Having the Last Word: Adventures in Autobiography

On Wednesday 3rd March, ’22 we enjoyed a presentation on Autobiography from the distinguished journalist, literary critic and novelist, Adam Mars-Jones. As well as providing insight into the autobiographical writing process, Mars-Jones considered his relationships with his mother and father and how these informed his writing.

On considering the memoirs written about his mother and father, Mars-Jones preferred to write about his relationship with his mother, explored in Blind Bitter Happiness and in his essay published in a collection entitled Sons and Lovers(both 1997).  His mother died the year after publication; therefore, she had the power of veto regarding some of the content. In the early drafts, Mars-Jones deliberately included scenes he knew she would not approve of and would wish to “censure” so that other episodes would pass which might not otherwise have been published.

Much of this talk explored the autobiographical representation of the changing and challenging relationship Mars-Jones had with his father, Sir William Mars-Jones, a High Court Judge. The highlights of Sir William’s illustrious career included acting as junior counsel for the trial of the Moors Murderers, defending Kevin McClory in his prosecution of Ian Fleming for plagiarism of material from a James Bond screenplay and presiding over Ken Dodd’s tax evasion.

Kid Gloves: a voyage round my father (2015) started out as a short memoir response which Mars-Jones completed as an exercise he had set his Creative Writing students at Goldsmith’s College. Mars-Jones begins by writing about his mother’s death of lung cancer in 1998 and his own stepping into the role of carer for his father towards the end of his life He hoped that this focus “might stop the material from tendrilling everywhere but, as I went on, the material indeed tendrilled everywhere”. Difficult domestic aspects of the father-son relationship are explored including his father’s martinet approach to fatherhood and his negative attitudes towards his son’s disclosure of homosexuality.  Reflecting on the fact that Kid Gloves was published after his father’s death, Mars-Jones commented “It was important to make myself ridiculous as the dead cannot speak for themselves.”

Mars-Jones illustrated his talk on autobiographical writing with several episodes from Kid Gloves delivered theatrically with great humour and verve. This was an engaging talk which combined entertainment with perceptive insight in equal measure.

Roger Philip Jones