LET'S blame Benvenuto Cellini, who offered everyone the perfect excuse to tell their own story.
It is incumbent on all men, demanded the Renaissance goldsmith, "of whatsoever quality they be ... to describe their life with their own hand". His only caveat was we should not think of putting pen to paper until we are over the age of 40.
In that regard, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose autobiography was published yesterday, has bided his time well. At 71, he has reached that point in his journey from cradle to grave when it is unwise to put it off any longer.
Writing an autobiography, like keeping a diary, is an act of narcissism. Unable to see ourselves as others do, we are required to paint a self-portrait. Whether it is flattering depends on the person concerned. Take Cellini, who attempted to tell the truth if not quite the whole truth, neglecting perhaps to mention a few of the murders he had committed. What Cellini did, however, was relay the truth as he saw it, depicting himself as blowhard and braggart, hero and villain, sexual predator and artistic genius.
As autobiographers go, he was more candid than most. For he seemed to recognise that if he behaved otherwise his account would be worthless. If future generations were to learn anything from him, he realised it was his duty to depict himself warts and all. Sadly, this is not the modern mode. Today we have become accustomed to politicians and others in the public eye getting their excuses in first, desperate as they are to justify themselves and rationalise their actions. Thus Bill Clinton managed blithely to skip over the Monica Lewinsky affair while, in her Downing Street memoir, Margaret Thatcher tediously rehearsed the policies that helped turn one nation into several.
Neither was noted for their introspection. For whatever else politicians are good at it is not self-awareness. Life, it seems, is too short to peer into their own souls and study their consciences. They have got better things to do, such as break promises and stab backs. For them, the past is a place you need a visa to visit. They find it difficult to recall what they felt at a particular time and are able merely to tick off events, however nerve-shredding they might have been.
Alistair Darling's account of the moment he was told the entire banking system was on the brink of meltdown is a case in point. Even with the benefit of hindsight he seemed unnaturally calm. Given Mr Darling's position, his reaction was admirable and helped resolve a crisis. But from an autobiographer we require more. We want to know what was racing through his mind, how dry his mouth felt, how palsied was his hand as he signed historic documents. We need our prurience satisfied. We want detail, description, dialogue, facts, gossip. We want to feel we were there.
Of all literary forms, autobiography is the one that inspires most ambivalence. There are those who avoid it because they fear it is an ego trip while others, such as Evelyn Waugh, feel it should only be broached when "one has lost all curiosity about the future".
For the Waughs of the world it is the last thing to do before saying goodnight. As Quentin Crisp said: "An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last instalment missing."
The problem is we are not given the opportunity to write our own obituary. An autobiography is therefore our last chance to set the record straight. For people as famous as Sir Alex there are already biographies in print, some of which are notable for the muck they have raked up. Who would want them to be words that go down to posterity? Who does not want to edit their own past?
"Lies," reflected Muriel Spark in her autobiography, "are like fleas hopping from here to there, sucking the blood of the intellect". She was motivated to write her own life in defiance of those who sought to misrepresent her. In so doing, she invoked another autobiographical motive, namely revenge. Writing of her enemy Marie Stopes, famed for her pioneering research into contraception, she hissed: "I used to think it a pity that her mother rather than she had not thought of birth control."
That, Sir Alex, is the league in which you are now competing.
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