Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Opening biographies

a>Speaking here in Plymouth the other day, I mentioned the liberties I had taken with the opening chapter of Suffer and Survive. Ultimately they were not so many. The scene is the Tylorstown colliery disaster, and many vivid details were provided in the local newspapers and books about the tragedy, even whole passages of dialogue. My biggest liberty was transposing some of Haldane’s written words to make them his dialogue. Modern biographies (Simon Winchester’s very typical in this regard) throw loads of dramatic incident into the opening chapter, so we see the subject in full flow, before stepping back into the chronology of the life. I noted in my speech that nobody had as yet called me on it. In fact members of the Haldane family have written to say how that chapter was especially relished.
Now Nature has in fact called my bluff, in a review by Andy Meharg. ‘The life of this fearless man is neatly laid out in Martin Goodman's biography Suffer and Survive. Goodman conveys Haldane's scientific dynamism and his love for life,’ he kndly writes. When he gets round to that opening chapter it’s looking good. ‘The first chapter has vividly imagined scenes embroidered onto real events, presumably for dramatic effect, describing how Haldane rushed to a Welsh coal-mining accident.’ It turns out, though, that he s no particular fan of the dramatization mode and enjoys emerging into the rest of the book. ‘After this shaky start, he concludes, ‘the book becomes highly enjoyable. It is a fitting tribute to a pioneer who enabled the human body to survive at the extremes of modern life.’

It’s a fine and interesting review. I’m glad too for the mention in the Daily Telegraph’s Biographies for Christmas, in which the book is called ‘thrilling’.

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