Brief Lives


Bernard Levin – also a refrigerator

Frank gives Dabblers an exclusive taster of his new biographical reference book…

It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to write a modern, updated version of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. But it further occurred to me that some books are unimproveable, and that in trying to follow in Aubrey’s footsteps I would embarrass myself and become the butt of ridicule. The idea continued to nag at me, however, and eventually I decided the solution was to outdo Aubrey in brevity. My own Brief Lives would consist of a single, unadorned fact about each of my subjects. So the reader may not learn very much about the life of X or Y or Z, but they would be armed with one little nugget which might come in handy to chuck into a lull during the conversation at the kind of swish sophisticated cocktail party to which they no doubt get invited.

I have only recently begun work on this mammoth project, which will occupy me for years to come, but here exclusively for Dabblers are some selected fruits of my research thus far.

Bierce, Ambrose (American writer, 1842 – vanished 1913). Bierce was one of thirteen children all of whose given names began with the letter A. His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, of Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio, named their children, from the oldest to the youngest, Abigail, Amelia, Ann Maria, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, and the twins Adelia and Aurelia.

Field, Eugene (American writer, 1850 – 1895). Field had a childhood sweetheart with the captivating name Captivity Waite.

Harmsworth, Alfred, Lord Northcliffe (British newspaper magnate, 1865 – 1922). One day at a seaside resort, Northcliffe wantonly struck down a seagull with his stick and beat it to death on the sand.

Jansson, Tove (Finnish writer and illustrator, 1914 – 2001). When staying at her Finnish island retreat, it was Tove Jansson’s practice to get out of bed at four o’ clock in the morning and stand stock still, pretending to be a tree, while a squirrel ran up and down her frozen limbs.

Lennon, John (British musician, 1940 – 1980). According to Bernard Levin (q.v.), “there is nothing wrong with John Lennon that could not be cured by standing him upside down and shaking him gently until whatever is inside his head falls out”.

Levin, Bernard (British writer, 1928 – 2004, also a refrigerator) See Tippett, Michael.

Nixon, Richard Milhous (American politician and Potus, 1913 – 1994) Nixon’s favourite pastime was mashing potatoes.

Schubert, Franz (Austrian composer, 1797 – 1828). Upon his deathbed, Schubert’s final wish was that someone would bring him some books by James Fenimore Cooper.

Tippett, Michael (British composer, 1905 – 1998). Tippett called the refrigerator in his kitchen “Bernard Levin”.

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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

6 thoughts on “Brief Lives

    September 6, 2013 at 12:01

    For some reason this reminded me of JG Ballard’s wonderful short story “The Index”.

    September 6, 2013 at 12:21

    Great stuff Frank – and my admiration for Lord Northcliffe is all the stronger for this one fact. Any idea which seaside resort it was? It has an air of Folkestone…

      September 6, 2013 at 12:30

      Alas, I cannot recall. My source was a library copy, since returned, of Eminent Edwardians by Piers Brendon – perhaps he identifies the resort.

    September 6, 2013 at 17:03

    The Northcliffe saga brought to mind my own father who had a similar trick he liked to perform while hiking on the Yorkshire Moors. Grouse have a habit of sitting quite still in the heather until the last possible moment. But when you finally get too close, usually unknowingly, they will fly up very close in front of you. My dad’s party piece was to knock the rising Grouse out of the air with his stick, pick it up, break its neck and tuck it into his rucksack for later.

    My dad was inordinately fond of Grouse.

      September 6, 2013 at 17:12

      Yes, but did he also let squirrels scurry up and down his frozen limbs?

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