Biography is often the most satisfying of all literary genres; other people’s lives frequently prove more fascinating than most fiction and the palpable, if inevitable, sense of beginning, middle and end provides a natural plotline and structure. Where most fiction is reality badly rendered, biography has the opposite problem of having to deal with too much reality. The biographer must sift and select the salient points of his subject’s life, discarding the dead days and trying to find coherency and meaning in the others. A good biography does not merely recount its subject’s life as a narrative but attempts to provide insight and analysis of its subject to the extent of provoking empathy in the reader. Mark Andresen’s biography of Kenneth Allsop succeeds on all these fronts.
Usually reviewers of biographies are meant to have an understanding or expertise about the subject to verify the accuracy or otherwise of what’s written. I had never heard of Kenneth Allsop until encountering Andresen’s book, which made engaging this particular reader all the harder. But Andresen’s economic prose, evident enthusiasm for his subject and lack of sentimentality combine to produce a compelling portrait of a remarkable if troubled man.
A Fleet Street journalist and one of the first anchormen for BBC current affairs programmes, Allsop died by his own hand in 1973. Having lost a leg to tuberculosis during the Second World War and battling daily tubercular-related pain for the rest of his life, Allsop produced a vast quantity of journalism and numerous diverse books, as well a Broadway play. His early love of ornithology grew into passionate campaigning for conservation at a time when Friend Of The Earth barely existed. This lifelong love of nature also provided a lengthy and troubled friendship with Henry Williamson, author of Tarka The Otter, Allsop’s childhood hero and a befuddled Fascist sympathiser both during and after the war. Allsop’s disability drove him to continually seek extra-marital affairs in a form of self-validation which continued for all of his life. Indeed, Allsop’s writing pseudonym “Percy Redcar” was named after his two most precious possessions — his automobile and his penis.
Andresen captures the complexities of Allsop’s character, from the gung-ho sports-car–and-sexual-conquests to his outbreaks of self-pity, his overwrought poetry to his longsuffering wife Betty, his perfectionism and his lifelong love of nature. A remarkably self-centred man, Allsop was obsessed with work and would frequently forsake family, friends and flings in order to churn out more words.
With Allsop coming of age just before WWII and then scrabbling for work in Fleet Street in the lean post-war years before finding a new career in the nascent BBC’s current affairs programmes, Andresen’s biography provides an absorbing insider view of how both those veritable media institutions functioned and changed through the Forties and Fifties. This is, then, also a biography of the media, of the turbulent changes wrought upon Fleet Street by the post-war shift in sensibilities and, most dramatically, by television.
From a literary perspective, Allsop’s relationship with Henry Williamson is the axis around which his life turned — having found his work as a teenager, Allsop remained obsessed with Williamson’s portrayal of nature throughout his life, cultivating a friendship that continued until Allsop’s suicide. Andresen rightly spends several pages describing Williamson’s own life, which fits with the mould of bohemian, somewhat otherworldly writer. Williamson’s flirtation with fascism, including a visit to pre-war Nazi Germany is compelling for its record of contemporary attitudes.
The other key figure in Allsop’s life, his wife Betty, sadly remains a shadow through much of the book, her stoicism continually noted but never explained. More detail on her own pursuits and interests — she was an active political campaigner — as well her coping with Allsop’s numerous affairs would have been welcome. I found it difficult to understand why she stayed with him. Similarly, more detail on Allsop’s love affairs, especially long term ones that were proper illicit relationships rather than brief couplings, would have been good. Maybe it’s just my prurient interest, but the sex drive goes a long way to defining not only a person’s outlook but actions too. But these are minor quibbles and perhaps biographically impossible to satisfy through lack of source material.
Having never heard of Kenneth Allsop before this biography, I am now sufficiently interested in his work to want to track down two of his novels (unfortunately most of them are currently out of print). If it kindles or reignites an enthusiasm and interest in its subject then a biography has done its work. Field Of Vision, then, is a fitting tribute to Kenneth Allsop.