Based on a True Story: A Writer’s Life by Anthony Holden review – those were the days…

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The former Observer journalist recalls a star-studded era when advances were large and lunches were long


The former Observer Washington editor and classical music critic Anthony Holden’s memoir of his prolific career is a rip-roaring salute to a bygone age of journalism, with Holden himself firmly at the centre of events. He sets the scene early on, citing Gyles Brandreth’s observation that “Tony Holden is one of my favourite people – except he smokes and drinks all the time.” This self-described “well-brought-up young product of the north-western petit bourgeoisie” is a committed observer, and sometime friend, of the famous. We meet everyone from Sartre to Humphrey Lyttelton in the opening chapters and countless actors, writers and princes appear in subsequent, often score-settling anecdotes.

Some of his reminiscence is entertainingly buccaneering, chiefly his digs at Prince Charles

Holden’s rise to prominence came when long lunches with contacts and editors were de rigueur and where the ambitious and well-connected would be offered lucrative columnist gigs by their friends. Holden revels in this and depicts a time when a writer would be given a six-month paid sabbatical by the Sunday Times to write a book in exchange for the serial rights and where his resignation from the Times – forced out of his position by Murdoch, even as Harold Evans groomed him to be his successor – was front-page news.

Some of his reminiscence is entertainingly buccaneering, chiefly his digs at his frequent biographical subject Prince Charles; not only was he one of the few republican royal writers, but his attacks on his subject made him “the most reviled man in England”. Some is baffling: “I would be delighted to work with Billy Bragg on his radical ideas for constitutional reform.” All of it is boastful. His editor might have suggested the removal of lines such as: “For some years now, six-figure advances would remain the sustaining subtext of my increasingly expensive life.”

But just as you start to resent Holden’s apparently charmed and easy existence, the final chapters upend matters. He suffers a debilitating stroke, loses the ability to walk and is now based in an assisted living facility. His descriptions of his new life, far from his heyday, give this enjoyable, if vain, book a poignancy and pathos it might otherwise lack.

Based on a True Story: A Writer’s Life by Anthony Holden is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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