AUTOBIOGRAPHIES - those which figure highest in my estimation among those I read among all 20th Century literature (World War accounts and biographies - see here).

Some of the many autobiographial books I have read, some of the especially formative or inspiring in my case. I do not include here the autobiographies of famous WW2 fighter aces, which figure among the most exciting and amazing of exploits, which naturally inspired me as a young man and caused my choosing the R.A.F. when I had to do National Service. Nor do I include the memoirs of famous World War generals etc.

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by R.L. Stevenson. His romantic camping journey through Languedoc an age ago before local life traditions were largely lost - what ease of observation! Also An Inland Voyage - his canoe journey through the canals and waterways of France. His lengthy visit to USA is depicted in Across the Plains, and The Silverado Squatters and The Amateur Emigrant. The letters of Robert Louis Stevenson are famous and worth reading for those who have an interest in Scotland and not least Samoa.

Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson - London 1918. Beautiful times, a mystical childhood in turn-of-the-century Argentina, a lost world. Deep and moving, spell-binding.
and Lazy Days in Patagonia a fascinatingly frank account of the author's life mainly as a wandering kind of gaucho.
Son of Adam by Denis Foreman - 1990 André Deutsch Ltd. Growing up as a very precocious child in an aristocratic Scottish family in a Dumfries castle. Remarkable and humorous record of the natural and long-lost social environment and of the process of his turbulent self-liberation from strictly conformist religious parents. Out of the ordinary writing...

Arrow in the Blue, The Invisible Writing (+ Scum of the Earth). Among the most perceptive autobiography written and what experiences! Unfortunately, I did not discover Arthur Koestler's wonderful autobiographical books from the early 50s until 1998! Koestler was a very famous journalist before the war, spoke many languages fluently - very gifted and innovative before he became a communist. He was the only non-Russian journalist to be allowed to travel the length and breadth of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. What he saw was utterly terrible, but then he rationalised it all as necessary to the progress of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the elimination of all class differences. He suffered accordingly and was imprisoned in Spain, surviving tortures to reach England - at that time an oasis of peace and sanity in a mad European world. His jailers talked about such things as gardening, which astonished him! Then he liberated himself from ideology and became a prominent critic of communism and the USSR! Later he grew interested in parapsychology, because of an experience he had when at the end of his tether in the Spanish jail.

To War with Whittaker The Wartime diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly 1939-45. She defied the War Office and the Colonel Blimps of Cairo and raced off the the Middle East where her husband was posted to Palestine. He was taken prisoner so she vowed to stay until they were reunited. (Whittaker was their valet). She became a top level secretary to major figures and met Churchill, Eisenhower and a host of others. Brilliantly written with common sense perspicacity and insight into the workings of command.

The Lost World of the Kalahari ('58) Laurens van der Post. As close to mystical as anything that is not religious. Heart-moving. I re-read the very great 1958 classic in 1991: just as heart-moving and heartrending as it was 30 years ago. Deep! One of his very best books. Also the follow-up about Bushmen, The Heart of the Hunter" ('61) and the forerunner Venture to the Interior ('52). Most van der Post books are excellent. The Night of the New Moon ('70) is tremendously moving and credible because van der Post had remarkably been invited as a special guest by the Japanese government to Japan in the 30s and learned the language. an account of the horrors while a prisoner and leader in one of the Japanese death camps. It makes the most convincing case for the absolute necessity of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In his Yet Being Someone Other ('82) he told of his pre-war invitation to visit Japan from South Africa, which gave him deep knowledge of the Japanese psyche at that time. Also Walk with a White Bushman (conversations - one of the latest). Most van der Post books are excellent, though the romanticism of some of the eulogies of African people and myths is sometimes a bit much. All in Penguin, UK.

My Childhood (2 volumes) by Maxim Gorky. A most famous autobiography reflecting pre-revolutionary Russia in a most living and unusual manner. Also Fragments of a Diary and Mother, Fragments of a Diary and others. Befriended by Stalin, but not a Stalinist himself.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun ("Sult") made a lasting impression on me well before I first visited Norway. It is a dramatised version of his own time in Christiania while trying to become an author. After moving there I read virtually all his works and liked most of them. It conveys a sense of Oslo (then Christiania) which lingered strongly even in the 1960s. I had a walk-on role in a Danish film 'Sult' in which Per Oscarsson starred as Hamsun. (See image here)

Dear Theo by Irving Stone - being the self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh through his letters to his brother Theo. The lonely soul unburdens himself and shows us the stringent demands of life in his time, especially as a struggling artist. It surely leaves a deep but positive impression on anyone with a heart.

Father and Son (1907) by Edmund Gosse (autobiographical 'novel') A study in depth of growing up with a religiously-obsessed (Pentecostal) father. Very instructive about falsity of religion.

The Flax of Dream - William Stephenson's semi-autobiographical trilogy, especially the beautiful. nostalgic and deeply perceptive descriptions of boyhood (in Dandelion Days) entranced me in my very early twenties. His semi-autobiographical many-volume The Chronicles of Ancient Light series cover his world war experiences. The best volume I consider is Test To Destruction which tells with intense clarity and deep insight of his terrible times around the battle of the Somme.

Goodbye to All That by the famous Robert Graves, was an excellent personal story, a classic about that awful conflict very good.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) is an unavoidable book on his building a victorious guerilla fore of Arab tribesment in the first world war in the Middle East

Our Kate by Catherine Cookson (Futura 1990) Autobiography. Growing up in Shields and hard times galore. My mother went to the same school, so we knew how authentic her own story was.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. This is moving autobiography (and the excellent film of it - Shadowlands - too).

Patrick Leigh Fermor - An Adventure - by Artemis Cooper is an impressive biography of one of England's unassuming heroes and low-profile literary geniuses, little known except to all celebrated and other persons in UK who all loved him - even as a young man he was loved by almost all he met and as he developed as a writer and became a massive hero by kidnapping a German General in Crete during 2nd WW (so becoming one of Fleming's models for James Bond) and had countless friends and admirers. His knowledge of seven languages and hundreds of dialects across Southern and Eastern Europe and of the peoples he sought out to learn about their ways of life (mostly people lost to history now) was behind his much rewarded books about his walk as a youth across Europe in 1933 -1934. He lived half his life in Greece where he was regarded as a parallel to Lord Byron. He finally accepted a knighthood at last before his death in 2011.

My Days is a great memoir by the famous South Indian writer R.K. Narayen.

My India by Jim Corbett (the once famous hunter of man-eaters after whom a National Reserve is named in N. India) This is really touching, a description of his unrelenting work - a transport manager organising the railways at a huge junction on the Ganges - and becoming much loved by all his workers, a true selfless server of India.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts Though this is not directly autobiography, it is made into a most thrilling saga - most of it authentic events that happened to him. It has the hallmark to those of us who know India and have some knowledge of life at street level to be truly authentic. The dark side of India - darker than most can conceive - is also brought forth, but also the many good things about a people's spirit under some of the toughest circumstances in the world. Essential for one who wants to know how India, and Indian corruption and crime, work.
The Sun In The Morning. (London 1990 M.M. Kaye's autobiographical book on her growing up in India was a glimpse into that other world.
Trader Horn ('The Ivory Coast in the Earlies') by Alfred Aloysius Horn (1927 Jonathan Cape). Truly remarkable account by one of the earliest trader/discoverers of virgin Africa (in the 19th century). A great classic.

Memories of a Fox-Hunting Man by Sigfried Sassoon. One of the great, sensitive WW1 heroes who risked everything when he first spoke out in England about the true situation at the front. Evoked the Edwardian pre-war country society beautifully.

Naples '44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth by Norman Lewis. The author was an Intelligence Officer attached to the American Fifth Army. He was given responsibility which almost overwhelmed, trying to bring some aid and order into the chaos, destitution, cruelty and corruption of Naples. There seemed to be no rules to go by and the people and fates he encountered were most extraordinary, from the bizarre, comical to the weird and horrible, experiences he recorded with a freshness and striking detai. The vivacity of the Italians won him over and he wrote in the diary, ‘A year among Italians has converted me to such an admiration for their humanity and culture that were I given the chance to be born again, Italy would be the country of my choice’. A fascinating and almost humbling read.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay Partly autobiographical. Travel from Istanbul in Anatolia with an aunt, a camel, High Anglican clergyman. Very amusing observation of religious schisms in action.

The Way of a Transgressor by Negley Farson (1936) Self-biography of the once famous journalist who travelled the world and partook in many of the greatest events in the early 20th century. Eccentric, extraordinary.

African Farm Karen Blixen and its follow-up are excellent captures of a lost world of Africa almost untroubled by colonialism, truly excellent record of natural Africa and Africans before it all became too distorted by the British and others.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham. This autobiography is a gem of writing, and more vital than Blixen (she knew many of the same people & places too).

The Flame Trees of Thika Elspeth Huxley's African reminiscences are brilliant evocations of Africa prior to major colonisation, as also are her Memories of an African Childhood (1959) and The Mottled Lizard (1962). All fascinating reading.

Trader Horn ('The Ivory Coast in the Earlies') by Alfred Aloysius Horn (1927 Jonathan Cape). Truly remarkable account by one of the earliest trader/discoverers of virgin Africa (in the 19th century). A great classic.

Moab is my Washpot - Uninhibited boyhood by Stephen Fry, such a frank and remarkable mind he has. Also the sequel The Fry Chronicles The making of a genius despite university and after.

Memoirs of a British Agent by Sir Robert Hamilton ("R.H.") Bruce Lockhart, KCMG (2 September 1887 – 27 February 1970).
This book became an international bestseller and brought him to the world's attention. It gives a most impressive account of his highly dramatic times as a very young British Vice-Consul in Moscow where he came to know most of the Russian aristocrats, intelligentsia and artists of the old regime before the communist revolution, but also was the only Britain who personally came to know virtually all the Menshevik and Bolshevik leaders during the revolution, from Trotsky and Lenin and even Stalin. He was imprisoned for a month or more, later in the Kremlin and was condemned to death as a spy, but he was exchanged with a Russian diplomat. He was sent back as the virtual ambassador to the Bolshevik regime and also as a spy. His writing was most open and he exposed the total arrogance and isolated ignorance of the British government concerning Russia and WW1, not least the revolution and predicted the failure of Britain's attacks on Russia against the Bolsheviks. He was disgraced through slander and false representation in England, but was eventually fully vindicated, becoming British Consul General in Prague and became a most trusted and wise political figure. He played a crucial role in WW2 as director-general of the political war executive. as recounted in his Comes the Reckoning (Putnam, London, 1947), which gives unusual insight into the internal deliberations of the wartime authorities.

Son of Adam by Denis Foreman - 1990 André Deutsch Ltd. Growing up as a very precocious child in an aristocratic Scottish family in a Dumfries castle. Remarkable and humorous record of the natural and long-lost social environment and of the process of his turbulent self-liberation from strictly conformist religious parents. Out of the ordinary writing...

Father and Son (1907) by Edmund Gosse (autobiographical 'novel') A study in depth of growing up with a religiously-obsessed (Pentecostal) father. Very instructive about falsity of religion..

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. A tour de force of a book with some of the most compelling descriptions of life under the Raj (Sirkar) in Calcutta and Bengalese villages. The author was a polymath whose breadth of intellect and historical knowledge (and languages, especially European, including ancient Greek, Latin and French) was breathtaking. He explain the ins and outs of Indian thought and behaviour through the decline of British rule and afterwards. He was the most penetrating exposer of Indian foibles and corruption. In his huge follow-up Volume Two of his autobiography
(Thy Hand, Great Anarch) he presents the most soul-searching agon in which he tells of his connections with many of the great and famous in India and the truths that were covered up (hwell-documented too). He eventually moved to England after middle age and became an Honorary Ph.D. at Oxford and an MBE. He lived to 100 years of age. I have read most widely on India (which I also know from 9 visits) and can say his books are unsurpassed by any Indian in frank and shrewd insight into Indian life and times. The Continent of Circe woke me quite rudely from my somewhat romantic illusions about Indian values and behaviour, and its varied and warring population. He was truly a prophet without honour in his own country - an unforgiving Hindu nation.

Elephant Bill by J.H. Williams (1955). Far and away the most interesting account of living and working with elephants among many. The author was a teak forest manager in Burma before WW2 and until post war years. He came to know the country, its tribes and animals intimately. His experiences were simply extraordinary and his powers of observation and relating to men and beasts exceptional, this playing a vital part in the war against the Japanese in Burma. This is a real page-turner, packed with illumining thoughts.

Flight to Arras and Wind, Sand and Stars. (Both excellent books on his flying exploits) by Antoine St. Exupery.

The Flying Carpet
(like St. Exupery and even more full of incident) by Halliburton.

My Early Life, by Winston Spenser Churchill (Just brilliant, what adventures that intrepid man survived!).

The Sun In The Morning. (London 1990 M.M. Kaye's autobiographical book on her growing up in India was a glimpse into that other world

A Postillion Struck by Lightning, Snakes and Ladders, An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde are fine autobiographical writings. Real insight into the film industry most lucidly and originally explained from tell-all personal experience.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys Classic English historical diary by the Secretary to the Navy (covers the Black Plague and Fire of London).

Crowdie and Cream Finlay J. Macdonald (Memoirs of a Hebridean childhood) Very evocative.

The Parish Lantern - Muddy Boots and Sunday Suits - A Lad of Evesham Vale - The Secrets of Bredon Hill - Golden Sheaves, Black Horses -and several more are all country nostalgia from the Evesham area by Fred Archer from his childhood and youth. He captures a lost world of rustic life, into which he grew up and re-discovered through his lucid and sympathetic writing. All in Futura Books.

Flight to Arras and Wind, Sand and Stars. (Both excellent books on his flying exploits) by Antoine St. Exupery.

The Flying Carpet (like St. Exupery and even more full of incident) by Halliburton.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys Classic English historical diary by the Secretary to the Navy (covers the Black Plague and Fire of London).

Moab is my Washpot Uninhibited boyhood by Stephen Fry. Also the sequel The Fry Chronicles The making of a genius despite university and after.

Meetings with Remarkable Men G.I. Gurdjieff (repub. London 1983) and, not least, C.S. Nott's "Teachings of Gurdjieff" (London 1961) - the best book about Gurdjieff. Fascinating, but highly likely to be largely bogus.

Living with the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama, the biography of Swami Rama´s years of youth and young manhood, written down by Swami Ajaya. One of the most 'amazing' books on Indian spirituality with great interest and charm (much of it literally unbelievable to those who have truly put themselves on the line to learn whether there could be any real substance in it). Besides, Swami Rama was a sexual abuser, as has been testified by some of his victims!).

The Last Barrier Reshad Feild. How he came onto the Sufi path. Mystical and well written, also practical, but essentially a book that is unrealistic about life and so can mislead one down a path of fruitless, unworldly 'spirituality'.


Readable Biographies (only the most interesting ones I recall)

The Last Lion (covers 1874-1932) by William Manchester (an American - pub. Sphere Books 1983). Much of it is literally like a new piece of history to me (and I have read a good deal by and about Churchill before). Its a very many-sided, superbly researched account - and a spell-binding read. Hence, a must - one which I think shows Churchill to have been far and away the greatest political genius and a true master of the English language this century, a super-productive brain and writer and also a marvellous person with tremendous character.

Winston Churchill As I Knew Him 1965 by Violet Bonham Carter (daughter of P.M. Asquith), Excellent. Up to 1'st World War, and the biography The Young Churchill.

Wittgenstein - The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk (Vintage 1991), if you want to get the bottom line on 20'th century philosophy, with all the hokey-pokey revealed too - its chief genius and a very remarkable man too. Brilliant and moving penetration by the biographer!

Aldous Huxley - The Turning Points (Vol. 2 '39 to '63) by Sybille Bedford. This is where many of my generation's ideas and experiences began!

The Eagle and the Dove by V. Sackville-West - on St. Teresa of Avila {1515-1582} and St Thérèse of Lisieux {1873-1897} London 1943. (pub. Michael Joseph Ltd.) page 10f. This is Christian mysticism in practice. Educative, but should be taken with a teaspoon of salt.

The Life and Character of Dickens by H.C. Dent

Biography of H.G. Wells by Anthony West, 'H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life.'

J.R. Tolkien is an amusing biography (by Humphrey Carpenter)

Life of Nelson. Robert Southey An early biography which somewhat glorifies Nelson and his exploits, but not without some good reason.

Life of Tolstoy by his friend Aylmer Maude. Thorough work…

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (the most inspiring Antartic expedition)

Scott of the Antarctic by Reginald Pound (1966). The fatal expedition to the South Pole