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Finding fragments of a father

  • 02 July 2020
In the summer of 1988 I was part of an Adelaide Writers Week symposium on biography the stars of which were two justly famous and accomplished biographers — Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion.

I described that occasion at the time, like this:

'I greatly admired Motion’s panache. As we ascended the podium to begin the session in front of a huge crowd in the Writers Week tent, he was heard to enquire of anyone within earshot what it was we were supposed to be talking about! For her part, Victoria Glendinning had some spare jottings on the back of an envelope and she, like Motion, spoke with splendid fluency and conviction. Neither of them seemed to have the slightest doubt about the legitimacy of biography or the reliability of what biographical research turned up. They considered that when you committed biography you produced something describable as an accurate, recognisable, to some extent verifiable, life.'

Their confidence, the assurance with which they approached the topic and its intricacies, powerfully intensified my own sense of unease. As a writers week neophyte, I was beginning to wonder whether my planned contribution, which would explore and elaborate on a profound doubt about the legitimacy of the biographical act, was such a good idea after all.

In ensuing years, however, both Glendinning and Motion also began to doubt, Glendinning rejecting what she came to see as the ‘kind of authoritative tone that reckons to give you the whole picture of somebody’s life,’ the tone, that is, of conventional biography. And Motion, joining the ranks of the apostates, suggested that ‘if [biography is] only pursued by orthodox means, it will endlessly go round the same small wheels of people who left papers behind that we can re-read and re-interpret’.

Motion’s doubts and worries about biography were brought to a head when he began to write Wainewright the Poisoner. Confronted by ‘formidable difficulties’ which precluded the construction of a ‘complete linear narrative of [Wainwright’s] life’, Motion came to a conclusion that would have been anathema to him and his compatriot in Adelaide in 1988: ‘Well,’ he resolved, ‘I’m going to have to make it up.’

'Like many a biographical subject, Bungey’s mercurial father evades final capture. Hoping to ‘find’ him, she reveals, in her own estimation, only fragments.'

In Daddy Cool, Darleen Bungey does not ‘make it up’ (strictly speaking, neither did Motion), but she does honestly acknowledge the difficulties and, frankly, the impossibility