THE BIOGRAPHER & THE WIDOW
My memory may be blurred but it seems to me that I was fielding telephone calls from publishers asking about a biography not days but within hours of the news of my father’s death on 14 March 1986 (my sister Megan’s 23rd birthday). I suppose it was understandable. Huw Wheldon was a man popular, widely experienced, significant and eloquent. He had himself always refused the blandishments of publishers. He was going to be “the one television executive who did not write a book”. This was a shame because, in the first place, he was naturally at home with words - they held no fear for him - and in the second place it meant that his life ended up being written by a journalist singularly ill-equipped to do the job and determined to paint his subject on a flat canvas by pseudo-Freudian numbers. This is the story of how that came to happen and the consequences.
Paul Ferris was recommended to my mother by Kingsley Amis. Amis had appeared on the first ever edition of my father’s arts magazine programme Monitor and the two men had become friends. They greeted each other in clubland style as ‘Aims’ and ‘Welding’. “Ah, Aims!”, “Ah, Welding!”. My father never much cared for Oxbridge, and I don’t think Kingsley did, either, though of course Amis was a graduate of St John’s College, Oxford.
Ferris was one of Kingsley’s many Welsh connections (as a young lecturer Amis had taught at Swansea and maintained an infamous love-hate relationship with the principality). He had written biographies of Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas. He had also edited Thomas’s letters. After he had finished with my father he wrote a biography of ‘Dr Freud’ (the archness of the title suggests both familiarity and contempt). He had also, it seems, written novels, though none had found their way onto the Wheldon bookshelves. I read the Thomas biography, which seemed competent enough. The truth is that I read without due critical intelligence – I was too excited by the idea of a biography of my father, whom I loved, missed and revered. I liked the idea of the reflected glory I would bask in. Most of all, however, I thought my father had lived a life that deserved to be recorded. To my loving eyes and ears he had been overwhelmingly a source of delight, a father very much present in my life, and disposed to paint the world wide and glorious for his children. The thought of anyone writing anything mean of him simply did not cross my mind. My father’s greatest gift was as a celebrant, chiefly of life itself; how could a life of the man not also be celebratory?
Initial contact must have been made with Ferris by way of Amis or through the publisher, Michael Joseph. No documents appear to have survived from before May 1988, though I do remember seeing a letter in which Ferris, having looked into it, apologised for not being able to take the project on. But by May he had changed his mind. Why he had changed his mind is one of the questions that drives this essay. The first written evidence that the project was on again was in a letter in which Ferris reported to my mother that he had been listening to a BBC oral history tape in which Frank Gillard was interviewing former BBC Director General Alasdair Milne[i]. They shared a memory of my father – his often-hissed invective “the sodding governors”. I don’t think my mother had much liked the joshing tone of the conversation, though it was really only an example of affectionate male comradely banter. In July, Alan Brooke, from the publisher Michael Joseph, wrote to Ferris expressing concern about “the question of copyright on the papers and letters belonging to Lady Weldon [sic]”[ii]. Ferris photocopied the letter and sent it on to my mother with a handwritten card attached referring to “a legal department creating a sense of its own importance”[iii] as though such matters were beneath writers and seekers after truth such as themselves (my mother was a published novelist and her ferocious intelligence would have been obvious to Ferris as soon as pleasantries had been got over with – but she was not worldly, or rather she had very little cynicism). “To keep them happy a note to me from you saying something to the effect that I have your formal permission to quote from letters and any other material of Huw’s in which you hold the copyright, would be the thing.” The tone is informal, but I believe this permission was something Ferris wanted very badly. This is almost the only hand-written missive from him in my mother’s papers. He added at the end a further sweetener: “I’m only just beginning to fully appreciate what a rich store of material I’m going to have…” The question is: had he already come upon the bundle of letters that would eventually form the basis of the thesis that informed the whole biography?
By November my mother had evidently not written the “note” to Michael Joseph, for Ferris asks “Did that fussy Michael Joseph request about copyright permission (needing a bland affirmative from you) ever surface on your desk?”[iv] Then in January (the next surviving letter from Ferris): “Do you remember – you hardly will – a card I sent you in July, with a letter to me from Michael Joseph, saying bureaucratically that they ‘would be most grateful if you could give us your confirmation that you have written permission from Lady Wheldon…’”[v] So Michael Joseph’s legal department had now been described as having a sense of its own importance, of being fussy and of being bureaucratic. Ferris was experienced enough a biographer, surely, to know that these matters were very far from minor.
By May 1989 he was beginning to burrow into my father’s sex life. I have four drafts of a letter my mother wrote to him at around this period that are in response to suggestions he made about my father being impotent and having to see a psychiatrist about the difficulty. She was very concerned about the direction of Ferris’s interests; “it would be a serious solecism to see Huw’s life as ‘impotence overcome’, or indeed to see anyone’s life in terms of his or her sex-life. It leaves out character, upbringing, principles, dispositions, rationality, taste, and everything else that makes people different from each other.”[vi] Already the argument was not wholly about my father specifically, but also about the very nature of biography, indeed the very nature of life. My mother once said that she was interested in “the idea of God as profound experience”[vii]. While Ferris indeed wrote a poor book, it is unlikely that anyone bar a writer little short of genius could have written a biography of my father that would have entirely satisfied her. It would have needed a Leon Edel or a Nicholas Boyle or a Ray Monk (all of whom had written biographies – of Henry James, Goethe and Wittgenstein respectively – that my mother admired). Ferris was very much below that rank. The mere comparison is fatuous (not that I am comparing my father with their subjects).
My mother obviously did eventually find a form of words because Ferris responded furiously (8 June 1989): “It disturbs me that you think I would be so crass as to write a book that saw ‘mere sex’ as the root of behaviour,” he wrote. In a later paragraph he says, “I can talk to a hundred people and read a million words, but in the end I have to sit down and write the best book I can. On my own.”[viii]
What Ferris could not understand was why my father had not married one of the three women with whom he had more or less serious affairs before he met my mother; and my mother could not understand Ferris’s bafflement. She knew about all these women. Through one of them, with whom she was friendly, she had met her husband. She also provided quite straightforward contexts that explained why they had not married my father (of the three one he romanced as a student, one was married, and one – my mother’s friend - was a Turkish Jew who spent her holidays with her family in Istanbul). Ferris was also baffled as to why my father did not “write”. His bafflements were baffling.
My own personal suspicions of Ferris as a trustworthy biographer were based on two conversations. On one occasion he had told me that he couldn’t “get a handle” on my father, as though life was a safe that needed to be cracked. My own inexperienced notion was that a ‘Life’ should be built up of a variety of impressions hung upon a skeleton of fact, that there would, of course, be contradictory bits of evidence; that these should add, not diminish or confuse. But Ferris was clearly unhappy. This conversation must have taken place early on in proceedings, before the discovery of the letters, but I cannot put a date on it. We walked on Richmond Hill, past Sir Joshua Reynolds’ house and the house that John Mills had sold to Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood (now there was a subject Ferris could have got his Freudian teeth into). The second conversation was on the day of my sister Sian’s wedding (29 July 1989), when he commended me on the speech I had made. He said words to the effect that I was a chip off the old block, that it was amazing how fluently I could speak “off the cuff” (I believe that was the phrase he used). I said thank you, but actually I was dismayed because the speech had been anything but “off the cuff”. I had honed, refined, practiced. It had been work. Ferris clearly thought that my father’s facility with words was equally a simple, even glib gift. He was wrong about both of us, and his wrongness made me see him as glib, and glib he proved to be. In his brief remarks of gratitude for being invited to the wedding, he remarked on the absence of “everyday media folk”. To whom would that refer? In the same letter (6 August 1989) he wrote, “If I seem to be hammering away at the private and personal, it is not through lack of concern about the public and professional”.[ix]
He must have got over his difficulties without too much ado because by 21 November he had finished the book. A letter to my mother of that date opens “I want to quote briefly from three of your letters in the book. Also I’d like to use a couple of hundred words from your embryonic ‘journal’ of 1970”.[x] Is he asking for permission or providing information? He does write ‘Please let me use it’ of the journal. Mum asked for one change in the following extract: “Huw is, in many ways, wonderfully fresh & loving for a man so driven by [“anxieties” crossed out and “problems” substituted] that they take from him sometimes preoccupation which it would be better for him to be able to place elsewhere among us, his own family, or to his own pleasures in which he is very abstemious.”[xi] My mother asked for the bracket to be removed, remarking to Ferris that “I only make Freudian slips on purpose” and that it was she who had anxieties, her husband who had “workaday problems”. Ferris made no change.
And indeed my mother was full of anxiety as to what the finished book would contain. On 30 November she wrote to my father’s sister, Mair Rees, warning her of Ferris’s intention of stating that my father suffered from “a florid father-fixation” and in the early 1950s had sought the attentions of a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. My mother made it clear that she had argued with Ferris, “to no avail”, on several points: “why Huw did not marry until a late age, why did he not ‘write’, why did he not marry two early suitable candidates? All these facts and questions settle comfortably into the psychological ‘explanation’ for Paul, quite regardless of circumstances, and character, and choice. I am appalled and disappointed… I am aware that you and Nans [Mair’s sister] may be disturbed in the book by what I regard as specious revelation and interpretation”. She was also beginning to feel the horrors of what she came to see as her own awful treachery: “All I know for sure is that were the boot on the other foot, Huw would never have allowed anyone to get the wrong idea about me; and I am aware that no-one who loved him will forgive me.”[xii]
The last letter from Ferris came on 17 May 1990 and it accompanied his book. “So at last here it is, the first of the finished copies. I send it to you with affection, with my gratitude for the help you gave me, and in the hope that you will like it”[xiii]. All is sunshine. Any arguments as between the biographer and the widow seemed to have been resolved.
I was horrified. I could not bring myself to show the thing to my mother. It was entitled Sir Huge: The Life of Huw Wheldon. Clive James had called my father ‘Huge Welshman’, but no one had ever called him ‘Sir Huge’. Ferris claimed that the term was David Attenborough’s and I can imagine David using the phrase in a hail-fellow-well-met sort of a way (he once asked me if I was “still Scrutoneering” because I had for a very brief period been Managing Editor of The Salisbury Review, a journal edited by the philosopher Roger Scruton). The real ‘Sir Huge’ had been Hugh Carleton Greene, the Director General of the BBC in the 1960s. So ‘Sir Huge’ as a title immediately signalled that the book was to be about someone with whom we were unfamiliar. It was a crass, vulgar mistake.
On the inside blurb the first paragraph reported that “Behind his [Wheldon’s] bold front was another, darker side that clouded his earlier life, and left him aware of an ‘abyss’ that had once threatened his wellbeing”. This is melodrama. And the second paragraph of the book proper begins “People plan their lives without meaning to”[xiv]. Once one has overcome the glibness of this sentence, its meaning is revealed: the biographer knows the subject better than the subject knew himself. It is a promise of revelation. And the inference is that we who have loved and been loved have been taken in. It is a sentence of breathtaking arrogance, surely the very opposite of the humility that the biographer requires in the face of the absolute unknowability of a person’s whole life and character.
I read it through once, and then again. On 27 May I wrote to one of my father’s oldest friends, Sir Paul Wright: “Mum has not read a word. Not even looked at it… What is most provoking is the tone. It is cynical, envious… I think the book is reductive, mean and small-minded. I have found out what the legal position is (there isn’t one), so there’s nothing to DO.”[xv] The book was to be published on 28 June and there was to be a party hosted by Brenda Maddox and her husband John, to which we were all invited. We all declined. Close friends such as the Cassons and the Wrights and the Charltons also declined the invitation. The recently knighted Sir Kingsley Amis went and reportedly spent the evening miming laryngitis. Shame takes many forms. I am not sure whether he and my mother ever spoke again.
Eventually my mother read the book, and came upon, for the first time since she had received them, more than thirty years before, letters to her from my father in America describing his sexual longings and the way in which he felt diminished by them.· Ferris had used these letters as the centrepiece of his thesis (his chapter on them, ‘Letters from America’, takes up pages 115 to 140 of 272 pages of text – I don’t want to get all numerological, but that is almost the precise middle of the book). A part of this thesis was that only in his forties, with marriage to my mother, could my father “be himself at last, as he had failed to be in his earlier relationships.”[xvi] The degree of emphasis put upon one’s attitude to sex as a gateway to the ‘self’ (whatever that may be) is breathtaking. It says very much more about the biographer than about the biographee. And what it says is that the biographer, apart from the fact that he was interested in sex to the exclusion of other kinds of motive and cause for action and behaviour, was very much more interested in presenting his subject as a fiction than as a fact: “a character in a cheap novelette,”[xvii] wrote Paul Wright.
My mother was shocked by the publication of these letters, not because she was ashamed of them – as one reviewer pointed out, my father’s writing rather showed up Ferris’s for the pedestrian hackery that it was – but because the biographer had not had the good manners to inform her that he had found them and was going to use them. The reason he had not done so, of course, was that she would not have allowed him to use them. In other words he knew that their publication would hurt her. But without them… well, exactly, without them he would not have had his “handle”.
So what would Ferris have done had he not had those letters? What kind of book would he have written? Would it have been impossible for him to write a biography of my father? No, it would not. And how does a biographer know that there are not other letters, other pieces of evidence that point in entirely different directions? To have used these letters in the way in which he did assumed a universal knowledge of his subject that no biographer can have. The arrogance of that early “people plan their lives without meaning to” was playing to the top of its pitch. Had my mother gone through the ‘papers’ she would have removed these letters and they would have ceased to exist. I don’t think my father would have been any less interesting a subject for biography.
Had the book been a better book, had its author been the equal of its subject, perhaps the deviousness could have been excused, except that a better book would not have required such deviousness. Ferris was more a journalist than a novelist, sucking out the small where he might have breathed the big. He was treacherous and devious.
My mother’s first concern was to assure my father’s family and his friends that she had not knowingly consented to the use of these letters. With their publication the strange (“baffling”) discussions that she had had with Ferris during the writing of the book lost their mystery. He had been pursuing the sex life of his victim in order to create the nest in which he could place these delicious relics (letters, writes Janet Malcolm “are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so”[xviii]). All those long letters she had written, all those conversations, had been had while Ferris was holding back information about what he had found among “two massive loads of unsorted papers”. My mother’s anger was extreme but her sense of her own “inexcusable treachery” was shattering.
The reviews of the book were bad. Denis Forman, in the Sunday Telegraph (1 July, 1990), wrote that the book was “wholly unworthy of its subject”. Brian Wenham, in the Financial Times (30 June), dismissed the book as “tiresome, meretricious and – unforgivably – boring”. Paul Fox wrote directly to Ferris that the book “misses the man entirely”; Melvyn Bragg, in The Independent on Sunday (8 July) wrote that “This interpretation posing as Higher Journalism but in fact having a foot in the gutter and a nose in the trough misses every point about Huw Wheldon as I, and I would guess dozens of his friends, knew him.” “How sad: a life devoted to public service and your biographer ends up discussing where you put your hand while you worked,” wrote a diarist in the Sunday Times (8 July).
Ferris responded to Forman’s hatchet job by exhibiting the intimate letters on television. He also wrote to the Sunday Telegraph (8 July) suggesting that Forman was a Wheldon family friend (he wasn’t). He made clear that “written permission to use Huw Wheldon’s ‘papers, letters and other writings’ was given to me by Lady Wheldon”’ (remember: “a bland affirmative from you” was what he had asked for) and left it at that, as though there was no moral case to answer. He adds, finally, that “she accepted my right to pursue the matter” of my father’s sexual nature. The truth is that as soon as those letters had come to hand the pursuit was done. He had only to round up the hounds and trot home.
Ferris also took issue with Melvyn Bragg (Independent on Sunday, 15 July), quoting verbatim a conversation they had had about Wheldon in which Bragg had used the word “abyss”. To a Freudian like Ferris such words fall like the gentle rain of heaven. It is the very same ‘abyss’ that turns up on the blurb of the book. Ferris, not Bragg, chose to see the ‘abyss’ as a dark sexual cleft.
In a private note my mother wrote: “acting as Showman-Pornographer the author, secretively, took love letters without the permission of the recipient as recipient, and drew from them the veil of their private-personal nature where they resided in a context of a very limited time, special place and circumstances, past history of talk in a private language, and in revealing them at length to public gaze, turned them into an obscene spectacle, turning the writer and recipient of them into obscene objects, turning the public readers of them on the printed page, including family and children, into voyeurs of an obscene spectacle.” She then asks what the biographer’s purpose must be for such a public display and answers: “the titillating temptation of a thesis with sexual basis, saving very much trouble since all evidence not supporting this thesis could be, and was, ignored.”[xix]
She wrote in more moderate terms to the Sunday Telegraph (22 July) in somewhat reluctant response to Ferris’s own act of self-defence. It was cut in such a way as to render the most important sentence somewhat opaque. I therefore quote from the original:
My express permission as the recipient of these letters was not given. My general permission to use my husband’s papers of which among very many others these letters were a part, was. That is not quite the same thing in my opinion. No-one is suggesting that Mr Ferris behaved unprofessionally, far from it; or illegally, quite the reverse. I do not question his claimed rights, I question his charity.
The facts are that he removed two massive loads of unsorted papers from my house. He did not know what was in them. I did not know. When he discovered this small number of letters, he did not tell me, far less show me, which they were. As I now see it, they became from the first the ground of a simple thesis which he appears to have pursued with single-mindedness in his researches. Consequently all the discussions, one of which he refers to [in his letter of 8 July], baffled me. I now understand why.
Had I been consulted, I should have asked him not to print these letters, solely because they were intended to be read by me alone and a full public printing would pain me. It would have been a question of honour for me.
Although I should have preferred that the letters were not published, they are by no means the only or even the chief cause of my disdain for the book, though Ferris would like to believe that they are. In fact, reading them and remembering them again after all these years, I am proud of my husband’s candour, humour, good writing and integrity. I am proud of him.[xx]
The very day that this appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, a piece by Ferris entitled ‘In defence of a trade in insights’ turned up in the Observer (22 July)[xxi]. This was an extended defence of his interest in the sex lives of others, because he laboured under the impression that it was the “sexual aspect” of his book about Dad that was “the raw nerve”. “Disclosure can be embarrassing”, he wrote, betraying his own vulgarity. I certainly felt no sense of embarrassment about the letters whatsoever, nor do I think my sisters did. My mother felt ashamed of having let Ferris anywhere near my father. Ferris’s idea that the harm he inflicted on my mother amounted to no more than mere embarrassment is indicative of the level of intelligence and sensibility he brought to his work. He goes on to wonder what can justify all this (illusory) embarrassment. Well, it is the worker at the coalface of course: “The only answer I can give is that the trade of biography seems to me to demand a certain rigour in its pursuit”. This is rich indeed (especially when combined with the false humility of “trade”), as the family’s objection to his book was precisely that its “certain rigour” was restricted to just one area. My father could quote Rilke in German; he knew his Whitehead and Collingwood. At Mount Carmel, in what was then Palestine, he had lectured on Plato. Tolstoy was his favourite novelist. He had a lot of time for Samuel Beckett as well as Dick Francis. He was descended from Robert Jones, Rhoslan, author of the Welsh classic of historiography Drych yr Amseroedd (A Mirror of the Age, 1820). He had played rugby for London Welsh B; he played the piano badly but with gusto; he loved the music of Poulenc. He liked walking up mountains. He was funny. All this and much more fed into the way he thought and behaved.
Nor did Ferris’s “certain rigour” extend to a single speech or lecture that my father made. None are quoted, nor even mentioned in the bibliography. These were the places, after all, where my father articulated his understanding of the public service ethos, of television as a serious medium. I very much doubt Ferris read them. He was not interested in this public domain material that any Tom Dick or Harry could get to – he wanted the private stuff, the stuff that he and he alone was privy to. And that meant keeping his discoveries secret from my mother. It meant choosing to hurt her; it meant choosing to dishonour her.
His Observer article finished with what amounts to a confession that his book “rests” on the “insight” that the letters gave him into my father’s character. Apparently this biography “rested” on nothing more than one diary entry for a visit in 1953 to a psychiatrist in Harley Street (a man who later treated Albert Speer, apparently – these hacks are good for something), somebody called G. perhaps bumping into my father at 9.00 am in the morning coming out of a house where she was going to see a psychiatrist herself, the telephone evidence of a rejected lover forty years after the events, several letters confessing to pornographic fantasy, and, er, well, that’s it, as they say.
There were one or two more mentions in the press about the role of the biographer and so on and so forth, but the public debate was now over, and my mother began to think about ways in which she could make up for her “unspeakable treachery”.
There were a number of schemes, including collections of essays by divers hands, a memoir, but what she felt drawn to was ‘the biography of a biography’. She spoke with agents about it. They seemed keen.
In a notebook she wrote: “Today when there are too many books published for criticism to cope with, when reviewing has little to do with literary values, but is so often politicised or bent to the purpose of a one-value cause or addressed by academics to academics, or is put into the hands of what have been called Famous Friends, or is an adjunct to advertising, it is perhaps futile to treat a second-rate book designed for popular consumption to a serious critique of its methods, literary manners, style (and so on) except for one fact: that I, personally, asked for it to be written, and that in defence of it the author wrote a short essay on the biographer’s rights and duties for a Sunday newspaper. I believe that what I have to say raises certain matters to a general level of public interest.”[xxii]
It was a good start. In his article Ferris had quoted A J P Taylor to the effect that the biographer’s duty was to the reading public not the family. My mother pointed out that no such duty existed: “No public asked for it to be written”. “There is only the duty,” she went on, “of telling the truth, as you think it, without unthinkingly, or purposefully, inflicting damage upon persons irrelevantly”. At this point, in this notebook, and in many more and on thousands of bits of papers, my mother started to write in notes and short snatches – she writes on bestsellerdom, on obscenity, and begins to look into the nature of sexual desire. In short, characteristically, she lost sight of the road, so taken was she by the forest and its wonders. She was also suffering, physically and mentally, bowed down by the failure to finish her own gargantuan novel, by the deaths of her mother and her husband, and by the sense of moral catastrophe that Ferris had visited upon her. Later on she acquainted herself with the history of the Calvinistic Methodists in Wales, with a view to what would have been an enormous straight biography, but her energy was gone.
Ferris was under the impression that his critics disliked his book because he had printed intimate letters, but he was wrong. People disliked the book because it wasn’t very good work. The author had been mean about a generous man with many friends, yes. He had consciously caused hurt to the subject’s widow, yes. But it was the failure of the book as a book that was most painful. At very best it is lazy biography to impose a theory on a life. Life is excluded by theory. At worst it is mendacious. Sir Huge: The Life of Huw Wheldon, is, in fact, the long lie of an indolent, incurious, jobbing hack.
My mother died of cancer on Midsummer’s Day 1993.
· see Appendix C
 I spoke to Melvyn Bragg about this. He has no memory of the conversation with Ferris, and no memory of Dad confiding in the way Ferris suggests.
[i] BBC Oral History Archive, Caversham.
[ii] Photocopy of a letter from Alan Brooke to Paul Ferris, Papers of Jacqueline Wheldon ( henceforth JMWP).
[iii] Ferris to Lady Wheldon, July 1988, JMWP.
[iv] Ferris to Lady Wheldon, November 1988, JMWP.
[v] Ferris to Lady Wheldon, January 1989, JMWP.
[vi] Draft of a letter from Lady Wheldon to Ferris, [?] May 1989, JMWP.
[vii] Daily Mail, 9 February 1966.
[viii] Ferris to Lady Wheldon, 9 June 1989, JMWP.
[ix] Ferris to Lady Wheldon, 6 August 1989, JMWP.
[x] Ferris to Lady Wheldon, 21 November 1989, JMWP.
[xi] Extract from an unpublished journal kept by Lady Wheldon, JMWP.
[xii] Lady Wheldon to Mair Rees, 30 November 1989, JMWP.
[xiii] Ferris to Wheldon, 17 May 1990, JMWP.
[xiv] Ferris, p. 1.
[xv] Author to Sir Paul Wright, 27 May 1990, Papers of Wynn Pierce Wheldon (henceforth WPWP).
[xvi] Ferris, p. 132.
[xvii] Sir Paul Wright to the Author, [?] June 1990, WPWP.
[xviii] Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman (London: Picador, 1994), p.111.
[xix] Undated note, JMWP.
[xx] Lady Wheldon to the Sunday Telegraph, 22 July 1990, JMWP.
[xxi] Observer, 22 July 1990.
[xxii] Undated note, JMWP.