Michael Holroyd (England, 1935- )



Figure 1.--This photograph shows Michael Holroyd's father Basil and uncle Kenneth. Basil is on the right in the photograph and his older brother on the left. Basil was born in 1907 so the photograph was probably taken about 1911-12 before World War I.

English author Michael Holroyd is one of the notable literary biographers of the 20th century. His massive biography of George Bernard Shaw is widely proclaimed as the definitive work on the famed English writer. Holroyd's authobiography provides an interesting glimpse of his and his father's childhood. His father Basil and uncle Andrew wore dresses in the years before World War I. I'm not sure yet how Michael was dressed.

Ancestors

The Holroyds appear to be the kind of family capable of keeping several biographers busy. Michael's Scottish great-grandmother's death certificate reports "suicide by carbolic acid." The family fortune was founded on shares in the Rajmai Tea Co., a legacy of his great-grandfather's career in India. His grandfather married the second youngest of 11 charismatic Irish sisters and pinned his entrepreneurial hopes on Lalique art glass, for which he became the sole London agent in the late '20s. He sold fanciful, fragile trinkets in the face of an increasingly grim world climate.

For a rather prim, buttoned-down, Eton-and-Oxbridge sort of family, there was also plenty of modern tabloid subterfuge. That same grandfather, after 25 years of marriage, suddenly abandoned his family for a voluptuous younger woman with a veiled past, setting her up in a Piccadilly flat. Holroyd's Swedish maternal grandmother made the scene in Stockholm, trailing bohemian artists in her wake. His own conception precipitated his parents' secret marriage, the bride a teenage ingenue just off the boat from Sweden. Most of this information is gleaned from family detective work, and though there's plenty of color between the lines of what Holroyd finds, he never quite manages to lift the story off the dusty facts.

Parents

I have little information at this time on Michael's parents.

Father

His father Basil was born in 1907. Basil had an older brother Kenneth.

Mother

His mother, Ulla, was beautiful. As an adult, made privy to her love affairs, Holroyd agreed to write letters to abandoned lovers, and in Munich on one occasion was left to have a tete-a-tete with a seething partner after Ulla flew the coop.



Figure 2.--This photograph shows Michael Holroyd's father Basil and his fa,ily--both Basi's brother and sister anf parents.

Father's Childhood Clothing

Basil wore dresses as a boy. The fashion of dressing boys in dresses was declining by the 1910s, but many boys from affluent families still wore dresses. One photograph taken about 1911 shows him with a white dress that appears to have a colored band at the hem. It is a high collared dresswith a kind of Russian blouse design. Their is also a belt as commonly worn with a tunic. Even though he had not yet been breeched, he does wear his hair short. I'm not sure when he was breeched, probably at about 5 or 6 years of age. After breeching he probably wore short pants and kneesocks like his older brother.

Childhood

Michael was an only child and by all acounts a lonely only child. His childhood was disturbed by his parent's troubled mairrage. The Holroyds as Michael describes them were disturbed by "my parents' marriage that had unhappily broken up, and my grandparents' marriage that had been unhappily kept going," he writes, describing an increasingly impoverished home life saturated with "extraordinary anguish and venom." But the menagerie of relatives he lived with--defeated grandfather, senile grandmother, disillusioned spinster aunt -- is just a collection of unfinished outlines. In contrast, when Holroyd quotes from his early autobiographical novel, A Dog's Life, the fictional versions of his family members pop up from the page. If only the biographer had allowed himself a little more novelistic brio.

Michael's parents disagreed on so many things that they did not even agree on the date of Michael's birth. As a boy, Michael always assumed that his own family was perfectly English, or at least perfectly ordinary. But old photograph albums, papers found in the lining of an evening bag, and crumbling documents in various public record offices gradually yield clues to a constellation of startling events and eccentric characters: a long, slow decline from English nobility on one side, and on the other a dramatic Scandinavian ancestry that could have been imagined by Isak Dinesen. Fatal fires, suicides, bankruptcies, divorces, unconsummated longings, and the rumor of a fabulous Indian tea fortune ... all these flow from the pages of his parents' recollections, to which he adds his own.

What strikes one first in this joyless book is the lack of any real childhood. His mother and father were not parents so much as fragile creatures who burdened their child with too many confidences, His mother, a young and glamorous Swede, never really grew up, nor did his feckless father with his mad money-making schemes such as opening a Lalique glass showroom on Basil St. near Harrod's. Instead of making the family fortune, Lalique went out of fashion. This was the street, incidentally, on which he had been conceived, his mother revealed.

His parents divorced when Holroyd was very young and each went on to marry twice again. His early years passed between Mediterranean house in Maidenhead. Within its walls relatives snarled at each other in a constant state of warfare: "Are you insane? Shut up! You bitch! I'm sick to death of you all. I wish I were dead!"

For Holroyd to write about his awful family is like lancing a boil. The child learned the art of making himself invisible by escaping to the garage to listen to classical records. The absence of love is like a gaping crater in the centre of his life.

Education

"What is to be done about the boy?" someone would cry from time to time. Somehow money was found to send him to Eton. These years are the most unsatisfactory part of the book. There is no real sense of the school or of Holroyd as a schoolboy. Homosexuality, he tells us, was rife at Eton but gives no indication as to whether he participated in it or not. He refers to only one real friendship. It was probably a particularly humiliating period when as a poor boy he would have felt himself an object of contempt but he makes no reference to his position vis-a-vis the other more secure boys. There was not enough money to send him on to university so he continued his self-education at Maidenhead Public Library. At his father's insistence, he became a clerk in a law office. His real ambition, discouraged by his father, was to be a writer. Like many young men before him, he started with a novel - or, to be more precise, with notes on observations of his relatives.



Figure 3.--This is Michael Holroyd as a boarder at Midenhead about 1942 or 43. Note the rather strange belt arrangement and plain flat bottom tie.

Childhood Clothes

I have little information at this time on Michael's childhood clothes. The photograph here shows him in a grey, presumably short pants, suit. It looks to be his school uniform at Midenhead--a preparatory school.

Body of Work

Holroyd's massive four-volume biography of Bernard Shaw was published between 1988 and 1992 is the definitive work on Shaw. He has also published impressive works on Lytton Strachey and the painter Augustus John. The Shaw biography confirmed his reputation as this consummate British biographer who is capable of magically and seamlessly weaving narrative from the often unorganized utterances of his subjects. His literary reputation established, it seems it's now time for a little self-indulgence with the publication of an authobiography.

Autobiography

Holroyd calls Basil Street Blues a "vicarious autobiography." Part detective story, part family saga, and part oblique voyage of self-discovery, this book belongs on the the home book shelf beside C. S. Lewis's autobiography Surprised by Joy. Starting with his parents and tracing his family back into the 19th century, he tries to explain who he is by turning the biographer's art on his own people. Despite the abundance of oddities in the Holroyd attic, though, what should be an elegant exercise -- part memoir, part "behind the scenes with the biographer"--fails to transcend the glittering bits of the past that Holroyd has collected.

Holroyd in the late 1970s asked his parents--long divorced and repeatedly remarried--to write accounts of their early lives. After their deaths nearly a decade later, he "began to feel the need to fill the space they left with a story." The writer so skilled at shaping the messy lives of his famous subjects needed to discover the shape of his own narrative. But there was no one left to answer his questions, just his parents' handwritten pages along with some yellowing family papers and the bare-bones data filed at public-record offices.

Kiyaking

Michael has adventursome spirit. He wants to follow in the footsteps of 1999 world champion whitewater slalom kayaker David Ford. Holroyd has the skills and the desire. Like the hardened soles of his feet, he also has the toughness required to become world's best K1 kayaker. Between 12 and 15 times a week, Holroyd can be found navigating a 250-metre rapid-filled section of the grey-green Chilliwack River. After finishing an exhausting, 90-second run through 20 familiar, yet ever-changing gates, Holroyd beaches his bright-green kayak, hops out and with 9 kg carbon and kevlar boat in hand, walks barefoot back up-stream along rock, twig and branch-filled paths to make yet another run.






HBC






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Created: May 14, 2000
Last edited: May 15, 2000