On Wheels by Michael Holroyd

On WheelsI’ve still only finished one book in 2017 – I do hope this trend doesn’t continue throughout the year – and it was on 1 January. The book was On Wheels (2012) by Michael Holroyd, which I picked up in a charity shop in Oxford on a whim. And it’s a curious little book.

I read Holroyd’s memoir Basil Street Blues, published by Slightly Foxed, but didn’t know all that much about his career as a biographer. He seems to have made a career out of writing repeatedly about George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, and Augustus John. Scroll through his Wikipedia article to see how many times he’s written about ’em all – a trio that, I have to admit, I have very little interest in reading about.

BUT I was intrigued by this little book about how his subjects have dealt with cars, along with his own history of driving. Learning to drive was among the less enjoyable experiences of my life – basically a year of low-level dread – so I quite enjoy the empathy now of reading about others who found it difficult. It’s one of the reasons I like hearing Tom Allen on his podcast. And, yes, there is plenty to enjoy of this. But Holroyd talks more about his post-learning experiences – most memorably about getting his car vandalised when Ireland played England (because he lived in Ireland and had an English licence plate), then having his car repeatedly searched by English police when he’d switched to an Irish number plate (because it was during the peak of the IRA’s terrorism).

Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw seem to have been equally reckless and enthusiastic drivers – a terrible combination, really – and there are some amusing and illuminating anecdotes about these.

The hints given to him on the art of reversing were of little use, Shaw taking half an hour to turn a corner backwards and demolishing some flowerbeds in the process. But the village grew proud of his road exploits. Local dogs, knowing him well, would play dead under his car while he anxiously crawled after them – when they would bounce out, barking triumphantly. Though reckless, he was always considerate, leaping out on to the road after a bump or crash and offering to pay all expenses and drive people home or to the hospital. He was especially chivalrous to the injured when the fault was theirs.

Overall, this is a fun book to flick through. It feels rather as though it started as a few notes jotted down from his other researches, and those notes don’t become much more – it’s a series of thoughts, rather than a study. But it doesn’t have any aspirations of being more than that, which I admire; better a chatty 104pp than a bloated book with only the kernel of those hundred pages in it. Give it to the car enthusiast in your life, if they enjoy reading. Or stick it (as I will) on that shelf for quirky books that don’t quite fit into any other category.

12 thoughts on “On Wheels by Michael Holroyd

  • January 16, 2017 at 10:28 am
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    I love his books, I will read any bio by him although haven’t read his autobios, oddly enough. This auto-bio (ha ha, I feel so clever now) does sound fun!

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    • January 25, 2017 at 12:24 am
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      That is genius, Liz! Auto-bio! Love it – and he missed a trick.

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  • January 16, 2017 at 2:56 pm
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    The only (very) little piece of writing by Holroyd that I have is his introduction to Recollections of VW ! I seem to have a problem with non-fiction in general, and biographies in particular.
    P.S. How was your first day in your new job ?

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    • January 25, 2017 at 12:23 am
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      It went well, thanks Izzy! Really friendly people.

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  • January 16, 2017 at 3:07 pm
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    Sounds fun! And I love the fact you have a separate place on your shelves for ‘quirky’! I’m sure I’ve read a Holroyd biog but I can’t remember which one…

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    • January 25, 2017 at 12:23 am
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      It might have been more a metaphorical shelf, but one day I hope it’ll be a real, actual shelf ;)

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  • January 16, 2017 at 6:36 pm
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    I enjoy quirky books like this–such a slice of life. And I really love the cover!

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    • January 25, 2017 at 12:22 am
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      It’s fun, isn’t it?

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  • January 16, 2017 at 10:43 pm
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    I love it when you find something fun/good in an out-of-the-way place. If I ever seriously organize my shelves again, I’ll save one for quirky books. I bet I have quite a few lying around here.

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    • January 25, 2017 at 12:22 am
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      At least one shelf for quirky books, yes!

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  • January 16, 2017 at 11:56 pm
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    Love the quirky book concept. I chuckled a bit at the description of the dogs playing dead under his car. Loving dogs as I do I can visualise this. I have never thought of too many stories to do with learning to drive but I guess it is a large part of a person’s (mainly) younger self. Will keep an eye out for this author. Fun.

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    • January 25, 2017 at 12:21 am
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      I took that with a pinch of salt, but I’m willing to take your testimony that a dog could do it!

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