Mark Andresen – Field Of Vision: The Broadcast Life Of Kenneth Allsop

Chris Mitchell

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Field Of Vision: The Broadcast Life Of Kenneth Allsop
Mark Andresen

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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.

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7 Responses to Mark Andresen – Field Of Vision: The Broadcast Life Of Kenneth Allsop

  1. Mike Craig says:

    Excellent review – I’m very interested in Allsop since reading “hard Travellin'” about the American Hobo and US migrant labour generally, from about the middle of the 19th century to early 1960’s (it was pubished in 1967).

    Brilliant social history, I’ve read it several times and would highly recommend it (also his book on the prohibition bootleggers).

  2. admin says:

    Thank you Mike, great comment. – yes, I found it a strangely compelling book despite knowing nothing about Allsop before I picked it up.

  3. Paul says:

    Kenneth Allsop was a brilliant and intelligent person. You could believe everything he said, because he approached everything with erudition and treated everyone with respect. He directly influenced how I thought and what I went to see through his art reviews. As a teenager in the 1960s, he helped me to understand a world that had thrown off the shackles of the past and was looking to the future. My own approach since, still owes a great a deal to him. I am very grateful to have seen and heard him when I did. Once in a while there comes a person who understands what he sees and can explain it to others. Kenneth Allsop was such a unique person.

  4. Willie O'Kane says:

    In 1971, when I was 15, we got our first television, and one of my first memories was of ’24 Hours’ reporting on our turbulent times here in N Ireland. Although I paid him little attention, the main frontman was Kenneth Allsop, and over the next few years he was a regular commentator on current affairs, the arts and environmental issues on television. He was the quintessential BBC journalist/interviewer – professional, well-spoken, earnest and unflappable.

    It was only when I heard of his death in 1973 that I became consciously aware of his worth and erudition, and over the next two decades I collected his novels and reportage. I admired his writing and his interests very much – and perhaps these influenced my own exploration of American history, Jazz and Blues music and our responsiblities towards the ideal of sustainable living. In the late 1980s, with my then girlfriend, I was able to visit The Old Mill in Dorset where Allsop had lived for the last 3 years of his life, and also Steep Holm Island, bought in his memory.

    I always longed for some deeper account of his career, and was delighted to discover Mark Andresen’s biography. I read it in a couple of days in Nov 2008 and again last month (Oct 2010) and it really is a marvellous homage to the life and times of Ken Allsop. The detailed accounts of his upbringing and early career are remarkably good, and the book never seeks to romanticise its subject. On the contrary, it serves as a corrective to the pastoral image that Allsop may have consciously created – especially in his ‘In the Country’ columns where he appears as the would-be saviour of West Dorset. The book also gives an excellent insight into the almost constant struggle with physical pain that Allsop endured for three decades.

    I was surprised – and rather saddened – to learn of Allsop’s philandering, but he was indeed a complex man of many parts, and his personality accommodated a wide oeuvre, from youthful ornithologist to back-street jazz afficianado. His own daughter, Amanda, recognised these dualities in her father, and her relationship with him was often a rocky one, perhaps reflecting their mutual similarities.

    Given the transience of television fame, it will be as a writer that Allsop is remembered. ‘Field of Vision’, while dealing more with the broadcast life, could I feel have examined the books a little more. Mark Andresen makes occasional comment on Allsop’s writing, but mostly to describe his overwrought style rather than to examine his skills and the frequent beauty of that style. Allsop was surely one of the best writers about animal and bird life – simple but not simplistic, and avoiding any hint of cosy romanticism or anthroporphism. Elsewhere, his accounts of American culture and landscapes are marked with his uniquely poetic and expansive writing style that is always a pleasure to savour.

    I have some reservations about the biography, though chiefly from the point of view of presentation and style. It would have benefitted from a tighter editing process, as the appalling level of typographical errors, errant apostrophes and hanging clauses makes reading it quite a chore. The irony is that the subject, Kennth Allsop, was totally fastidious about sentence and clause structure, and would surely have grimaced at some of the lugubrious prose that Mr Andresen has employed in places.

    But, all in all, ‘Field of Vision’ is a very useful addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in Kenneth Allsop or in the history of television news programmes. For my own part, I would like to acknowledge the energy and dedication of Mark Andresen in producing this valuable biography

  5. Willie O'Kane says:

    N.B. Please subsitute anthropomorphism for ‘anthroporphism’ in Para 5

  6. Thank you Willie for the kind comments about my book. You are particularly on the nail about me consciously avoiding succumbing to the man’s possible view of himself. I did indeed make a decision, early on, to try and uncover the real man and what might have made him tick. I was sure his overt sense of precision in his writing, though never false, (he was never less than precise in expressing his views) was nevertheless a contrivance and covered the true man; whoever that was. I only partially succeeded, I think.

    You are also quite right about the presentation. I improved it for the 2005 imprint, but it would’ve have benefitted greatly from a proper publishing house editor. I tried, for two years, to place it, but no one wanted to know. (Other than The Book Guild who were enthusiastic, but they require part-payment for publication and I was utterly skint). Colin Wilson, bless him, in his unending support for new writers, admired the ms enough to virtually insist upon writing the Intro.

    As to the books…I simply ran out of room to cover them in detail. Also, again, they represent the man as he wishes to be seen / read, which was something I wanted to avoid throughout the research.

    Anyway, thank you and all the other posters for the comments. They mean a lot. Mark Andresen.

  7. Jennifer Godfrey says:

    Hi Mark’ hope you are well. Have read and reread your book over again. Lots of things I didn’t know about Ken made it very interesting reading. Thank you for a wonderful book.

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