Boswell Book Festival: Biographies tap into same curiosity that makes us watch Love Island and I'm a Celebrity – Caroline Knox

Whether we like to admit it or not, it is a quintessential part of being human that makes us intrigued by the way other people live their lives.

British lexicographer and writer Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), with his Scottish biographer James Boswell (1740-1795) and the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) at the Mitre Tavern in an illustration by Eyre Crowe (Picture: Rischgitz/Getty Images)

We cannot help ourselves wanting to know more about those in power or the public eye as much as the new family who have moved into a house along the street.

The itch to want to twitch back the curtain is one that is hard to contain. That is why millions of people tune in to watch programmes such as Love Island and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here to try and learn more about those involved.

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It’s why people continue to buy James Boswell’s masterpiece The Life of Samuel Johnson more than 200 years after it was published and why each year biographies and memoirs are on the bestseller lists.

May 16, 1763, was the day that transformed the life of young Scottish aspirant writer James Boswell, aged 23, on his first visit to London.

Introduced by a mutual friend to the towering figure of Dr Samuel Johnson – compiler of the definitive dictionary of the English language and celebrated man of letters – Boswell’s life was changed forever.

It was the lightning strike of inspiration that ultimately led to the first ‘warts and all’ modern biography. This established him as the inventor of modern biography and has upheld his reputation as one of the most innovative writers of the Enlightenment.

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In 2009, a regenerational and educational charity, the Boswell Trust, decided to celebrate the genre of writing that Boswell transformed with a festival named after him dedicated to biography and memoir.

First held at Boswell’s own home Auchinleck House in Ayrshire, it moved to neighbouring Dumfries House as audiences swelled. The first Festival over ten years ago was launched with speakers such as Kate Adie, Selina Hastings, Candia McWilliam and actor Bill Paterson, whose reading from Boswell’s Journals will be a highlight of this year’s online festival, and we have strived to match and surpass their calibre every year since.

Great biographers need great subjects, they need people who have written or remembered much about their lives. They need to worm their way into their psyche to try and establish reasons for their actions as well as why that life is worth writing about.

A good biography can inspire the readers. Our schools and family programme, which is expanding this year, can help children discover what happens in other parts of the world and in other times. This is especially important for young ones who will not have experienced much outside the confines of their local neighbourhood in the past year.

The need to tell one’s story is a human instinct so strong that it survives the most challenging of circumstances. Until recently people wrote numerous letters daily which form invaluable archive material for writers of life stories.

Hence the inclusion in this year’s festival of My Father’s Letters From The Soviet Gulag – a profoundly moving and powerful historical record which tells the stories of 16 men from the millions sentenced between 1930s and 1950s in the Soviet Union through letters sent to their children.

Memoirs don’t always have to be about the most famous people. Recently there has been a boom in those related to the medical profession – former doctor Adam Kay’s stage shows, based on his books, have attracted thousands of people to West End theatres.

One of our past speakers, Henry Marsh, had a huge hit with his memoirs of his life as a brain surgeon; and Edinburgh GP Gavin Francis (who will be taking part in this year’s festival) has recently published a book on coping in the year of Covid-19. Who knows what the next trend will be, but whatever it is, we will be inviting the writers to our festival.

Observation is of course the other key to writing about other people. The inter-war diaries of Chips Channon, edited by Simon Heffer, has been one of most talked about books of this year with a second volume being published in the autumn.

He was a minor novelist and backbench MP who mixed in high society and who, as an American, observed the spectacle of politics, balls, and royalty with the fresh eye of an outsider which makes his record both compelling and significant.

Famously Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger was given a large advance to write his autobiography in the 1980s but couldn’t finish it as he found the process “dull and upsetting”. However, Bill Wyman, considered to be the ‘boring’ member of the band kept a diary throughout his years of touring and recording. His insight into everything that happened to one of the most famous rock groups ever is considered to be the best book ever about the Rolling Stones.

I am often asked about how biographers will cope with writing about contemporary people.

The advent of modern forms of communication such as email, text, WhatsApp, voice mails and podcasts offers a huge cache of research material. Routinely hard drives are being acquired by libraries and archives.

Professor Jane Ridley, founder of the first post-graduate course in biography at the University of Buckingham, points out that in the ‘golden age’ of letter-writing in the early 17th century there were six postal services a day in London.

People were able to send each other several missives a day in a manner not dissimilar to email exchanges we experience today. Jane Ridley will be leading one of the festival’s masterclasses in life writing.

There is no doubt in my mind that biographies and memoirs will continue to thrive, mirroring the boom in book buying during the pandemic. What could be more tempting than an invitation to look into other people’s lives as told by some of our finest writers?

Caroline Knox is director of the Boswell Book Festival

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