Jeffrey Meyers

Autobiographies of Friends: A Unique Genre

I’ve taken special delight in holding the copies given to me and reading the autobiographies of my two close friends, Phillip Knightley and Francis King. They summoned up remembrance of things past, taught me a great deal about their experiences before I’d met them and allowed me to compare my personal knowledge of their characters with their written accounts. They were born in the 1920s, published their books in the 1990s and lived into their late eighties. They also resolved what Julian Barnes in The Man in the Red Coat (2019) called the conflicting impulses of autobiography: ‘to tell the truth yet be entertaining; to correct the record without seeming petty or rancorous; to hold natural vanity in check while also making clear how special your life has been.’ Both men were strongly attached to India and lost expensive libel suits. But they were very different and perfectly complemented each other. 

Phillip Knightley (1929-2016) was capable and tough, intelligent but not intellectual. Born in Sydney, he graduated from high school but did not attend a university. He was an unsuccessful copra trader in Fiji, vacuum cleaner salesman in Australia and restaurateur in London. He came into his own as an investigative reporter on the Sunday Times Insight team from 1965 to 1985 and was an expert on war correspondents and spies. He wrote influential books on the floods in Venice and the birth defects caused by Thalidomide, lectured around the world and frequently appeared on television. He had an Indian wife and three children, and saw mostly an Australian circle of friends in London.

In the amusing and ironically titled A Hack’s Progress (1997), about his spectacular career as a journalist, Knightley describes himself as bald and bearded like Lenin. Adventurous and ambitious, resourceful and likeable, during his apprentice years  he tried a number of semi-comical, dead-end jobs that provided useful experience. In Fiji the docks came straight out of Lord Jim, but the counting-house duties were unspeakably boring. He didn’t connect this real-life episode to Conrad’s novel: a captain reported that a ship he abandoned had gone down in a storm, but the supposedly doomed but actually drifting ship turned up in Suva four months later. 

Back in Sydney and desperate for work, Knightley tried to sell vacuum cleaners, intrusively and door-to-door, and ‘hated it. It seemed such an invasion of people’s privacy—even worse than tabloid journalism.’  He also impulsively bought five peanut-vending machines to be strategically placed in pubs. But the nuts proved stale and when the stiff handles were twisted the nuts shot into the sodden carpets. 

A more original but equally doomed enterprise was his creation of Old Vienna, a restaurant ‘complete with Austrian cuisine, waitresses in Tyrolean dress and, at the weekends, a yodeller or two.’ But everyone stole his food and money, and he learned from trial and error—mostly error. Business was paralytic, and after selling the place as a going concern he had to keep it going single-handed till the contract was signed with the Bangladeshi buyer. He hoped no customers would appear and recalled,

Those who did were greeted at the door by me in my waiter’s guise.  I would take their order and send it down to the kitchen in the dumb waiter.  Then [as a Woody Allen movie] I would run down the stairs, slip on an apron and cook the meal, then rush back up the stairs again to receive the dishes in the dumb waiter and serve them.

Still on his precarious learning curve, he set sail from London to the West Indies, was lost in a storm and got only as far as Falmouth in Cornwall before crawling back to port.

Returning to visit Sydney, Knightley stopped for two unplanned years in Bombay and worked for a magazine called Imprint, secretly funded by the CIA. He tried with some difficulty to live like a humble Indian, and was fascinated by ‘the poverty-stricken shacks, the notorious caged prostitutes of Bombay, the illicit liquor stills, the villages given over entirely to gold smuggling.’ Despite the depressing poverty, squalor and disease, he dubiously calls Bombay “’one of the great cities of the world.’ His nostalgic farewell to Bombay, seeing ‘the sun set over the Arabian sea . . . sniffing smoke from the wood fires and watching the lights blink on along the verandah,’ echoes his earlier farewell to exotic Fiji when he ‘listened to the rustle of the coconut palms as the sun went down and the tropical night took over.’

Knightley reported his most amusing story in Sydney where—unlike the more lenient law in England—a husband or wife seeking divorce had to be actually caught in flagrante

This provided regular employment for an army of private detectives who specialised in springing from concealment in hotel wardrobes, or from under beds, or crashing though windows, camera with flash gun in hand and a ready quip such as ‘Hello, hello, what’s going on here?’ 

He drops teasing hints, but says very little about his own sex life. Bombay held the promise, but no more than that, of sexual adventure. A German girlfriend he meets there is mentioned in passing and then vanishes. A shipboard romance goes ‘swimmingly,’ but the girl disappears before they can reach deep water.  While hitch-hiking in Algeria, he repels the advances of a homosexual. He picks up a no-frills whore in London but can’t perform when she pulled up her skirt, spread her legs and told him to mount: ‘The whole thing was so detached, so mechanical, that my desire faded as quickly as it had come.’

He mentions his marriage to Yvonne Fernandes, ‘an Indian woman, thus acquiring at one stroke some two hundred and ten Indian relatives.’ This exaggerated family seems odd since her parents were dead and she had grown up in an orphanage run by nuns. Their holiday in Casablanca, with their small children, was another disaster. They were not informed that Yvonne, an Indian citizen, needed a visa to enter Morocco. Leaving the children with friends, they flew to Madrid  and discovered that the Moroccan embassy was indefinitely closed. He flew back to retrieve the children, she flew to Algeciras, and they were all reunited for a holiday on the Costa del Sol.

Knightley thanks his son Kim (named after Kipling’s boy-hero, with a hint at Kim Philby) who ‘improved the manuscript no end.’ But neither he nor Kim nor the poor editors at Jonathan Cape, whom he thanks profusely, corrected the more than forty typographical errors that disfigure the book. The lack of photographs and index also weaken the autobiography. His congenial inscription helped to compensate me for these irritating defects: ‘To my Yankee mate, Jeffrey, from his rough Aussie colleague, with warmest non-consenting adult hugs.’

After junior jobs on provincial newspapers in Queensland and Fiji, Knightley finally reached his ultimate destination, London. Finding his métier, he eventually managed to secure a position on the Sunday Times Insight team. He found high-powered journalism a big adventure and describes the ‘excitement, freedom of movement, a chance to use your wits and initiative, a sense of being—if not part of mainstream events—a close-up observer.’ The last two-thirds of the book gives a detailed account of how, as an investigative reporter, he wrote his major stories on T. E. Lawrence, Thalidomide, John Profumo and Philby, and expanded them into his influential books.

Knightley discovered and confirmed a sensational and barely credible story about Lawrence. After his triumphant success as leader of the Arabian campaign, Lawrence served as a penitential private in the Tank Corps. He then paid a soldier to whip him to punish the guilty pleasure he’d felt when he was captured and cruelly raped by the Turks. Using the worldwide network of Sunday Times correspondents, Knightley also challenged the traditional view of Lawrence’s attitude toward his followers:

far from having an emotional attachment to the Arabs, he did not care for them as a race. . . . Far from furthering the cause of Arab freedom and independence, he was intent on making the Arabs part of the British Empire.

Knightley set out to authenticate the Hitler diaries, sold to the Sunday Times for a tremendous sum by the German magazine Stern, by interviewing two ladies who lived outside Milan and had ‘created’ the Mussolini diaries. Their fakes made him suspect the German offering. It’s hard to believe that any authority could think that the childishly repetitive entry for January 30, 1933, the day Hitler became chancellor, could have been written by him:

We must at once proceed to build up as fast as possible the power we have won.  I must at once proceed to the dissolution of the Reichtag, so I can build up my power.  We will not give up our power, let there come what may.

An expert, who found that the paper used on the diaries was not manufactured until eight years after Hitler’s death, confirmed the forgery.

More significantly, the work of the Insight team finally forced Distillers Bio-Chemicals to accept responsibility for distributing Thalidomide. They claimed that this dangerous drug could safely prevent morning sickness in pregnant women. After a long legal fight, the company paid substantial damages to the wretched children who had been born with horrific deformities. Meanwhile, Knightley continued to fight for the rehabilitation of his Australian-obstetrician friend Dr. William McBride, who’d discovered the disastrous effects of Thalidomide and whose reputation had been ruined by his jealous enemies.

Being a successful reporter could be hazardous. When exploring the scandal surrounding John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s cabinet, who had shared a mistress with a Russian spy and lied about it to Parliament, Knightley interviewed all but one of the detectives involved in the case. He assumed the last one had died and called him ‘corrupt’ (which he couldn’t repeat in this book).  But the detective turned up, still very much alive in Australia, and successfully sued Knightley for libel. Another Australian story concerned preventing a Japanese corporation from building a resort on a pristine Queensland beach. The residents emotionally argued that ‘a lot of blokes died to stop the Japs from getting here. Now the Queensland government lets them come and take what they like.’ He also helped solve a long-running case in which a young girl was murdered on the beach.

Knightley co-authored Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation (1968), whose sales were boosted by an introduction by John le Carré and serialization in the Sunday Times.  Philby, knowing he was close to death, later summoned Knightley, who grabbed the next plane to Moscow, and gave him hours of revealing interviews that led to a sequel, The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby (1988). 

Three major themes emerge from Knightley’s lively and readable, fair-minded and self-critical book: his national identity, his difficult moral choices and the lessons he learned from his journalistic experience. Unlike the Australians who became successful in England—the actor Peter Finch, the singer Joan Sutherland, the artist Sidney Nolan—Knightley felt as if he were an outsider. He emphasises each nation’s stereotyped view of the other: ‘For Australians the typical [working-class] Englishman was short, cloth-capped, pasty-faced and whinging.’ Australians, by contrast, were ‘friendly, generous, outspoken, bawdy, irreverent, aggressive and anti-authoritarian.’ (He had the first two qualities but not the negative ones.) He emphasises their aggression by twice mentioning Australians who savagely chewed off ears during a rugby game and in a dockside riot. Though Knightley lived most of his adult life in London, he was still trying to sort out (he said) ‘my own problem of deciding what I was and where I belonged.’ At the very end of the book he loyally remains a native son and declares, ‘I know, deep down, I am for ever an Australian.’

A Hack’s Progress is a moral but not a moralistic book, deeply concerned with the ethical principles of journalism and transgressions that troubled his conscience. Do sports reporters, he asked, write what really goes on and get frozen out of other stories, or keep silent, write rubbish and become part of the team? Another problem was the deliberate deception of people he interviewed and his betrayal of their trust: ‘You winkled your way in to their presence, won their confidence, got them to tell you things they should not, and then exposed them to the world at large.’ When a great story about a disastrous cargo to Zanzibar would gravely damage a friend’s business, Knightley had to ‘weigh my personal interests against his.  The story was true and there was no legal way he could stop me from writing it, or the Sunday Times from publishing it.’ The conscientious Knightley published the piece but could not justify his own selfish behaviour.

Knightley’s autobiography is pensive but not pedantic. He soon learned the practical lesson that no ‘no’ is ever final and the reporter must pursue his quest to the end. He gained valuable precepts from the Thalidomide case: ‘the power of the press is greatly overrated [and can] not have decisive influence on anything.’ After the story was over, the suffering of the deformed victims remained part of his life, ‘not easily put aside.’ He learned from the litigious Australian detective that ‘the essence of a libel case is not whether a statement is true or false. The point is: who is going to pay’—the writer, the publisher or the insurance company?

Knightley was also disturbed by his role in solving the beach-murder case and asked ‘Isn’t it a dangerous precedent for journalists—and in particular, television—to take over the role of the police when all else has failed?’ Looking back on his amazing twenty-year correspondence with Philby, he sceptically asked,

What did all those articles and books I had written about espionage add up to, what influence had they had, what did it all mean?  The conclusions were not comforting.  I decided that, like all journalists who write about the world of espionage, most of the time I had been just a pawn in the game, that billions of dollars spent on intelligence agencies during the Cold War had been largely wasted.

Though Knightley had achieved success with all these stories, he had no easy answers and remained tormented by these questions.


Francis King (1923-2011) was a cultured, sophisticated and cosmopolitan Englishman. Born in Switzerland, he grew up in India where his tubercular father was a senior officer in the police. King won scholarships to Shrewsbury school and Balliol College, Oxford. A conscientious objector and farm labourer during the war, he worked for the British Council from 1949 to 1964 in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Finland  and Japan. He became president of PEN International and helped to free imprisoned writers.  He was a versatile novelist, story and travel writer, poet, biographer, editor, translator, book reviewer and theatre critic. A self-proclaimed but discreet homosexual, he had mostly gay friends and lived in their milieu. After his long-time partner died, he had a series of miserable live-in lovers. King devotes a quarter of his book to his family, childhood and youth, and focuses on his homosexual life and the major writers he has known.

King’s autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993) adores and idealises his mother, calling her serene and kind, staunch and steadfast, self-sacrificial and overprotective. High-strung and with a mentally ill daughter, she also had a nervous breakdown. She lived to the age of 103 and, King reveals in an extraordinary passage, ‘her love had the power to emasculate me and even destroy me so that, once I finished at Oxford, I opted to join the British Council and so go abroad.’

King, who had three sisters and looked like his mother (Knightley looked exactly like his father), calls himself a ‘mother’s boy.’ He was handsome, brainy and capable, but harshly describes his younger (but not older) self as tidy and fussy, feeble and neurotic, callow and tactless, irritable and demanding, sharp-tongued and indiscreet. Later on, he was a domineering disciplinarian, though feckless about money and prone to impulsive and foolish decisions. 

King had wildly different moods in different posts. He was delighted in Florence and desolate in Salonika, where he felt suicidal and also had a nervous breakdown. He was arrested in Alexandria during the Suez crisis and was rather bored in Helsinki, which did not inspire his fiction. He was happiest in Kyoto, where his paid driver and servant was also his first live-in boyfriend. He emphasises the aesthetic aspects of Japan, calls the people “so submissive” and never mentions, in the early 1960s, their recent atrocities committed in World War II.

King returned to England in 1965.  Extremely hard-working, he recalls his almost superhuman schedule:

While reading four or five novels in a week for my Sunday Telegraph review . . . reading the same number of novels for first Weidenfeld and then Macdonald, writing a three-weekly television column for The Listener, cooking meals for my lodgers and frequent guests, and attempting also to find time to work on the stories
. . . in The Brighton Belle, I would often give way to regret, even despair. By resigning from the British Council, all I had done was to exchange one treadmill for another even more gruelling.

Like King’s complex and mercurial character, his autobiography is filled with contradictions.  He calls the King family ‘Bohemian, radical, intellectual,’ but portrays his policeman father as conventional, conservative and middlebrow.  In childhood he found it extremely difficult to lie, but also told ‘whopping fibs.’ He claims that the powerful memory of getting anti-rabies shots ‘has been wholly expunged,’ but gives a detailed description of them. He refuses to make a fuss when humiliated and robbed by Egyptian officials, but complains about stale bread, argues about a restaurant bill and reclaims his rightful theatre seat. He’s attracted to blond men with reddish-gold complexions, but his Italian, Greek, Japanese and English lovers have dark hair and skin. He states that his lover David Atkin had ‘hitch-hiked around most of the world,’ but has never been to India. David liked arduous travel so they had separate holidays, but King also refers to ‘the happiest of all our holidays together.’

When an impoverished actor with a sick mother, wife and child complained about King’s severe review of his performance, King replied that his unfortunate circumstances were ‘totally irrelevant.’ King doesn’t notice that when he mistakenly endorsed the work of an ex-Nazi sympathiser, and pleads that he was distracted by a dying friend and his own stomach cancer, he receives exactly the same reply that he himself once gave: ‘I am afraid that these two things are totally irrelevant.’ Most amusing is that King, unable to restrict himself, gives five examples of his three best novels.

Conventional in his dress, manners and social behaviour, King is admittedly hedonistic and dissolute in his homosexual life. He fails to perform in his few attempts with women who try to enter his bed and seduce him, and ‘shrinks from kissing or even touching anyone but an intimate.’ (He always gave me a warm handshake and inscribed this book, ‘To Jeffrey and Val, with love from Francis.’) He often picked up a soldier or worker in a louche bar or gay club, and his casual encounters and his live-in lovers were all intellectually, socially and financially inferior. He paid to have sex with them, retained power and dominated them. He doesn’t reveal the details of his sexual behaviour, but liked ‘inventive and eager lovers,’ some of them married men.

King is often quite witty. He thinks Ponce in Puerto Rico is appealingly named and knows an ‘epileptic living on Gozo.’ The ultra-camp James Kirkup asked King to bring him a jar of anti-wrinkle cream, which he said “does wonders for my scrotum.’ Drawing on his cosmopolitan experience, King notes that alcohol has quite different effects on various nationalities: ‘it goes to the heads of the English, to the faces of the Japanese, to the livers of the French, to the stomachs of the Greeks, to the sexual organs of the Americans and to the knees of the Finns.’

Yesterday Came Suddenly (the last two words suggest premature ejaculation) is elegantly written, satiric and waspish.  He offers a series of lively, gossipy anecdotes about people he knew, rudely criticising enemies to pay off old grudges and fulsomely praising his devoted friends, and shrewdly portrays many famous writers who turned up at his British Council posts.  The poet Louis MacNeice ‘never had a single word to say, [his wife] Hedli never stopped talking, they were both impossible at any social occasion.’ Equally inculpable were Anthony Burgess

and his first wife who would lurch into the room, arms round each other, faces glistening, hair bedraggled, as though, victims of a shipwreck, they had just emerged from a turbulent sea. By the end of the evening both were often hardly coherent. Yet there was something extraordinarily touching about their dependence on each other.

In Buenos Aires the blind Jorge Luis Borges, whom King revered, ‘projected all the winsomeness of a supremely gifted child.’ After he read to Borges from Burton’s 1001 Nights, he realised this was the first time that Borges had really paid attention to anything he said.

Most of the authors King portrays were homosexuals looking for foreign parts in foreign ports. Asked if he knew Maurice Bowra well, he replied, ‘Well, I did once take down his trousers.’ King lent a hand when the Oxford don had to be examined after he was injured in an automobile accident.  Yukio Mishima, ‘a small, wiry, tough man, with a strong feminine component was obsessed with turning private fantasy into public reality    . . . determined to tear out whatever was feminine in his nature.’ The young Angus Wilson ‘was difficult, envious, touchy, demanding, given to making hysterical scenes. But he was also already the most entertaining of conversationalists.’ The timorous and secretive L. P. Hartley dammed up ‘all the strongest and deepest emotions in his life behind a barrage of conventional propriety, which gave his novels much of their force.’ When Hartley’s outraged manservant told him to ‘just fuck off,’ he was delighted and remarked, ‘what a very odd thing to say!’ Somerset Maugham made King shy and fearful.  Despite Maugham’s stupendous success, he complained about lack of recognition in England. When his companion Alan Searle secretly suggested that he and King tour the gay clubs in Kyoto, Maugham sensed that he’d been excluded and insisted that Searle remain in the hotel with him.

King was also on hand to unwillingly pimp for the seedy Anthony Blunt. When Blunt ordered and King supplied a big, butch man with good teeth, he was immensely grateful. ‘Marvellous!’ he said. ‘Oh, I am grateful to you.  That was just what I needed. I feel much much better now.’ Joe Ackerkey, literary editor of the Listener and author of the excellent Hindoo Holiday and My Father and Myself, was a great friend and difficult long-time guest in Kyoto. He encouraged King’s five well disciplined dogs to misbehave, was slovenly, drank excessively, felt quite at home and wouldn’t leave. 

King was impressed by Muriel Spark’s transformation ‘from the dowdy, dumpy, douce little Scots body . . . into a glamorous woman of the world.’ But he could also be severe on women writers he admired. Olivia Manning, author of the impressive Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, was (like Ackerley) King’s close and trying friend.  he constantly complained about her lack of recognition and was malicious about her rivals. When Edna O’Brien first came to London, Manning called her beautiful, talented and modest. But as O’Brien threatened and surpassed her, Manning called her pushy and scheming, denied her rival’s talent, and claimed her success was entirely due to her youth and good looks.

Surprisingly, and without providing any evidence, King calls Ivy Compton-Burnett ‘the greatest English novelist’ of the mid-twentieth century, a ‘blazing talent’ and even a ‘genius.’ But his abject loyalty to her warped his literary judgment. All the personal details and quotations he offers create a negative impression of her character as she queens it up in her drab and dreary flat. She appears in his portrait as vain and domineering, snobbish and repulsive. An ungrateful guest, she declares, ‘That’s not what I call a tea.’ She orders her own followers about like a nanny, and her conversation is gossipy and trivial. She calls a young man vulgar when he asks for a glass of sherry instead of ‘sherry wine,’ condemns King as tactless and malicious when he asks an innocent question, and despises all Greeks (whom she doesn’t know) as mercenary. Worst of all she enviously and spitefully attacks rivals whose novels are far greater than her own: ‘Poor Olivia has no idea of building.  The materials are good, but they’re all over the place, just all over the place.’ She also condescendingly states, ‘I do wish that Iris Murdoch had not got involved in philosophy. If she had studied domestic science or trained to be a Norland nurse [i.e., nanny], I’m sure her books would have been much better.’ King concedes that, unlike most of her rivals, Ivy ‘was not worldly, much-travelled, rich, glamorous.’ She can even be, as one friend honestly exclaims, ‘such a fucking bore.’ King’s portrait has quite the opposite effect than he intended and inadvertently reveals his long suppressed hostility to Ivy. She surely takes her place with the truly nasty writers: Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell and Virginia Woolf.

The most interesting story about his presidency of PEN International concerns another difficult woman, Susan Sontag. During a PEN conference in South Korea, King quietly arranged to plead for writers in prison during a private audience with the President, who would then agree to release them. But Sontag, motivated by vanity and ambition, publicly denounced the South Korean government and demanded they release the prisoners. Furious and offended by her outburst, the President cancelled the private meeting and the writers remained in prison.

King’s autobiography ends with a poignant account of the death from AIDS of his long-time lover David Atkin.  King’s chapter title paraphrases Thomas Nashe’s ‘A Litany in Time of Plague,’ substituting ‘Darkness’ for ‘Brightness falls from the air; / Queens have died young and fair.’ David’s mother was a middle-class Gentile; his father, who died when he was eight, was a Jewish furrier from Latvia; and Francis, much older, became his surrogate father. David was always secretive and had difficulty showing his emotions. But, Francis writes, ‘despite the differences in our ages, upbringings, educations and interests, we got on remarkably well.’

David, a deck-chair attendant in Brighton and ‘oil-boy’ who massaged aged clients in Miami, eventually became a television actor. King effusively praises his ability as a car driver, life guard, handyman and, most improbably, as ‘extraordinarily knowledgeable about foreign affairs.’ Though King was admittedly jealous and possessive, David had sexual encounters when he traveled abroad. They continued to have potentially fatal sexual relations after David was infected with AIDS, but King never contracted the disease. 

Like Knightley, King is concerned with moral choices. He wonders whether the impoverished Joe Ackerley should return or sell (as he did) the indiscreet homosexual letters he received from E. M. Forster. King also feels that ‘writers are all too often cannibals, in devouring family and friends, and cads, in betraying the secrets entrusted to us.’ A friend neatly defined his character by stating, ‘Anyone who reads Francis King’s books will know that he is not nearly as nice as he seems.’

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, received 50 letters from Phillip and 550 from his long-time correspondent Francis.  He wrote about Phillip in Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy and about Francis in Privileged Moments.

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