A bumper crop of riveting memoirs

From a pool party with Diana to a road trip with Billy Connolly – a bumper crop of riveting memoirs

  • READ MORE:  Travels with a witty misfit: Billy Connolly on the dangers of nylon sheets, bungee jumping naked and why New Zealand reminds him of Scotland: rain, puritanism and no late-night restaurants

The Unlikely Duke: Memoirs of an Eclectic Life

by Harry Beaufort

(Hodder & Stoughton £25, 320 pp)

Well, not that unlikely a Duke as Harry Beaufort was born to the role — prep school, Eton and agricultural college (and a family tree going back before the Norman conquest) before taking over Badminton House and its 50,000-odd acres a few years ago.

But if toffs behaving fairly badly is your thing, then this is the book for you. He can drop names like ash from an expensive cigar — partying with Mick Jagger, a fling with Jerry Hall (who has some disobliging but very funny observations about the Duke’s personal attributes), holidays in Ibiza with Jemima Goldsmith and Hugh Grant, poker with Michael Gove, poolside pranks with Lady Di, cavalcades of royals and on and on.

L-R: Princess Diana makes a splash in Harry Beaufort’s memoir; Princess Diana makes a splash in Harry Beaufort’s memoir

There are a lot of posh girls here, too: Prince Harry and girls, Imran Khan and girls and the Duke himself with a considerable number of girls. But it’s self-deprecating, glamorous and entertaining, and there are some very good jokes, including an excellent one about smoking at the table.

The Hedgehog Diaries

by Sarah Sands

(New River £14.99, 160 pp)

The Hedgehog Diaries by Sarah Sands (New River £14.99, 160 pp)

Arguably the best memoir of the year, this enchanting little book is a must for any Christmas stocking. As the eminent journalist Sarah Sands prepares for the imminent loss of her ailing father, she and her grandson find a poorly hedgehog in the garden and restore it to health.

What is it, she wonders, about these homely and mysterious creatures, prickly and defenceless, wild and tame, that makes us so fond of them?

Nato has adopted the little animal as a symbol: the hedgehog is peaceful yet bristles when threatened. Just like Nato.

For Sarah Sands, these gorgeous spiky beings — solitary and snuffling — and the natural world they belong in help her to cope with loss and mortality. If you buy only one book this year, make sure it’s this one.

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad

by Daniel Finkelstein

(William Collins £25, 472pp)

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad by Daniel Finkelstein (William Collins £25, 472pp)

This powerful modern classic should have a place on everybody’s shelves. Beautifully written, as you would expect from a leading journalist and author, it reads like a thriller, but a thriller that will have you in tears from the early pages.

Meticulously researched, it tells how Lord Finkelstein’s parents lived through the Holocaust as Europe was torn apart by Nazism and communism in the 1930s and 40s. 

The story becomes a race against time as both families strive to escape certain death before settling happily at last in a stable society and a peaceful country. That’s suburban north London. As his grandmother used to say: ‘While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, we are safe in Hendon Central.’ 

This overwhelming book also explores how fragile liberal institutions can be when the great forces of history come crashing down.

George: A Magpie Memoir

by Frieda Hughes

(Profile £16.99, 272 pp)

George: A Magpie Memoir by Frieda Hughes (Profile £16.99, 272 pp)

A magical, irresistible story from a poet and a painter closely in touch with wildlife and the natural world. Hughes is also the daughter of poet laureate Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath so, as you would expect, she writes like an angel.

Her diary of life with the magpie she rescues, after a storm has destroyed its nest and family, is poignant and heart-warming, and beautifully illustrated by the author. George himself, unruly, wilful and intelligent, can be a challenging companion, and the little black and white bird’s relationship with Hughes runs alongside the breakdown of her marriage.

But Hughes finds her freedom in the end when her husband departs, just like George when she sends him off to the wilds. Now she lives in the depths of the Welsh countryside with her menagerie, including 14 owls, rescue huskies and chinchillas. You would like to be there, too. A wonderful read.

Went to London, Took the Dog

by Nina Stibbe

(Picador £16.99, 342 pp)

Went to London, Took the Dog by Nina Stibbe (Picador £16.99, 342 pp)

If you haven’t come across Nina Stibbe yet, she was the writer who made a biggish splash nearly ten years ago with Love, Nina, a playful look at posh literary London (via a series of letters) when she came to the city to work as a nanny for the editor of the London Review of Books.

Now a reasonably well-known literary fromage herself, she has popped back from Cornwall after her marriage starts to dismantle to lodge with the award-winning writer Deborah (‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’) Moggach in trendy Camden.

There’s plenty of names to be dropped here from Nick Hornby to Alan Bennett; frequent visits to the National Theatre or the Royal Academy; and lots of gossip about random book festivals.

God Is An Octopus

by Ben Goldsmith

(Bloomsbury £20, 245pp)

God Is An Octopus by Ben Goldsmith (Bloomsbury £20, 245pp)

This exquisite book proves that from unfathomable grief and loss can come great joy and beauty. In July 2019, Ben Goldsmith, one of the country’s leading environmentalists and a powerful campaigner for conservation and rewilding, lost his 15-year-old daughter Iris in an accident on their Somerset farm. Her death left the family reeling and here Goldsmith tries to make sense of the tragedy.

He finds solace in the natural world where Iris had always felt happiest. In some of the finest writing about nature you will find anywhere, Goldsmith sees that the seasons keep on turning.

He writes beautifully about the tiny migratory birds who cross continents and oceans on a vast journey from the skies of West Africa back to the spot where they were born — feats of unimaginable endurance and precision.

He restores the streams on his farm to their original meandering course, and becomes passionate about reversing the decline of species and habitats that has blighted the English countryside. Slowly, through his immersion in nature, he finds comfort and hope, as will anyone else who has experienced grief on this scale.

And with ringing endorsements from such luminaries as Tom Stoppard, Stephen Fry and George Monbiot, you feel that Goldsmith has really touched a nerve.

Pru & Me, A Love Story

by Timothy West

(Michael Joseph £22, 352 pp)

Pru & Me, A Love Story by Timothy West (Michael Joseph £22, 352 pp)

Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales are two of the best-loved actors in the country. But for years he has watched in anguish as his wife gradually succumbs to the ravages of dementia.

Now, in this poignant memoir laden with laughter and love, he describes how they have found joy together in life’s simplest pleasures; conversation, tea and reminiscences — usually accompanied by a glass of wine.

This is a deeply moving but also very funny memoir of a 60-year-marriage — a personal and professional relationship like no other and one of the most celebrated in the history of British entertainment.

West has written a joyous portrait of a unique partnership — uplifting, highly moving and packed with stories of the highs and lows of showbusiness, from what happened when Fawlty’s Sybil appeared nude to how he saw off his love rival Peter Sellers. But above all, it really is a love story like few others.

Rambling Man

by Billy Connolly

(Two Roads £25, 320 pp)

L-R: Billy Connolly, in 1974, writes a life-affirming book; Rambling Man by Billy Connolly (Two Roads £25, 320 pp)

This cheerful, joyously life-affirming ramble to every corner of the Earth should make you want to pick up your banjo and set out on the open road. On the other hand, we can’t all be Billy Connolly, still Britain’s greatest living comedian; and we won’t usually be accompanied by a TV crew.

Being a rambling man, says Connolly, is a state of mind: they are free spirits, enterprising and endlessly curious about the world. Now 81, and suffering from Parkinson’s as well as prostate cancer, could it be that he’s saving his best work till the end?

So at least we get a chance to follow a globe-trotting Billy as he rides his motorbike down America’s Route 66, plays elephant polo in Nepal, navigates the North-west passage, builds an igloo in the Arctic, and even visits a toilet seat museum in Texas.

Full of excellent jokes and engaging anecdotes, this book makes you feel good to be alive.

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