A Londoner’s Diary by Amanda Foreman
Amanda Foreman on becoming a murder suspect, genre-bending and a champagne-fuelled stand-off
I flew into London from New York last week, where I have been living for the past few years, to discover from The Guardian that I was guilty of a capital offence. The normally sane and sage Kathryn Hughes had declared that she had found the murdered body of Biography behind a pile of books in the library. Furthermore, she knew who the killer was – namely me. She even had the photographs to prove it. The Sunday Times launched its own investigation into this vexing mystery, wanting to know, “Did I act alone or did I have help?” The Daily Mail followed, restarting the case with more photographs. The Independent took an entirely different line, asking “Who Framed Amanda Foreman?”
Lost amid all the carpet chewing about Ms. Hughes’s piece was her acute remark that Biography is undergoing a transformation. Cradle-to-grave narratives will always be with us. But writers are tearing up the genre. Kate Summerscale’s book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, is the perfect example of intelligent genre-bending. Is her book a biography of a murder or a social history made up of many biographies? Where Ms. Summerscale has gone, hopefully many will follow. Perhaps 100 years from now someone will write The Suspicions of Kathryn Hughes, or The Murder of Serious Biography at Waterstone’s House. He or she will point out that the infamous Tatler photograph of me standing naked behind a column of Georgiana books was one of 50 subjects – all of whom were unclothed – for a piece about influential thirty-somethings. Moreover, the book had already been a number one bestseller and won the Whitbread Prize. So, contrary to the myth, I did not take off my clothes to make critics notice my book.
Kathryn Hughes new who the killer was – namely me
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher was not the bookies’ favourite to win the Samuel Johnson Prize, but it was the most popular with the public. It is always satisfying when a book you actually want to read is awarded first prize. Ms. Summerscale brought a breath of fresh air to the airport-lounge atmosphere of the Royal Festival Hall. Not even the purple Day-Glo lighting could disguise the fact we were in a curtained-off area, behind which tourists were sipping tea and chatting on their mobiles. I bumped into William Dalrymple, a former HarperCollins author like myself. We reminisced about the glory days – before all the good editors had been driven out. Fuelled by champagne, we accosted John Bond, the managing director of Press Books, since he bears the lion’s share of responsibility for the current state of the company. His grin became fixed as soon as we approached. It was like talking to the Man from the Ministry. I have had more satisfaction poking a dead slug.
There haven’t been any literary scandals recently (unless you count the body in the library). The big news is still the failure of publishers to accept that they have to adapt to the internet ages before they go down the plughole like the music companies. Now it may be true, as Dame Edna once said to Melvyn Bragg, that writers need to slow down and give the public a chance to catch up with the books already published. But it does seem crazy that we can all see the looming disaster and yet no one is trying to steer clear. The person who really understands this is the historian Antony Beevor. A former chairman of the Society of Authors, Beevor is leading from the front to protect writers’ rights. A few years ago he had to take a cybersquatter to court in order to secure the rights to his domain name. Some little creep had registered every variant of Antony Beevor and was demanding three per cent of his royalties in return for their release. Beevor won, fortunately.
But now there is a new threat that has far worse implications. Beevor told me that there are websites in Eastern countries that are scanning in books, and allowing people to download them for a tiny monthly subscription. If it continues, in a few years Dame Edna’s wish will be granted and there won’t be any new books because writers won’t be able to earn a living.
Theo, my four-year-old son, was deaf for the first two years of his life. He does all right now but he had trouble deciphering speech in noisy places. I put him into tennis camp last week, with Helena, his six-year-old sister. Unfortunately, he couldn’t understand what was being said. He coped on a combination of imitation and guesswork. But the tactic failed yesterday when the coach thought it would be funny to pick on the kid who ‘wasn’t listening properly’. Poor Theo could see he was being laughed at but didn’t know why. The look of anxiety on his face made me feel physically sick. But as I went running over, I saw Helena give Theo a hug and grab his hand. She pushed and pulled him along, making sure that he blended in with everyone else. In that moment I was transported into parental heaven. As I drove home mulling over my son’s future, little Saville Kent, the tragic subject of Kate Summerscale’s book, popped into my mind. His greatest threat came from those who should have loved him most.