Cover image for Basil Street blues
Basil Street blues
Holroyd, Michael.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Physical Description:
xiv, 306 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR6058.O47 Z464 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



The noted biographer examines his own origins with a chronicle of his family, using his parents' accounts of their early lives as a starting point and elaborating with the results of his own explorations into the past.

Author Notes

Michael Holroyd was born in London, England on August 27, 1935. He was educated at Eton College. He published his first book, a biography of writer Hugh Kingsmill, in 1964. He has also written the biographies of George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, Lytton Strachey, and Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. His other works include Basil Street Blues, Mosaic, and A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers. He has received several awards including the Heywood Hill Literary Prize in 2001, the David Cohen British Prize for Literature in 2005, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography for A Strange Eventful History in 2009. He was knighted for his services to literature in 2007.

(Bowker Author Biography) Michael Holroyd has written acclaimed biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, & Bernard Shaw. He lives in London & Somerset, England.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

We all know that authors are real people with real lives, but it is easy to forget when the book comes to us, as if by magic, whole and entire. Holroyd, the author of brilliant biographies of Augustus John and Lytton Strachey, here turns his considerable talents on his own family. In a new genre that seems to be proliferating (see the Read-alikes column on the opposite page), he attempts to re-create the lives of his parents and grandparents, giving them form and substance, filling the clay models and painted photographs with life. Holroyd's parents divorced early. His father was a perfect Englishman who managed throughout his life to lose the family fortune in slow stages. His mother was a Swedish beauty. His assortment of grandparents, aunts, and step-siblings would be astonishing in their richness, eccentricity, and pain if we did not know that every family has them. Holroyd's gift, however, is to make his family live fully on the page. And in the process, as he traces his own early life and his desire, he says, to be invisible, he limns himself. Sometimes the tale reads like the worst excesses of the English novel: the horrors of Eton, the great damp pile of the British noble house. But it is saved, and made compulsively readable, by how carefully, gently, even sweetly Holroyd presents the mystery of his parents' lives, and how much affection and even wry humor he can wring out of a deeply sad narrative. As we become ourselves, we learn our parents, and Holroyd tells that true. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

Affectionate and wry, Holroyd's memoir of his dysfunctional family contrasts sharply with his lives of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and Bernard Shaw, which have earned him a major reputation as a biographer. His parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are largely what Shaw would have called "downstarts"--people crumbling from comfort and even affluence into pinched existences. Apparently of no serious consequence or achievement, they are nonetheless worth reading about because they have escaped ordinariness through Holroyd's ability to capture their extravagances. Holroyd prides himself on achieving "a good walk-on part in one's own autobiography," and while he succeeds in that, the tale's charm emerges from his mother and father, Swedish and British, respectively: their meeting onboard a ship; their secret marriage; Holroyd's childhood with assorted adults, including grandparents and stepparents; his parents' separation and subsequent episodes in their lives. Among the delightfully recounted anecdotes is one about Holroyd, as a young man, drafting a letter for his mother explaining why she was deserting his stepfather to go to South America; at his stepfather's request ("`You're a writer,' he said"), Holroyd then penned a reply to his mother, which began "what, for eighteen months or so, was to be an elaborate international correspondence with myself." As he weaves his own life lightly in and out of his family's vagaries, he leaves behind the handicaps of impecuniosity, shyness and miseducation and finds himself among helpful literati, becoming one of them. Although this title is what writers refer to as a between-books book (Holroyd is researching a new biography), it rises artfully above that class. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

What the famed biographer found when he asked his parents for their memoirs. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Two Types of Ambiguity Towards the end of the nineteen-seventies I asked my parents to let me have some account of their early lives. I had never been interested in my family. My career as a biographer probably arose from my need to escape from family involvements and immerse myself in other people's lives. `We don't go to Heaven in families any more -- but one by one.' I remember how struck I was when I came across this sentence in Gwen John's correspondence. That was certainly how I felt. I also remember quoting in my first biography Hugh Kingsmill's aphorism: `Friends are God's apology for families,' and feeling a chord of agreement.     My parents, who had long been divorced, and gone through a couple of subsequent marriages, each of them, as well as various additional liaisons, were by the late nineteen-seventies living alone in fragile health and meagre circumstances. They appeared bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing. After all, it had started so promisingly.     The accounts they wrote were very different. This did not surprise me. They had seldom agreed about anything, not even the date of my birth. As a gesture of tact I preserved two birthdays forty-eight hours apart, one for each of them. This had begun as a joke, grew into a habit and finally became a rather ageing conceit which will enable me to claim by the year 2000 the wisdom of a 130-year-old.     My parents' marriage was something of a mystery to me. What did they have in common? After the age of six I seldom saw them together and could imagine few people more dissimilar. What few scraps of memory I retained brought back echoes of reverberating arguments that floated up to me as I lay in a dark bedroom in the north of England -- echoes that, to gain popularity, I would later assemble into dramatic stories for the school dormitory. A breadknife flashed in the dark, a line of blood suddenly appeared, and we shivered delightedly in our beds. But I have few actual memories of my very early years, few recollections of my childhood I can trust, and not many of adolescence. There were probably good reasons for this erasure, though I am hoping that some events may stir from their resting place and rise to the surface as I write.     I was born in the summer of 1935. My mother was Swedish, and my father thought of himself as English, though his mother actually came from the south of Ireland and his paternal grandmother was Scottish. All I knew was that my parents had met on a boat in the North Sea, got along fine on water, then fairly soon after striking land, dashed their marriage on the rocks. I had been conceived, my mother once remarked as we were travelling by bus through Knightsbridge, at the Hyde Park Hotel where King Gustav of Sweden (calling himself Colonel Gustaveson) often stayed. I remember her laughing as we swayed into Sloane Street and travelled on. At another time, in a taxi, she pointed to the Basil Street Hotel with a similar laugh before turning into Sloane Street.     I was largely brought up in the Home Counties by my paternal grandparents and a tennis-playing aunt. But there were irregular intervals, sometimes at odd places abroad, with unfamiliar step-parents who, like minor characters in a badly-managed melodrama, would introduce themselves with a flourish, a bray of trumpets, and then inexplicably disappear. Perhaps the peculiar enchantment that sustained and integrated narratives, enriched with involving plots, were to hold for me sprang from my sense of being brought up by so many characters -- parental, step-parental and grand-parental characters -- who seldom met, showed little interest in one another, and apparently possessed no connecting story.     In some respects my father had a `good war', or so I believed. But he could not adjust to the peace afterwards. Though increasingly impoverished, he somehow found (I never knew how) the money to send me to Eton College because he had been there himself at the end of the First World War. He spoke of his time at Eton with unconvincing jollity and was evidently looking forward to a second, vicarious, innings there.     My mother didn't mind where I was educated. She did not have an ideology and simply wanted me to be happy, preferably without too much trouble. She never regarded education, which was full of awkward exams, as an obvious route to happiness. But probably such things were different for men.     They certainly appeared different to my father who had the air of a man acting responsibly on my behalf -- as, he implied, his own father should have acted for him. By the time I was sixteen, he judged the moment had come to take me to one side and explain the main purpose of my education -- which was to retrieve the family fortunes that would otherwise descend on me, he revealed, in the form of serious debts. Eton was providing me with many valuable friendships that could catapult me, he believed, to success. It did not occur to me to ask why Eton had not provided him with such vaulting associations. He gave the impression of someone who had overshot success and landed somewhere else. In the event, I failed comprehensively in this romantic quest he had assigned me (my average income between the mid-nineteen-sixties and mid-nineteen-seventies was to be £1,500 a year). I did not even know how the exotic family fortunes I was to rescue had originated or where they had gone. Was it all a mirage?     Lack of money was very evident in my parents' last years, when my father was living in a rundown flat in Surrey and my mother in a one-room apartment in London. I thought that the exercise of exploring happier years and travelling back to more prosperous times might bring them some release from their difficulties. From being their only child, the sole child from five marriages, I was to become their guardian and a barely-adequate protector. Having, as it were, commissioned them to write for me, I proposed paying them some commission money. After hesitating, my mother accepted the money with eager reluctance. She had always associated men with money, but understandably had not associated me with it, and was worried that I did not have enough. But times were improving for me, as if I were sitting on the opposite end of a seesaw from my descending parents. My Lytton Strachey had eventually been brought out as a paperback and after one very good year, when my Augustus John was published, I settled down at the end of the nineteen-seventies to annual net income of between four and five thousand pounds. I could afford to hand over a little money. Besides, I explained to my mother, she would not take my request seriously unless it was put on a business basis. Desperately needing the money, she gave me a kiss and took it.     But my father would not take anything. He wanted to give money and receive praise: he found it almost impossible to receive money or give praise. He felt deeply humiliated by his poverty. `I certainly wouldn't dream of allowing you to pay 1 cent for anything I write about the family,' he notified me. I remember reading his letter with exasperation. He was so difficult to help. The truth was he felt embarrassed by my offer which, he wrote, `made me feel very ashamed of myself. I am not yet as down and out as you may imagine.' Now, re-reading his letter after his death, an unexpected sadness spreads through me. It was true that he had been `down' many times, `down' but not quite `out'. Cursing the foul blows delivered on him by politicians, he would somehow pick himself up each time -- just in time. But in his late sixties and early seventies, with only a State pension and a couple of hundred pounds from a mysterious `Holroyd Settlement', though he would still speak with animation of things `turning up', my father had in fact settled into involuntary retirement. The game was up. `I find that time is heavy on my hands,' he had written to me. That was one of the reasons I had inflicted this homework on him. Nevertheless I emphasised that it was for my sake rather than his own that I was asking him to write an account. And perhaps there was more truth in this than I realised. For after my father and mother died in the nineteen-eighties I began to feel a need to fill the space they left with a story. Neither of them were in the front line of great historical events: their dramas are the dramas of ordinary lives, each one nevertheless extraordinary. From their accounts, from various photograph albums and a few clues in two or three boxes of miscellaneous odds and ends, I want to recreate the events that would give my own fragmented upbringing a context. Can I stir these few remnants and start a flame, an illumination? This book is not simply a search for facts, but for echoes and associations, signs and images, the recovery of a lost narrative and a sense of continuity: things I seem to miss and believe I never had.     I had to distance myself from my parents while they were alive, not out of hostility to them, but from a natural urge to find my individual identity, my own route. `When a writer is born into a family,' wrote Philip Roth, `the family is finished.' Inhabiting their worlds as a child and then an adolescent, I felt invisible; after which I traded somewhat in invisibility as a biographer. But following my parents' deaths, when they became invisible and I was seen to have attained my independence, my feelings began to change. I was drawn into the vacancy their deaths created, needing to trace my origins. It is an experience, I believe, that possesses many people in these circumstances: to ask questions when it is apparently too late for answers, and then be forced to discover answers of our own.     The unexamined life, Saul Bellow tells us, is meaningless. But the examined life, he adds, is full of dangers. I have found wonderful freedom in that maverick condition which can be described as meaningless: a freedom in not being tied to social contexts or engulfed in family chauvinism. My identity was shaped by what I wrote, though this identity was concealed behind the people I wrote about -- concealed I think from others, and also from myself. But now I must go back and explore. My parents, my family scattered over time and place, have become my biographical subjects as I search for something of me in them, and them in me. For this is a vicarious autobiography I am writing, a chronicle with a personal subtext, charting my evolution into someone who would never have been recognised by myself when young. Copyright © 1999 Michael Holroyd. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsp. ix
List of Illustrationsp. xiii
Part I
1 Two Types of Ambiguityp. 3
2 With Virginia Woolf at Sheffield Placep. 9
3 The Swedish Experimentp. 15
4 Links in the Chainp. 23
5 The Breves Process: Tea into Glassp. 42
6 The Coming of Agnes Mayp. 63
7 A Triumph and Disasterp. 85
8 Literary Lapsesp. 101
Part II
9 Some Wartime Diversionsp. 117
10 Notes from Norburstp. 124
11 Yolande's Storyp. 136
12 Scaitcliffe Revisitedp. 155
13 Three Weddings and a Funeralp. 165
14 Etonp. 179
15 Legal and Militaryp. 206
16 The Third Mrs Naresp. 225
17 Flight into Surreyp. 240
18 Scenes from Provincial and Metropolitan Lifep. 249
19 Missing Personsp. 272
20 Things Pastp. 303