The New Year brings with it a new instalment of Oxford DNB biographies which, as every January, extend the Dictionary’s coverage of people who shaped British life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This January we add biographies of 226 men and women who died during 2011. These new biographies were commissioned by my predecessor as editor, Lawrence Goldman, but having recently assumed the editor’s chair, I take full and appreciative responsibility for introducing them.
The new biographies bear vivid witness to an astonishing diversity of personal experience, individual achievement, and occasional delinquency; and they range from Claude Choules (b.1901), the last British-born veteran of the First World War, who died at the age of 110, to the singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse (b.1983), who died from alcohol poisoning aged just twenty-seven. The great majority of the people whose biographies are now added (191, or 84%) were born before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the majority (137, or 60%) were born before 1930. Typically, therefore, most were active between the 1940s and the 1980s, but some (such as Choules) are included for their activities before 1918, and several (such as Winehouse, or the anti-war campaigner, Brian Haw) only came to prominence in the 2000s.
The lives of Choules and Winehouse—the one exceptionally long, the other cut tragically short—draw attention to two of the most significant groups to be found in this new selection. A generation after Choules, many Britons served bravely during the Second World War, among them the SOE veteran Nancy Wake who led a group of resistance fighters and who killed German soldiers with her bare hands; SOE’s French section sent 39 women agents into France during the war, and Wake was undoubtedly among the toughest and most redoubtable. Her fellow SOE officer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, is best known for his capture, on Crete, of the German officer General Kreipe—an event that was retold in the film Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). In March 1942 Leslie Audus was captured by the Japanese and put to work in a slave labour camp. There he employed his skills as a botanist to create a nutritional supplement from fermented soya beans, saving him and hundreds of his fellow prisoners from starvation. After the war, Audus enjoyed a distinguished scientific career though, with great modesty, he made little of his remarkable prison work, which remained known only to former captives who owed him their lives.
The troubled creative life of our latest-born person, Amy Winehouse, is representative of a second significant group of lives to emerge from our new set of biographies. These were the entertainers for whom the celebrity-devouring world of show business was a place of some highs but ultimately of disenchantment and disappointment. Forty years before Winehouse came to public attention, the singer Kathy Kirby enjoyed a glittering career. Ubiquitous in the early 1960s with hit after hit, she was reputedly the highest-paid female singer of her generation. However, she failed to adapt to the rise of rock’n’roll, and soon spiralled into drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcy, and psychiatric problems. The difficulties Kathy Kirby experienced bear similarities to those of the Paisley-born songwriter Gerry Rafferty, best known for his hit single ‘Baker Street’, which deals with loneliness in a big city; Rafferty too found fame hard to cope with, and eventually succumbed to alcoholism.
Of course, not all encounters with modern British popular culture were so troubled. One of the longest biographies added in this new update is that of the actress Elizabeth Taylor who shot to stardom in National Velvet (1944) and remained ever after a figure of international standing. While Taylor’s private life garnered almost as much attention as her screen roles, she’s also notable in pioneering the now popular association between celebrity and charitable causes—in Taylor’s case for charities working to combat HIV/AIDS. To that of Elizabeth Taylor we can also add other well-known names, among them Lucian Freud—by common consent the greatest British artist of his day, whose depictions of human flesh are unrivalled in their impact and immediacy; the journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who made his career in the US; Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema; and the dramatist Shelagh Delaney, best-known for her play, A Taste of Honey (1958).
In addition to documenting the lives, and legacies, of well-known individuals—such as Freud, Hitchens, and Delaney—it’s also the purpose of each January update of the ODNB to include people of real historical significance who did not make the headlines. In creating a rounded picture of those who’ve shaped modern Britain, we’re helped enormously by more than 400 external specialists. Divided into specialist panels—from archaeology and broadcasting to the voluntary sector and zoology—our advisers recommend people for inclusion from long lists of possible candidates. And it’s their insight that ensures we provide biographies of many less familiar figures responsible for some truly remarkable achievements. Here is just one example. Leslie Collier was a virologist who, in the 1960s, developed a heat-stable vaccine for smallpox which made possible a mass vaccination programme in Africa and South America. The result was the complete eradication of smallpox as proclaimed by the World Health Organization in 1980. How many figures can claim to have abolished what was once a terrifying global disease?
Whether long or short, good or bad, exemplary or tragic, or something more nuanced and complex in-between, the 226 new biographies now added to the Oxford DNB make fascinating—and sometimes sobering—reading.
Featured image credit: Amy Winehouse, singing, by NRK P3. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.