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Monday, February 15, 2010

The Warm-Hearted Detective: Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues

There is nothing like a long lonely journey for a spot of introspection. On this basis, I am convinced that I chose the right read for my latest trip on the eurostar. Here I am curled up in a corner window seat, with the flats of Northern France whipping past the train window and a copy of Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues, just finished, sitting in front of me. I am on my way home, mostly on family duties and so I feel that this was a timely book to pick up. Basil Street Blues is a family saga and a work of fascinating autobiography, written by one of the great biographers of our time. In this book, Michael Holroyd turns the scholarly scepticism, searching curiosity and profound human sympathy that we know from his biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw onto his own family and on to himself. Basil Street Blues is a thing of many sides and many pleasures.

First and foremost it is a family saga of colourful characters, eccentric households and their faltering passage through changing times and changing fortunes. It illuminates that corner of the human experience that we all know: where those we love manage to be both outrageously unpredictable and infuriatingly consistent. The story focuses on Holroyd’s parents, the frustrated entrepreneur Basil and the beautiful, hyperactive Ulla. We see his parents through the prism of their own parents and ancestors, from English Earls and tea importers to Swedish army majors and overbearing heiresses. Through the parents we come to know, tangentially the endless string of step parents whom Holroyd describes as passing in and out of his life “like minor characters in a badly managed melodrama”. We add to this the figure of Holroyd himself, who emerges from the narrative of his family, blinking into the light of adulthood with intelligence, thoughtfulness and humour.

As a detective of his own family, Holroyd discovers all sorts of truths. Amongst incidents of suicide, adultery, third class degrees and professional failures, he explores the gaping cavity which often exists between family legend and reality. Many of his characters – from the stoic family heroes to the bad tempered ladies of leisure – turn out to be not quite as they seemed to be. Every personality has an explanation although sometimes, we cannot quite get at it. Holroyd presents what is at times a lament for their lives and attitudes, whilst also celebrating their colour and interest. He skilfully maintains real intimacy with both his reader and the subjects of his detection.

The writer’s role as detective and biographer is another major concern of Basil Street Blues. For Holroyd, writing biography became a way of being invisible, and in many respects this book explores the space between visibility and invisibility in life and in writing. One of the most hilarious episodes of the book sees Holroyd, the confidante and scribe of both his mother and her estranged third husband, conducting a 18 month long correspondence with himself. He is central – and yet it is somebody else’s story. His account of the early years of a biographer and the moral dilemmas that emerge from life writing are engaging and amusing.

As well as being a super yarn. Basil Street Blues is also extremely funny and extremely touching. It plays with chronology enough to add interest and enrich its themes. It is written with an extremely light and self-effacing touch. What is more – it causes me to think, about my own family and where I come from and what my identity is. Not everyone has come a family like the one in Basil Street Blues, but we can all look at our relations and see a lot of ourselves. Who can look in the mirror and not see some shade of their parents, their grandparents, relations who may be legion, the places of childhood and the dramas of family? Michael Holroyd has written an excellent book about a universal human concern.

I have included as illustrations a couple of examples of lalique glass – one of several ill fated commercial enterprises taken up by the Holroyd family and treated, with suitable humour, in Basil Street Blues.


  1. Although I am not at all familiar with this author, I really enjoyed your enlightening article and it gave me cause to ponder on similar matters.
    I recognise one of the illustrations from the cover of Byatt's 'The Children's Book' so it is interesting to know its origin as I thought that it was just an illustration.
    How did your visit to London go? Did you have time to visit Persephone and any other interesting places?

  2. Hi - thanks so much for your comment. Michael Holroyd is a fantastic biographer. His latest work is a collective biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their children/lovers/spouses etc... I will do a review of that one day.
    Not sure about the illustration - although - Holroyd's wife is Byatt's sister - so I wonder if that has something to do with it? Or it may just be a coincidence... I am planning my Persephone trip today although all my time so far has been taken up by family!

  3. A brilliant review Hannah - I have now added his biographies of Lytton Strachey and Augustus John to my ever expanding wish list of books to read this year!

    Yes, I have indeed been to Charleston House in Lewes (adore it) but several years ago now, so could do with a return visit!

    Enjoy the rest of your visit to London.


  4. A long lonely journey and a page turner of a tome - sounds like heaven!

  5. I'd never heard of this book before, but you're review is utterly compelling. I shall be hunting out a copy of this asap - it sounds absolutely fascinating! And the cover illustration is just gorgeous...

  6. Great, beautiful review!!! You made me feel the book through your words. I look forward to reading this one some time!

  7. I am not familiar with Michael Holroyd, but then, I do not read many biographies. This sounds like a delightful book, funny and insightful.

    Your comments about seeing ourselves in our families is so true. Sometimes a turn of the phrase or a gesture reminds me of one of my parents or grandparents--as if something I inherited from them.

  8. I love biographies, so I'll definitely keep this author in mind.

  9. Thank you so much for your comments folks, I really appreciate them and am pleased that you enjoyed the review. It was a pleasure to write it, and to read the book of course. Hannah

  10. Great review Hannah. I listened to this on audio years ago read by the author which added another layer to the story. I loved it. He went on to write a sequel of sorts called Mosaic which followed up on some of the stories in BSB. I've read some of Holroyd's biographies & I have A Strange Eventful History on the tbr shelves so I'll look forward to your review.

  11. Excellent your blog, congratulations!

    Thank you for being together. You are worth gold, and this special moment, has a gift for you on our blog. I hope you enjoy.




  12. I'm not one for biographies, or autobiographies but I certainly enjoyed reading your review. I love that you start with something personal, it's such a nice touch to your reviews. I'm enjoying your posts very much.

  13. Hi Lyn, Rachel, Sandra - thanks so much for your kind comments, I do love to see them. hannah

  14. This was an amazing review for what sounds like a really good book. I like the idea of a biographer turning inwards and upon his own family.