and can be reluctant to risk challenge, let alone demolition, even if neither is the biographer’s intention.

There was the literary lion whose grandson—a formidable naval officer, long retired but with a reputation for ferocity when roused—was guardian of the flame. His grandfather’s imaginative prose was obviously vulnerable to amateur Freudian analysis, and an overkill of psychobabble had recently been applied by another biographer who, the guardian made it clear, would risk grievous bodily harm if he again sought access to the archives.

Another literary figure had, his daughter confided, been a philanderer, and she was reluctant to see his achievements diminished by scandal. The agreed solution was that she would provide all possible help—including access to unpublished letters and diaries—on condition that she could be the first to read the typescript and, if necessary, censor it. She agreed that the philandering could not be ignored but I had no wish to make a meal of it11 and a compromise was reached, the daughter showing magnanimity and tolerance.

Such experiences have prompted me to adopt the Hundred Year Rule. When the subject has been dead for a century, there will be no snarls from defensive friends, and even descendants will be likely to see failings as entertaining, if not lovable.

Yet here, too, are problems. After months of reading letters, diaries, and accounts by contemporaries, the biographer will have got as close to his subject as the laws of mortality will allow. One danger is that without an animate object to concentrate upon, the vacuum is filled by the biographer himself identifying with his subject: ‘I can see why you wrote about him,’ they will say. Or, as the author may know more about his character than anybody else, there is the risk of becoming proprietorial. The discovery of a letter showing the subject acting out of character—or what it13 was assumed to be—can prompt a reaction worthy of an outraged friend or relative: ‘He would never have behaved like that!14

(adapted from Tom Pocock’s ‘How a Biographer Survives a Survivor’)


1 What does the writer mean by the expression ‘skeletons tumbling out of cupboards’?

2 Explain what the writer says biographers feel they are incapable of.

3 Explain the two roles a biographer might play with the subject of a biography.

4 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘cut him down to my size’?

5 What does the writer mean when he describes certain answers as ‘at best, evasive’?

6 Explain the two possible outcomes of a biographer writing a second book about the same person.

7 Explain why the writer was dissatisfied with the two books he wrote about living people, and what he believes caused this.

8 Explain what the families and friends of the subjects of biographies want to avoid and why.

9 Explain what the naval officer’s reputation was.

10 What did the naval officer make clear about the writer of the previous biography of his grandfather?

11 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘to make a meal of it’?

12 Explain what the writer believes to be the advantages of his Hundred Year Rule.

13 What does ‘it’ refer to?

14 Why does the writer use italics in the sentence ‘He would never have behaved like that!’?

15 In a paragraph of 60–80 words, summarise what the writer says is the evidence both for and against the existence of Murphy’s Law regarding toast and queues.

Sample Answers

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