Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives – bringing you absurdly abbreviated biographies of the great men and women of history – is published by Constable and is available to buy now. It makes an ideal Christmas present.
Dabbler editor Andrew Nixon (‘Brit’) has written the preface, a version of which we reproduce here…
It has been said of Frank Key that he “seems to have the whole world in his head, plus another one of his own making” and anyone familiar with his radio broadcasts, his Hooting Yard blog or his column for The Dabbler will surely concur with that assessment. For although Mr Key is primarily known as a writer of fiction (and highly idiosyncratic fiction at that) he is also a peerless collector of arcane and diverting facts.
Few scholars are prepared to expend so much effort in rummaging through the world’s dankest libraries, poring over the most mildewed volumes or scrutinising the most tedious local periodicals. Fewer still have such an uncanny knack for discovering amidst the dross the one critical fact, the single kernel of essential truth which, when rendered in Mr Key’s concise and elegant prose, reveals far more about a subject than most biographers can in a thousand pages.
Mr Key has spent a lifetime exploring the strange recesses of human existence, and the benefit of this life’s work is the anthology you hold in your hands. But what is it for? Certainly the reader will be furnished with an abundance of amusing factoids, such as that the correct terminology for carving a peacock is ‘disfiguring’ it, and that Brian Eno’s cat was called Eric. Once Stephen Fry gets hold of this book you can be sure that the unusual phobias of Alfred Hitchcock, the potato-based hobbies of Richard M. Nixon and Iggy Pop’s improbable tipple of choice will soon be appearing as questions on QI.
But the Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives offers far more than that. Reading through its entries, one can’t help but be struck by just how varied, wide-ranging, bewildering and inventive are the manifold madnesses of the human mind. We are all familiar with the notion of British eccentricity, but it turns out that even the most respected public figures in this island’s history were, when you boil down to it, completely bonkers. Consider Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s method for dealing with a rampaging rhinoceros, or G.K Chesterton’s attempts to draw the soul of a cow, or H.G. Wells’ fear of string. And lest you think that such bizarre behaviour died out with the Edwardians, take a look at the entries for disgraced banker Fred Godwin or former PM Tony Blair.
Many of the Lives gathered herein are laugh-aloud funny, such as the description of Isadora Duncan’s attempt to “enact the endurance of the proletariat through the medium of dance”, or the heroic efforts of Thamsanqa Jantjie, adlibbing sign language ‘translator’ at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Christopher Smart’s bubble-and-squeak is quite possibly the funniest recipe ever committed to paper, while Tom Butler’s ‘I’m the Bishop of Southwark, it’s what I do” is indisputably the best catchphrase ever uttered by a senior British cleric.
Some entries are wise (such as Rayner Heppenstall’s assessment of Esperanto), others are chilling (John F Kennedy). Some snippets cast new light on their subjects and help further our understanding (Samuel Beckett’s favourite childhood pastime, for example, or Freud and Jung’s fight over a bookcase); others only deepen the mystery (take George Orwell’s diary, which turns out to be of very limited use to those hoping to gain insight the mind behind 1984). And many of the entries are intriguing invitations to further research – I defy anyone to read the entry for Fanny Cradock and not want to find out what exactly was going on with those owls.
Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives teems with interesting oddballs. There are kings and peasants, authors and actors, great statesmen and humble nobodies. But the overriding sense is not that Mr Key has selected several hundred people with something interestingly odd about them, but that he could have selected any few hundred people and, as long as the source material exists, find something interestingly odd to say about them.
The entry for social theorist Thomas Malthus reports that Walter Bagehot said of him: “There is nothing in Mr Malthus’s life which is worth mentioning”. But as Mr Key has conclusively proven with this inestimable book, in any life there is always something worth mentioning.