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richard-holmesBelow are two little extracts from a radio programme I listened to today: Patrick Malahide reading extracts from This Long Pursuit (2016), by Richard Holmes, which is a meditation on the art of biography and on 45 or so years of life as a biographer. The book is Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 this week, so five 15-minute episodes, Monday to Friday. (I’ll put the link for the radio programme at the foot of this post, however the BBC will not allow open access to the material indefinitely — it will be available for 29 days from today).

I am interested in Holmes at the moment as I’m reading his The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008), which is really excellent, and my next read will be his often recommended Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic biographer (1985).

So, in this episode Holmes is talking about teaching on the MA programme at the University of East Anglia (where he was professor of biographical studies from 2001 to 2007), and he offers the following 10 Commandments for Practising Biographers (which, in fairness, I must report he offers as ‘an ironic postscript’)

  1. Thou shalt honour biography as living, experimental, and multifarious in all its forms.
  2. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s novel for there are as many rooms in the mansion of non-fiction as there are in the house of the fiction.
  3. Thou shalt recognise that biography is always at best a celebration of human nature and all its glorious contradictions.
  4. Thou shalt demand that it be greater than gossip because it is concerned with historical justice and human understanding.
  5. Thou shalt require that it chronicles an outward story — the facts — only to reveal an inward life, a comprehensive truth.
  6. Thou shalt see that this truth can be told and re-examined again and again unto each generation.
  7. Thou shalt greet it as a life-giving form as it is concerned with human struggle and the creative spirit which we all share.
  8. Thou shall relish it as a holiday for the human imagination for it takes us away to another place, another time, and another identity, where we can begin to reflect quietly on our own lives and come back refreshed.
  9. Thou shalt be immodestly proud of it as it is something the English have given to the world, like cricket and parliament, and the full cooked breakfast.
  10. And, lastly, thou shalt be humble about it for it demonstrates that we can never know, or write, the last word about the human heart.

The other part of the episode that caught my attention was the following, which he refers to as ‘The Lifespan Litany’, which puts things in perspective:

  1. American Redwood tree: 500 years
  2. Galapagos tortoise: 190 years
  3. African elephant: 90 years
  4. Modern European man: 75 years
  5. Canadian grizzly bear: 25 years
  6. German Shepherd dog: 12 years
  7. Cloudy Yellow butterfly: 1 year
  8. Worker bee: 5 weeks
  9. Adult mayfly: 1 day

As I say, this [the link to the episode, which is part 3 of 5] will only remain available on the BBC iPlayer until mid-January (14th): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b084zj6x