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John Campbell on his tools for writing the biography of Roy Jenkins

John Campbell on his tools for writing the biography of Roy Jenkins

John Campbell
Samuel Johnson Prize

The best thing about writing my biography of Roy Jenkins was that I had his private papers. This was a privilege I did not enjoy with my previous contemporary biographies, of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, where I had only published records to go on, so that although I think I got the politics right I had no access to the private life. This time I was the official biographer appointed by Dame Jennifer Jenkins, who not only gave me exclusive use of her husband’s papers, still stored in the attic of their house in Oxfordshire and the drawers and cupboards of his study, but on several occasions actually let me stay in the house on my own, and once even sleep in his bed. A biographer can’t get much closer to his subject than that! The papers themselves comprised not only fifty years of political and personal correspondence, but also speech notes, the draft memoir material that he wrote up soon after every significant episode in his career – much franker than his actual memoirs – his bank statements, his wine merchant’s bills and birthday cards from his grandchildren. Above all they included his meticulously kept engagement diaries which record, in his tiny writing, whom he had lunch and dinner with – politicians, journalists, academics, ambassadors and girlfriends - every day from 1945 to 2002: an amazing resource for recreating such an active social life as Jenkins lived. I think these more than anything else helped me to convey the full flavour and variety of what I chose to subtitle ‘A Well-Rounded Life’.  

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