A heavyweight literary biographer (Augustus John, Bernard Shaw) and husband to novelist Margaret Drabble, Sir Michael Holroyd is 77 now, but is at pains to note his newest book is not his last. “I have already written that,” he declares in On Wheels, either because he has that volume, whatever it may be, tucked into his solicitor’s safe, or because he believes this odd and oddly charming collection of car-related reminiscences is too much of a trifle to be called a “book.” No matter. From Holroyd’s observation that cars and motorcycles were the smartphones and computers of the early 20th century—mystically liberating objects truly understood only by the young—to his description of Welsh painter Augustus John, who had had but a single driving lesson, motoring from London to Dorset, unable to get out of first gear, On Wheels is more than bookish enough.
For all his interest in cars—as a child Holroyd spent hours playing in the never-used Ford parked in his grandparents’ garage—he was no natural driver. He couldn’t understand how all the cars on the road generally managed to miss each other, an ongoing matter of luck that he believed was bound to end if ever he was put behind the wheel. But faced with a girlfriend tired of driving him around, Holroyd gritted his way through lessons, and later successfully taught Drabble, another motoring klutz. Drabble was so impressed with his lessons, she told the Daily Mail, “Michael is wasted on biography.”
But family lore pales before On Wheels’ real gems, the nuggets of social history unearthed in Holroyd’s earlier research. There are snippets from the lives of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, and John’s epic journey along (thankfully) empty 1911 roads to Dorset, during which he hit, miraculously, only a barrel organ. And in a nod to the flip side of automotive liberation, he tells the poignant story of how Shaw, an admirer of brute force and of Lawrence of Arabia, gave his friend the powerful motorcycle that cost Lawrence his life.