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21 January 2002

From the bottom of my heart . . .

Brenda Maddox on the hardest part of writing a book: who should be thanked and how?

By Brenda Maddox

At the end of a three-year book, I am stuck at the hardest part: the Acknowledgements. The permutations of thanks – clumsy, neologistic and mawkish – can be found as apparatus in most non-fiction. British publishers like to tuck them at the beginning, on the pages with the roman numerals. American publishers, inhabiting a less cosy literary world, tend to put them at the back. For the front, they go for the toe-curling dedication: “Above all to my wife Suzie without whom I would have nothing” (The End of Science by John Horgan) or “To Elaine who has put up with my being digital for exactly 11111 years” (Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte).

Dedications are a hurdle in themselves. Should a book be dedicated “For” or “To”? Is the dedicatee entitled also to a mention in the Acknowledgements? Either way, all Acknowledgements carry a booby-trap. The people you thank prominently are usually disqualified from reviewing the book, which goes instead to your foes.

The toughest exercise remains ringing the changes on gratitude. “Thanks” come in many forms: heartfelt, deep, profound, grateful (surely a tautology?), sincere, special and particular. A simple “I thank you” sounds terse unless, like Arnold Palmer, you append “from the bottom of this golfer’s heart”.

For the grandees to whom you are humbly obliged for having acknowledged your existence, “deepest gratitude” may be insufficient. Variations on “generosity” or “indebtedness” can be appropriate, especially if coupled with a “without whom . . . ”

A whingeing author protesting too much? You try it, then.

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Write a short essay honouring copyright obligations, and dropping the big names that might help sell the book. Repay all those – hard-working literary agents, enthusiastic publishers, scrupulous editors, unfailingly eager picture researchers and anal-retentive librarians – without whom, quite literally, your book would not exist. Do the decent thing by your nearest and dearest without embarrassing or slighting any. Shore up, if needs be, a faltering marriage and flatter your sulky teenage children into forgiving you for the cancelled holidays and missed birthdays.

Clear your conscience, too. Yes, the same information is available in other books; only the brilliant interpretation and strong narrative thrust are your own. Roy Jenkins, in his new book Churchill, grants that Martin Gilbert’s “massive eight- volume biography” has provided “nearly all the facts”: “Any subsequent writer is in Martin Gilbert’s debt.” Jenkins is deft, too, in thanking, in succession, Max Hastings, Arthur Schlesinger, the late Lord Harris of Greenwich and, last but not least, his wife.

At the same time, you must absolve all the aforementioned experts and editors for the howlers they failed to spot on your behalf. Thus the erudite John Carey, editor of The Faber Book of Science, declares: “All the mistakes, of course, are mine” – as if he ever made any.

This literary exercise requires the combined skills of a copyright lawyer, a psychiatrist and, too often, a bereavement counsellor. Biographies, histories and textbooks take a long time to write; peo- ple die along the way. See how many Acknowledgements begin with a joke and end with a lump in the throat, like Lady Thatcher’s in The Path to Power. She is grateful for the recollections and insights of the late Lord Joseph of Portsoken (Keith Joseph) for whom: “The dedication of this volume records a debt which is acknowledged but which never can be repaid.”

In The Downing Street Years, she solves her problem more briskly, with a facsimile reproduction of her handwritten thank-you letter on House of Lords stationery.

Thatcher’s successor, John Major, in his own autobiography, does a nice run through “extreme generosity” and “profound thanks” before proceeding to: “Finally I must pay tribute to . . .” But, as in a Beethoven finale, this climactic note means only that he is beginning to wind up. When he gets to the real end of his Acknowledgements, you know it: “Above all” to Norma for “the love and support she has given me during the highs and lows of political life”.

As with any guest list, the most interesting thing about any Acknowledgements is who is not there. The true informers, the Crawfies, Deep Throats and civil servants who spilled the beans, cannot be mentioned. A biography or two back, I was granted an hour with a distinguished historian who knew that a professional colleague of hers was writing a book on the same subject. “How can I ever thank you?” I muttered.

The answer came swiftly as she briskly reached for her coat. “Don’t put my name in the Acknowledgements.”

Brenda Maddox’s Rosalind Franklin: the dark lady of DNA will be published by HarperCollins in June