There are comparatively few really powerful memoirs by academics. Part of this comes down to the nature of the job. Who would want to read a detailed account of days spent in the library, filling in grant applications or peer-reviewing journal articles? There are some striking books describing careers of academic activism such as Lynne Segal’s Making Trouble: Life and Politics, but much of that focuses on the 1960s and 1970s, before the era of heavier workloads and tighter management control.
But there are also, of course, tensions between academic and confessional styles of writing. “I am not attracted to the confessional for its own sake,” as the philosopher and social theorist Jonathan Dollimore puts it in Desire: A Memoir (recently published by Bloomsbury), “to be worth writing about the personal needs to have a meaning beyond me.” This can easily be a trap for a writer. There are many awful books where someone devotes a couple of paragraphs to an unhappy relationship or a professional setback and then uses them as a peg for overblown reflections on alienation or neoliberalism.
Fortunately, Desire is not like that at all. Dollimore does offer his thoughts on some broad themes – the appeal of courting danger, gay cruising and promiscuity, the way depression can scar lives – yet in every case he also describes his own experiences with great vividness and often humour, and with the instincts of a true storyteller. The book opens with him as a teenager finding his mother with a man called Tony in the family car and realising that he was “trying to have sex with her”. One of the things that made this tricky was that “Tony, an adult friend of my parents, was also having sex with me”.
After this gripping start, Dollimore describes his drab childhood and how he turned his life around. From a working-class background, he had left school “barely literate” and gone to work in a car factory. Yet while he was recovering from a ghastly accident on a motorbike, “the euphoria of the hospital morphine” made him suddenly embrace an utterly unrealistic plan to become a writer. This led to a job on a local newspaper, where he survived only thanks to the kindness of two fellow journalists who “helped cover for my total incompetence”, and then the decision to return to education.
Dollimore tells an extraordinary story of a day when he was determined to commit suicide but got distracted by some surviving spark of sympathy, which led him to help “an old woman with heavy shopping bags trying to cross the road”. He describes waking up in a strange flat after a one-night stand, surrounded by empty bottles, spilled alcohol and overflowing ashtrays, and feeling a sudden desire to fix a sagging bookshelf. One reads on, endlessly fascinated by the strange details of his life.
But what about the day job? Dollimore opts to say virtually nothing about his very successful academic career – beyond noting that his writing has always grown out of “a deep dissatisfaction with the way the academic world smothered, tamed and domesticated the subjects it controlled”.