What is it? Memoir, autobiography, story

What is it? Memoir, autobiography, story

I’ve been reading a — well, what to call it is the issue. It is a book, that much is certain! But what kind of a book? It is being sold as a memoir or autobiography, depending on where you read about it, and is usually described as the author reflecting upon her life. The one thing she does not do, however, is engage in reflection.

The book in question is by Barbara Hosking, Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant, and it’s an interesting read. Now in her mid 90s and somewhat sharper than a razor or well honed axe, Barbara Hosking was a senior civil servant who changed careers several times and had a finger in many administrative pies across politics, trade unions, broadcasting corporations and more. A fascinating woman, she came out as gay in old age, and had always wanted to write and particularly to write a book. She retired from her many post-retirement voluntary activities, which means she was still doing somewhat more than most of us do when we are working full time, at the age of 75. Exceeding My Brief tells the story of her life, starting at the beginning of childhood and family and stopping at an appropriate juncture in her early 90s. Following the book’s publication she was a featured guest on a Radio 4 programme hosted by the composer Michael Berkeley, Private Passions, as music is one of her loves. That is where I first encountered her name and as a consequence bought her book.

So why is it difficult to say what kind of book it is, what kind of genre or sub-genre name to call it by? As mentioned earlier, there is in effect no reflection in it, no engagement with challenging things like problems in her family due to parental incompatibility and also her father’s infidelity, growing up gay in the 1930s and 40s, making her way in the world without much education, dealing with problems in the highly masculinist, indeed for much of it openly sexist, world she worked in over many years, her affairs and relationships, her working relationships with high-level politicians including Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, finding love in her 70s. They are mentioned, briefly described, but not in any detail nor with any deeper consideration. All of these and more call out for more information, more detail, and some reflection with hindsight. Any of them would have made a memoir, numbers of them with reflection would have made an autobiography. What results without such focus or reflection is telling a story, telling the story at a surface level. It’s an interesting story, what it relates is in many ways extraordinary, but the dimensions of this have to be conjectured about and  guessed at. The habit of secrecy that came with keeping quiet about being gay, and the habit of discretion that came with working at a high political level entailing complete confidentiality – different kinds of closets – have produced an interesting but not a very interesting result. It was the same regarding her participation in the Private Passions radio programme.

What do I think about this? I’d love to hear Barbara Hosking speak when drunk or otherwise loosened up, but I wouldn’t read the book again!

Happy New Year to everyone, and let 2021 be better than the god-awful 2020.

Last updated: 24 December 2020


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