on 25 December 2012
Knowing little of Richard Burton, I bought this book solely on the strength of the excellent reviews it got in the press. I absolutely loved it: it is very well-written, interesting, insightful, warm-hearted, and self-deprecating. RB was an extraordinarily good writer, articulate, able to capture an atmosphere or an idea in a couple of words.
The book is a real page-turner as it describes the admittedly unusual and interesting lives lived by RB and Elizabeth Taylor (whom RB palpably adores and who is described very movingly). That being said, the main draw of the book is the insight it provides into the mind of a well-read, complex, gifted and deeply sympathetic man. I am very glad that I bought this book more or less by chance and grateful for having discovered the greatness of RB - both as a writer and an actor.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough including to anyone who would not normally read the diaries of a "celebrity". Yes, there are chronological gaps as RB appears to stop writing when life becomes too difficult and his opinions and actions are sometimes contradictory (working-class pride vs the glamorous lifestyle etc), but in the end, this is a gem of a book that easily stands on its own merits.
on 1 February 2013
My advice is to skip the first section of these diaries, which cover about 12 months in 1939 and 1940 when Burton was 14 or 15. They can be summed up as "went to school, had a fight, came home, did my homework".
Then the action skips to the 1960s and the quality of the entries, as you'd expect, improves dramatically. Burton had a real flair for writing and many of his entries are engrossing. Anyone who remembers the Burton-Taylor media circus of the 60s and 70s will appreciate the inside-out perspective on familiar events, such as his buying of the world's biggest diamond for Taylor. Surprisingly, Burton manages to make this and other similar extravagances seem almost rational; his reasoning seems to be "she expects it and I can afford it, so what's the problem?"
There's a lot in the diaries about Burton's voracious reading, and everyone who knew him well remembers this as a defining characteristic. If he's to be believed, he could read several books (certainly novels) in a day if he put his mind to it. However, his restless and eclectic consumption of books reminded me strongly of a passage at the start of Sir Walter Scott's novel Waverley. Here are some edited extracts:
"A surfeit of idle reading had ... rendered our hero unfit for serious and sober study... [giving] him that wavering and unsettled habit of mind which is most averse to study and riveted attention...Nothing perhaps increases by indulgence more than a desultory habit of reading."
Burton was a much more intelligent and forceful character than the fictional Waverley, but I'm convinced there's a similarity. In one telling entry, Burton expresses surprise that Taylor could recall a lot more about a book they'd both recently read than he could. The truth is probably that he'd skimmed through it half-cut while she'd read it properly while sober.
Burton frequently mentions his desire to write something longer than a magazine article, and discusses a few ideas. However, there's no evidence he ever did. The problem was, other people's books (and of course booze) kept getting in the way. That's a shame, because on the evidence of the diaries he could have written something worth reading. They're a joy, and every entry evokes the rhythm and timbre of his magnificent voice.
on 14 August 2013
I've always been fascinated by Richard Burton and his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor and having read many books about them both, including Melvyn Bragg's excellent 'Rich', this was a book I was definitely going to be reading. And it really is superb. Burton has such a wonderful command of the English language - thanks not just to his very obvious natural talent, but also because of the vast amount of books he read, the knowledge he absorbed and of course, the roles he played.
In places, it's almost poetic in its beauty and rhythm - he really is an incredible writer and best of all, you can almost hear him rolling that captivating voice around each and every word. The bonus of all this is of course, is that it makes the brilliant insights and revelations and even the ordinary day-to-day events, all the more enjoyable. It's the best autobiography I've ever read.
What an absolute shame then that the book is horribly spoiled by Chris Williams' patronising and often completely pointless references that constantly have your eyes flickering away from that sparkling text for no good reason at all. Fair enough if they're telling you something unique and interesting or they add to what's been written, but if it's to inform me that Churchill was an English prime minister or that Columbus was an explorer; that Lincoln was an American president and that the Battle of Britain was an aerial conflict between England and Germany, then you need to seriously re-think your career. They're just downright insulting.
The worst offender of them all has to be on page 293 where Burton jokes about making his chauffeur drive an Austin Princess. Williams feels compelled to write, "A more modest (though still-well appointed) motor vehicle." WHAT?? Are you kidding me?? `Well-appointed ... motor vehicle...' - how pompous can you get? Do you really think we don't know that and even if we didn't, like the man whose book you've seen fit to litter with all this condescending drivel, we'd go and look it up wouldn't we? I can't be the only one who thinks that a man as well read and as intelligent as Burton, who didn't suffer fools, stupidity or ignorance gladly, would have been incensed at the sheer absurdity and irrelevance of it all.
Granted, there are one or two interesting notes. My favourite is on page 103, note 64. The problem is they're pretty rare and all too often leave you none the wiser. Or worse, simply repeat what Burton has already captured so brilliantly in those few short decades, which is something that you, Mr Williams, couldn't hope to do in a million
on 13 April 2016
I learnt a number of fascinating things about Burton from his diaries and got an incite into how a champagne socialist thinks.
There is a historical importance to many of the passages. He visited Tito and made a film about him and it is interesting to see how a rich socialist such as he could be so blind as to the monster the man was. Several entries point out that he has heard rumours about mass killings and promises himself to 'ask about' a bit about it. However we never read what he actually found out. One wonders if he ever did resolve to himself what Tito stood for and whether he did make further investigations. You can visit Tito's island in Croatia and see the photos of some of their meetings.
To some degree, many of the remarks about races and ethnicities in a stereotypical fashion are politically incorrect now. That is even more interesting since he was a total leftist committed against racism and so on. This is a well known situation today where the 60s revolutionaries and footsoldiers, which Burton was in popular culture in his day, are now eaten by their own off-spring! think of Germaine Greer and her comments on transexuals and john cleese on immigration as still living examples.
Burton also reveals that he is a quite the Welsh nationalist. He also makes it clear he hates Germans and the English with equal measure. Other than his own people he also has a love for Jews and Italians. Like the Caine autobiographies it's obvious his philo-semitism was quite key to his success in the film industry, not to mention he would be entirely incompatible with ET! There is an amusing account of visiting a Jew-free country club in the 70s.
His alcoholism is practically a case study in the disease. Constant periods of dryness where he kids himself and then back on it. Of course, the periods he does not write are often the very worst yrs of his drinking bouts. Some periods he does actually write a little about this and notes whole days at it. He also falls into the alcoholism whenever he is without a woman. Women clearly were one of the few things that kept the man alive and supported him in relatively long periods of moderate sobriety.
It's hard not to be impressed by his literary knowledge, passion for reading and ability to learn languages. Clearly a very intelligent man.
I wouldn't call this book riveting, I would say you need to be in the right mood for it. I read the whole thing on the tube, it is perfect for commuting as it can be picked up and put down easily. How long is it? It seemed to go on forever...I have the kindle edition.
The diary is not very salacious, one has the feeling part of what the man was is kept back. There is no hint of his womanising at all and very little negativity to the women in his life is mentioned. Personal details about divorce and so on are not there, which means either he self-censored or someone else did. But then I suppose that's what a biography is versus auto. There are only hints of the many forces driving him with no explicit self-examination. Other elements of what drive him are given, at least indirectly.
Before you buy this set of Burton’s diaries, it is very important to know what you are and are not getting. If you are looking for some insights into his rise to fame in the theatre, his early films, his first marriage or the background to his celebrated romance with Elizabeth Taylor then you will be disappointed. The vast majority of the material here dates from a seven year period from 1965 and 1972 with additional segments dating from his mid teens as a schoolboy in Wales during the early 1940’s. The book concludes with some fragments spanning 1975 to 1983, but they are neither extensive or particularly well written so once again if you are looking for insights into his later work or indeed the months before his death then frustration awaits you. This silence in times of emotional or medical emergency is, I would suggest no accident, Burton clearly wrote a journal when in a good mood, positive about his personal, if not always his professional life. Yet none of these observations should lead you to think that this diary is without interest. The seven year diary is revelatory up to a point. Burton comes across here as a man of intelligence and perception who looks at himself and his profession with both indulgence and cynicism. It is clear that despite his great reputation he often saw acting as a chore who regarded a day’s filming as something to be got through rather than an opportunity for artistic expression. Similarly he clearly adored money, but knew the price of having it could be very high. His views on children are also waspish: loving them dearly, but preferably in doses only a few hours long. The greatest and most endearing trait which is a large feature of the diaries is his love of books, often getting through one or two complete works in a day and with an acute literary judgement to boot. His lavish spending on a purpose built library in Switzerland for all his cherished volumes makes him a source of admiration and envy to me far more than for his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. Talking of which, we see largely through the good times although it is clear that two such talents and temperaments were always going to be a volatile cocktail. Cocktails of another sort feature frequently here with the endless references to what the pair were and weren’t drinking a sign of their obsession with alcohol. A word about the editing-the footnotes are extensive-too much so sometimes so that one feels they were written for the intellectually challenged although on the other hand the endless cast of hangers-on which surrounded the pair are difficult to keep up with. All in all, essential for the Burton specialist, but for the rest of us a mixed blessing which could have lost a 125 pages without much difficulty.
on 14 May 2016
You get hooked on the young Richard Burton but unfortunately the gaps in the formative years in the dairies are missing
His strength was also his weaknesses Elisabeth Taylor
To understand a man who could read books from cover to cover in hours and then work on projects
I felt he was an unrated genius
His own daily battles with the drink and his own in ability to control his menacing temper where his Achilles heel
Died too young
on 5 June 2014
a fascinating account of a lifestyle lived in an era long gone and a passionate love story that only burned out with his early demise and her death many years later
on 29 April 2013
The content is really excellent but you cannot use the hundreds of references on your kindle and there are no pictures. I will definitely be buying this book when it is out in paperback as it is interesting and at times very moving.
on 5 July 2015
Williams [editor] is an academic and, it seems, a typical pedant. The text - "cleaned up" by Williams, with all those nasty, unnecessary misspellings and other individual idyiosyncracies ironed out, punctuation "tidied", etc etc - is perhaps in itself unremarkable as one man's musings on his life. As a man with a high profile though, his personal thoughts ARE of value in putting together a slightly more complete portrait of a gifted, if perhaps tormented man, to be set against the hype and glamour portrayed via numerous "biographies".
What is TOTALLY annoying though is the fatal cancer of academia - totally unnecessary, pedantic and seemingly - well, not seemingly, really - endless footnotes which not only are not necessary, but in some cases are laughable, in others, merely deflecting from the rhythm of Burton's text. I'm not quoting actual points here because I can't be bothered to go back and find the early page on which one particular footnote appeared - that of Burton's sister and husband meeting his brother Ivor at a London railway station and snubbing him. The footnote: this is a London railway station. Not a word about WHY the snub occurred - surely relevant?? Further on, Burton/Taylor pop off for a meal at, say for instance [again I've not checked back, but this is just an ephemeral example] the Alhambra, somewhere on the Riviera. The footnote reads something like:"The Alhambra is situated 4km from X and 14 km from Y". Who cares? What is more interesting is the background of the people they're dining with [no info offered]. And so it goes on.
I'm less than halfway through this tome and will read to the end, but have now stopped reading the footnotes AT ALL. I'd rather read Burton as Burton-at-home-with-his-typewriter-his spelling-mistakes-his-poor-punctuation-et al, than have to constantly stop on each page [well, actually, each half page as the rest of that small piece of paper is given over to the "footnotes"], to discover that, for example "bangers and mash" is, as a FOOTNOTE - would you believe it - sausages and mashed potato. Come on. Okay, Williams has no doubt been nudged to make this terribly ordinary text clearly accessible to all of us on both sides of the pond. But, really...
At a guess, 50% of the "footnotes" are completely unnecessary, irrelevant and extremely tiresome, interrupting the flow of the diariest's narrative with few positive additional facts. I would suggest that if Chris Williams undertakes the task of editing other diaries - or indeed, anything at all - he would be wise to consider the calibre of background research and personal relevance produced by, for example, Charlotte Mosley, who in my opinion is simply - not an academic phrase, sorry Chris - spot on as an editor and, as an editor, delivers the goods - i.e. footnotes containing the additional information, gained by research, that provides a personal context to an entry.
on 25 October 2012
Not only was Richard Burton's life varied and interesting -he wrote about it all beautifully. Clearly he missed his true vocation in life and sadly, he knew it. Acting for him was a means to an end but there seemed to be little real fulfilment for him. It's when he sits down to write that he is most content - that and his voracious reading habit kept him sane in a whirlwind life of travel, yachts, hotels and all the shallow people he met along the way in the movie world of make-believe.
Despite the many gaps in the diary - sometimes unexplained - it is an enjoyable book which leaves a feeling of a life not only tragically cut short but of a life unfulfilled.