Books

Our juiciest memoirs of the year

I like sleeping with people (just not my wife!) So says Chips Channon in the latest volume of his shameless uncensored diaries, just one of our juiciest memoirs of the year

  • Ysenda Maxtone-Graham rounded up a selection of this year’s best memoirs 
  • Simon Heffer shares diaries of Conservative MP Henry ‘Chips’ Channon
  • Anya Hindmarch has penned memoir If In Doubt Wash Your Hair

HENRY ‘CHIPS’ CHANNON: THE DIARIES (VOLUME II): 1938-1943   

Edited by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson £35, 1120 pp)

Volume II of the unexpurgated diaries of Conservative MP Henry ‘Chips’ Channon is every bit as gripping, jaw-droppingly snobbish, whiningly self-obsessed and disarmingly frank as Volume I.

Wedding day: Chips Channon and Lady Honor Guinness in 1933

Never a dull day, never a dull sentence. One minute he’s having his bottom washed out (‘Does one a universe of benefit; life takes on a new complexion’), then, though married to the rich heiress Honor Guinness, he’s fantasising about his boyfriend Peter Coats who’s in Egypt. Next, he’s admitting to a crush on his boss, Rab Butler. ‘I like sleeping with people — with anybody except my wife!’

As bombs fall, he’s dining at the Ritz, the Dorchester and the Carlton Grill. ‘We ate at the middle-class hour of 7.30, so as to start before the bombardment.’ When his own house is bombed, the first thing he does is ring for the butler.

His political predictions are hilariously off-target. ‘God help this country! Only Chamberlain can save us!’ ‘Winston is losing the war, if he has not already lost it.’ ‘The invasion of Russia is a clever move by Hitler.’

His grief at parting with his four-year-old son Paul, who sails off to America with his nanny in June 1940, is very touching. ‘I care more for Paul than for all of France, and mind his departure more than France’s collapse.’

Pictured: Peter Coates with who Chips found happiness

IF IN DOUBT WASH YOUR HAIR   

by Anya Hindmarch (Bloomsbury £18.99, 256 pp)

IF IN DOUBT WASH YOUR HAIR by Anya Hindmarch (Bloomsbury £18.99, 256 pp)

For such a successful businesswoman — our British heroine of the handbag — it’s surprising that Anya Hindmarch is often plagued by doubt. In this delightfully honest memoir, which will either inspire you to become a businesswoman or put you off for life, she admits that with every new project she and her team have ever launched, her cycle of emotion has been: ‘I love it. I’m nervous. I’m bored of it. It’s really hard. I hate it. Actually I really hate it. I hate myself.’ Only then climbing gradually back to, ‘In fact, it’s great — I love it.’

At the worst ‘hate myself’ moments, she calms herself with the simple act of washing her hair.

‘Quite simply, it sums up how much better I feel about myself — how much more confident, how much glintier-eyed, how much better able to cope and respond — if I have freshly washed hair.’

So determined was she to open a shop on a prime corner of Sloane Street that she sent the landlord an Advent calendar with the words, ‘Anya For Sloane Street!’ behind all 24 of its windows. He was enchanted. She got it.

Her second most important piece of advice?

‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’

THE MADNESS OF GRIEF: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS   

THE MADNESS OF GRIEF: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS by Rev Richard Coles (W&N £16.99, 192 pp)

by Rev Richard Coles (W&N £16.99, 192 pp)

A worthy heir to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, this slim volume takes us to the heart of the bleakness and turmoil caused by the death of a beloved.

Rev Richard Coles tells us exactly what happened from the moment he found his 43-year-old partner, David, vomiting blood in the shed of their vicarage in Northamptonshire, through his last days in hospital to his death just before Christmas, and on to the funeral and desolation of being widowed before lockdown.

To be in Coles’s company is always uplifting, even when he’s writing about unbearable sadness and loss. He doesn’t shirk from telling us that David was an alcoholic, and that their relationship, though one of deep love, was far from wall-to-wall sunshine, Richard being a keen cook and David a keen smoker: ‘Our different smells began to mark our different territory within the vicarage.’

Their five dogs are the leitmotif. Whatever’s going on, the dogs need to be walked, fed and loved.

I was moved by David’s death, by the ‘sadmin’ that came after it; the fetching of the Death Certificate, the clearing out of his half-finished projects, the waves of grief, the kindness of friends. But I positively sobbed (and so did Richard) when the doorbell rang three times and he gave away three of their adored dogs to friends, as he couldn’t manage five on his own.

MONICA JONES, PHILIP LARKIN AND ME   

MONICA JONES, PHILIP LARKIN AND ME by John Sutherland (W&N £20, 288 pp)

by John Sutherland (W&N £20, 288 pp)

Philip Larkin lived by the words of this cheerful ditty: ‘Hogamous, Higamous, man is polygamous. Higamous, hogamous, woman is monogamous.’ An expert two-timer and compartmentaliser, he kept not one but two spinster lovers ‘trapped in aspic’, as John Sutherland puts it in this deeply affecting book.

He also touches on his own friendship with one of those two women, Monica Jones, whom he met when he arrived as a promising undergraduate at Leicester University in the mid-1940s. She took Sutherland under her wing.

Monica, who was never photographed without her specs, was a brilliant and sexy English lecturer in a department of mean men who didn’t promote her. Larkin met her in 1947 while working as a librarian there.

Their sexual relationship carried on for 40 years, but he always kept her at arm’s length, rationing her annual allowance of time with him to brief holidays.

He started a long-term affair with Maeve Brennan, assistant librarian at Hull University, after he moved there in 1955.

The situation drove Monica to alcoholism, bulimia, chronic loneliness and the writing of 16-page letters of hurt and rage mingled with undying love. She begs Larkin for more tenderness during their lovemaking. He replies: ‘It would be faked emotion. I just don’t feel personal at that time.’ The wretch!

Sutherland remembers how his ebullient friend Monica became ‘like a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork of herself’ when she was with Larkin, so much did he sap her of her personality when in company.

NEVER GIVE UP: A LIFE OF ADVENTURE   

by Bear Grylls (Bantam £20, 336 pp)

NEVER GIVE UP: A LIFE OF ADVENTURE by Bear Grylls (Bantam £20, 336 pp)

When Bear Grylls proudly showed his wife Shara TV footage of himself hanging upside down from a chopper over Sumatra, she simply said: ‘Flesh-coloured socks? They’re awful, Bear.’

As well as being crazily addicted to danger, keen to bite off the head of a snake, or be bitten by one on purpose to prove it’s not fatal, Grylls is an admirable puncturer of pomp, including his own.

That’s why the world’s superstars — from Julia Roberts to Roger Federer to Barack Obama — came across so refreshingly in his hit series Running Wild.

All pomp was stripped away, and it was just Bear and the celeb and nature, plus, in the case of Obama in Alaska, 20 Secret Service vehicles, 60 agents hiding in the bushes and a chef hovering, ready to offer the President pre-cooked salmon covered in tin foil.

Obama politely declined that and ate Bear’s slightly dodgy bear-kill salmon cooked on the campfire instead.

In this antic-filled follow-up to his bestselling memoir Mud, Sweat And Tears, Grylls describes the maddest, funniest and scariest moments in his life as a TV film-maker and personality, admitting to failures as well as hits.

This is macho prose — short paragraphs, manly mantras and motivational thoughts.

His rule for adventures: ‘We finish alive, we finish as friends, we finish successful. Always in that order.’ And: ‘Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.’

The best photo of many excellent ones is of Bear and an unshaven Roger Federer playing a game of miniature ping-pong in the Swiss snow. ‘I was 7-4 up in the match of my life. Then in a heartbeat it was 9-9. From there, I got the yips and lost.’

RE-EDUCATED: HOW I CHANGED MY JOB, MY HOME, MY HUSBAND AND MY HAIR   

by Lucy Kellaway (Ebury £16.99, 256 pp)

RE-EDUCATED: HOW I CHANGED MY JOB, MY HOME, MY HUSBAND AND MY HAIR by Lucy Kellaway (Ebury £16.99, 256 pp)

Actually, the discarding described in this brisk and invigorating book went in the following order. First, the home.

Lucy Kellaway was living in a large Victorian house in London’s Highbury, in which she and her husband had brought up their four children. She fell in love with a spacious, modern ‘frame’ house in Hackney and bought it.

Then the husband. They’d been living fairly separate lives in Highbury, their marriage under strain, he in the basement. After she moved out the marriage was over and he went to live in a flat.

Then the job. Kellaway had been a successful Financial Times columnist for more than 30 years. Aged 57, she decided she’d had enough. She founded Now Teach, a charity for people like her who’d had lucrative jobs and wanted to give something back by becoming teachers in difficult state schools.

Exhausting and demanding though her new life was, Kellaway found teaching maths and economics to classrooms full of young teenagers life-changingly fulfilling. Others, including top ex-investment bankers, couldn’t stick it.

Then, the hair. No more dyeing! Enough of spending £100 per month and half a day at the salon. Let it go grey!

Short, sharp and pitiless, this is an inspiring memoir of facing life’s Third Act with head held high.

ODD BOY OUT   

by Gyles Brandreth (Michael Joseph £20, 448 pp)

ODD BOY OUT by Gyles Brandreth (Michael Joseph £20, 448 pp)

Extract from Gyles Brandreth’s prep-school diary, 1960: ‘Last night two boys in my dorm were crying (Bowden and Leavington) so we chatted quite a while, till everybody was laughing, and then we all went off to sleep.’

So Brandreth has been an expert cheerer-upper for more than 60 years. In this ebullient memoir, he carries on that good work.

This is a book full of fun, famous names and sparkling facts, such as that the Queen likes to sing George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows in a Lancashire accent; that Julian Fellowes is the only Oscar-winner with whom Brandreth has ever shared a bath (they were childhood friends); and that Brandreth once dropped Yehudi Menuhin’s priceless Stradivarius down a flight of stone steps in Canterbury Cathedral.

‘Don’t talk about yourself. No one’s interested,’ Prince Philip once advised Brandreth. I don’t think he took the advice.

This book is all about Brandreth’s glittering successes, including marrying the woman of his dreams whom he met while auditioning her for Cinderella at Oxford. But it’s all so wittily and warmly described that you forgive him.

There’s poignancy, particularly in the passages about Brandreth’s father, ‘Pa’, a solicitor who was always short of money. It’s partly that childhood of financial anxiety that has kept Gyles working so hard all his life. He learned early that ‘survival in this world depends entirely on hard graft, good housekeeping — and luck’.

FREE: COMING OF AGE AT THE END OF HISTORY by Lea Ypi (Allen Lane £20, 336 pp)

FREE: COMING OF AGE AT THE END OF HISTORY   

by Lea Ypi (Allen Lane £20, 336 pp)

The abiding image of Lea Ypi’s memoir of growing up in Socialist Albania in the 1980s is of two close families falling out over the theft of an empty Coca-Cola can.

It tells us so much about life in that Communist-leaning state, that an empty Coke can, scavenged from a tourist litter bin (the drink was unavailable for locals) was a status symbol, displayed on top of the family TV.

Yet nothing is simple in reality, and that Socialist regime, in its grindingly incompetent way (you had to queue for 24 hours for groceries), gave Ypi and her family some stability, even though she would later discover that her family had been on the regime’s blacklist because of her dissenting grandparents, hence her parents’ lack of job promotion.

It was when the Socialist system fell in 1990 and the country was suddenly ‘free’ that everything fell apart. Ypi’s parents lost their state jobs. Albanians were now free to leave, but other countries didn’t want them. Ypi’s friends, desperate for money, became sex workers, abandoning their babies in orphanages. Then the whole country was strongly encouraged to invest in pyramid schemes.

Half the population lost their life savings, resulting in civil war, described in Ypi’s teenage diary.

Books of political theory can be turgid; this is a book of political reality as lived from day to day by a young girl coming of age.

To buy any book reviewed here, visit mailshop.co.uk/ books or call 020 3176 2937

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