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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

How to Read a Human Life: the art of biography

It's a massive book: two weighty tomes so far, a third one promised. I doubt if I'll read it. But I was intrigued by Matthew Parris's recent review in The Times. 'Charles Moore’s second of three planned volumes on the life of Margaret Thatcher nevertheless becomes close to drowning in its own scholarship. This may not be Mr Moore’s fault. It may be hers. In the end she doesn’t quite float.' He goes on to say that 'there are people who, under the magnifying glass (of biography) shrink' and wonders whether Mrs T may turn out to be one of those. Maybe, he ponders, there just isn't enough of interest to fill three bulky volumes.

The late great Denis Healey famously said that her problem was that she just didn't have enough 'hinterland'. He meant by that useful word the dimension of a person's life that lies behind how they are to us, what we see: their historical sense, their cultural awareness, how they reflect on experience and place themselves within narratives that are bigger than themselves and their immediate concerns. This is what lends texture to a person's life, gives it complexity like a fine rich wine. These are things that make us interesting.

However, I think there's more to it than Parris suggests. I think he means that what can 'shrink' under the gaze of the biographer is not the subject him- or herself, but their reputation, their place in history, how we evaluate them. They may be less interesting than we thought. Or that by reading about them, we come to admire them less than we did before, indeed find we don't like them very much. Biography, like psychotherapy, is an act of mapping, truth-seeking and interpretation. It can be a bit like detection. It shouldn't flinch from what it uncovers.

But I want to ask: isn't everyone interesting simply by virtue of being human? St Augustine said he couldn't understand how people gazed with awe at mountains and oceans, at palaces and temples, but passed by the mystery of their own selves without a second thought. That's strikingly prescient of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

     O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
     Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep.

Eleanor Farjeon once said about an indifferent biography that while the assemblage of information was impeccable, the book read as more a compilation of the material than a distillation from it. For the challenge of biography is much more rehearsing a timeline and chronicling the facts. It's to penetrate below the surface, make connections, help us gain insight into how a person has been shaped by history and culture, society and community, the external environment that in viticulture is called by that evocative word terroir. And it's to try to elucidate the motifs and patterns of another human being, what their relationships and personal life tell us about who and what they are. (This is why 'unofficial' biographies tend to be a lot more illuminating than officially sanctioned ones.)

In my book Wisdom and Ministry I offered ideas about how wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible might enrich the practice of public ministry. I included a chapter on life of King David as it's depicted in the Second Book of Samuel and First Book of the Kings. It's one of the greatest narratives in the scriptures, told with extraordinary insight into the dynamics of human nature and relationships. This hidden, highly ambivalent, aspect of David's character colours the whole of his career as monarch. How he (mis)manages the interplay between public role and private person is vividly and marvellously explored The light and shade that make up 'King David' are exposed in a way that makes me think that the author of the 'Court History' is one of the ancient world's very greatest writers with a rare emotional and spiritual intelligence when it comes to reading the human heart.

This brilliantly told story is not biography in the modern sense. Yet the skill of the writer is such that we see on every page the humanity of this flawed man. Like the best biography or the best fiction, this author knows. And therefore we are the wiser too, better able to understand the always-changing tides of human life. We shouldn't run away from complexity as many do, but embrace it as an essential aspect of God's creation (see Psalm 139, 'fearfully and wonderfully made'). This is a really crucial aspect of all Christian ministry, education, the caring professions and - yes - politics. 

So biography gives us important clues not just about other people but ourselves too. Even the most ordinary people are endlessly fascinating because we are all fundamentally mysterious and complex. Blake Morrison's memoir about his father, And When Did You Last See Your Father? is a brilliant example of how the commonplace and everyday comes to life in the hands of an accomplished writer who can paint a portrait in words. I found myself thinking 'yes! yes!' as I read it and recognised in this cameo of an ordinary Englishman a man who, like the rest of us, turned out not to be ordinary at all.

I don't know about Charles Moore's book. But I suspect that what fascinates us about Margaret Thatcher is indeed what was 'ordinary' about her. As in everyone, it's partly visible and partly concealed. The biographer has to respect and be reticent before the 'mystery' of the person, for so much remains unknowable even to ourselves. Only God ultimately knows. Nevertheless, in a biography we ask to be shown something of what is discoverable, and in Mrs T's case, this means the woman as well as the politician, and especially how each of her personae informs the other.

But biography needs some distance in time to see things more clearly. It's an art that can't be hurried. It may be too soon for that kind of distillation just yet.


  1. I don't think the Grocer's daughter will ever be popular in the N. E. after what she did to the mining industry. Not only did the girl from Grantham lack a hinterland but also a sense of humour but she will go down in history as the first and to date only woman P. M.
    Eleanor Farjeon will be for ever associated with the awe inspiring hymn "Morning has broken" set to the tune Bunessan - a village on Mull that I passed through in June on the way to a memorable Retreat on Iona.
    Thank you Michael for your continuing thought provoking commentary (+ beautiful photography) it was thanks to one of your earlier comments on a stunning review that I booked to see SAUL at Glyndebourne, again much gratitude for the tip-off. Surely one of the best operatic productions that I have ever seen

  2. Thanks. Yes. Without a sense of humour and irony, there's no self-doubt, and without that, leadership is always flawed in the church as well as politics. Eleanor Farjeon is an interesting woman who features prominently in the life of Edward Thomas, with whom she seems to have been in love. I'm glad you enjoyed 'Saul'! Wish I'd seen it too.

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