Immediately humble, charming and extremely funny, Michael took the stand quipping; “Can you hear me…and what would you say if I couldn’t hear you?”
With the audience already eating out of his hand, Michael explained how he first discovered the beauty of the written word.
“I grew up in Maidenhead Thicket – there are no references to this place by any great playwrights, novelists or poets – so it was difficult to break into the literary world coming from such an obscure place. But it was while I was living with my grandparents that I began to love books.”
Despite his amazing career and list of achievements, Michael is refreshingly unassuming. Regarding his books, he joked; “My first book, Basil Street Blues ended up in the music section. Mosaic went to the art section. My latest books, Secrets, I expect to go to the espionage section – but at least it will sell very well.”
Michael read a few autobiographical excerpts, including a section about his formative years when he frequented Maidenhead Library (“which became my university”) and came across his first biographies. Also included were funny anecdotes about his aunt lightly baking library books in the oven to remove the germs and how the breakdown of one of his mother’s marriages lead to Michael engaging in an elaborate discourse via letter – with himself! (“It wasn’t funny at the time,” he laughs.)
Not only poignant, funny and honest, Michaels’s autobiographical writing reveals an astute eye for the human condition, especially the quirks, idiosyncrasies and ability to make fun of oneself.
And this approach translates perfectly to his biographies. Michael treated us to a reading from his Shaw biography – “I wanted to give an idea of G. B. Shaw the villager; how he was in his real, private life” – before closing the reading section with a few pages from Secrets – but this also came with an unfortunate revelation for his fans…
“I’ll never write another book – this, The Book of Secrets, is my last book. It’s better to give up rather than have your readers and critics beg you to give up; so I’ve taken the initiative.”
The Q&A session was, as you’d expect, full of earnest requests; but what I didn’t expect (and probably neither did Michael) was the barrage of women declaring their love…
Lady 1: “Your readings are so good, I think I’ve fallen in love with you. When I read the books, god only knows what will happen.”
Michael: “Perhaps you’d better not – we’ll keep it as it is!”
Lady 2: “Unlike the lady earlier – who thinks she is in love with you – I am in love with you.”
My pick of the audience questions:
What is the point of Shaw in the 21st century?
I think he is out of fashion but he’s interesting and provocative; his time, to some extent, will come. His plays – Pygmalion is showing in Dublin for instance – are still played globally, so in this way, he still has a life. His musical criticism is some of the best musical criticism ever written. But he had a problem with politics – he believed he had to include jokes. He might have been more effective if he had written less. His father was alcoholic and he shifted the obsession – he was a workaholic. His time is in the past and the future, but not in the present.
What was your experience of the National Service?
My experiences were rather humiliating – I missed a war, I had leave and found out my company were going to war. I called about buttons and got told to go to the Tower of London under self arrest, and I did. It turned out that the person who had sent me a telegraph calling me to war had actually sent it to himself. Then there was another time when the union jack was flying upside down and I didn’t know the union jack had an upside down – and I was responsible. It was on the front page of the newspaper!” (He adds, chuckling, “These were awful times for me – they weren’t funny then.”)
As a biographer, is there a danger that you fall in love with the subject and add a rose tinted edge?
Definitely – you’ve invested so much time and energy there’s a danger that you would colour the view slightly. The best thing to do is to find out your subjects enemies and give their best criticisms so it’s not you giving the judgement. I use parodies sometimes and in my autobiographical things, I will make fun of myself.
Confession time: Prior to the festival, Michael kindly agreed to an interview (you can read here). When I emailed Michael to tell him that his blog interview was live, I made a bit of a typographical error and said his interview was now ‘love’. When I emailed the correction he replied, “Dear Elizabeth, I’m not sure I didn’t prefer your first version.” At the start of the event, I thanked Michael for his interview. In turn, he thanked me for the typing error, saying; “I’ll never forget it.”
What a guy!