Unputdownable Articles – By Jeffrey


At their best, biographies are a fascinating blend of truth, history and extraordinary characters, so real and vibrant that if I dared to place them in a fiction novel, I’d be accused of stretching the bounds of believability.

I have always been drawn to stories that offer a glimpse into the lives of people who have shaped our world, and it was this passion that helped shape my Top 12 list.

Unsurprisingly, there is a bias towards literature and politics, fields that have not only defined much of my own life but have also been the crucibles in which some of history’s most intriguing characters were formed. If I were ever to find myself on a desert island, these are the books I’d want with me. They have been my companions through the best and worst times, offering joy, solace and inspiration.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - The Moon's a Balloon1. THE MOON’S A BALLOON by David Niven (1971)

A few years after this came out, I found myself on tour with David Niven. He was publicising the follow-up, Bring on the Empty Horses, and I was publicising Not a Penny More. I remember being at one signing session where David had three hundred people queuing up to meet him and I had half a dozen! But there was never an ounce of arrogance from the man. Charming, engaging, generous… what you saw on screen was what you got in person.

He did admit to me that some of the stories in the books had actually happened to other actors but, again, does that really matter? He tells the stories so well that they become his stories.

Team of Rivals


I have always had a massive interest in American history and American politics. I watch CNN, I follow Biden and Trump, I read American newspapers. I find it much more interesting and irresistible than what’s happening over here.

Lincoln is my hero. A lawyer who decided to go into public service at the worst possible time. A man who changed the course of history, but sadly never got to see his plan through to the end. As far as I’m concerned, he is one of the big three from American history: Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt. They are the men who have had the greatest impact when it comes to shaping modern America.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - My Experiments with Truth


Again, a hero of mine. Just the simplicity of his message and his total devotion to the people of India. I’ll never forget that line in Nehru’s book, where Gandhi asked Nehru if he should come to congress. Nehru replies that wherever Gandhi is, that’s where congress sits.

Although he spent some of his early years in South Africa – where he was abused for being Indian – he didn’t specifically go back to India to lead the nation. But that’s exactly what happened. He let the British know, in no uncertain terms, that independence was their destiny. Do we get leaders like Gandhi in this modern age? We probably do, but it’s unlikely they would choose to go into politics.

Margaret Thatcher

4. MARGARET THATCHER (2013; a single volume version of THE DOWNING STREET YEARS and THE PATH TO POWER)

Over the course of my recent life, there is one subject, much more than any other, that gets mentioned when I’m talking to people: Margaret. Just the other day, a very famous and very successful man who’d only met her once said to me, “I envy you for one thing only: that you were a personal friend of Margaret Thatcher”.

At the time, I don’t think any of us knew how significant a period it would be in the country’s history but, looking back over the last four years and four different Prime Ministers, it’s not hard to understand how special she was. Although some people will argue that the public did eventually fall out of love with her, let’s not forget that Churchill lost the first election after the war. Politicians naturally go through those changes in fortune, but when we look back over the last 100 years, Churchill and Margaret will be remembered as our two great PMs.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - Long Walk to Freedom

5. THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM by Nelson Mandela (1994)

Just think about what this man had gone through. It would have been so easy for him to come out of prison and say, “Let chaos rule! Let’s give as good as we got!” In fact, he did the exact opposite. He said, “Let’s be kind to each other. Let’s try to forgive and move forward into a brighter future”. A giant of a man! He actually wrote to me once, saying that he was coming to England, but I sadly never got the chance to meet him.

The people of South Africa miss him. You’ve only got to look at what’s happened since his passing. It is an amazing country with enough assets to turn it into one of the world’s biggest financial success stories. Unfortunately, it’s all become a bit of a mess.


6. DICKENS by Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s very difficult for me to be objective about Dickens because I’m such a huge fan. I’ve read everything he wrote and a lot of the stuff that’s been written about him. The reason I settled on the Ackroyd book – as opposed to the countless other biographies out there – is that it seems to be the most comprehensive and, even as a fan, I came away from it having learned a lot about him.

For instance, I wasn’t aware that his affair with the beautiful young woman, Ellen Ternan, was so much more than a weekend dalliance, he really did love her. And this story made me smile… after Hans Christian Andersen came over from Denmark to stay with him, Dickens said to his son, “That man is the biggest bore in Christendom, and arguably the greatest storyteller that has ever lived”.

After all these years I’ve spent with Dickens, I think I’ve finally got the measure of the man. I’d love to say that we have a lot in common, but the only trait we seem to share is that we both love going around the country, reading our books to people and showing off.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - The Art of Power


This is the man who wrote both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Although he started out working alongside the Founding Fathers, they were so impressed with him as a writer, a statesman and a philosopher that they ended up letting him do most of the work.

If you look back to that time, there were an awful lot of truly great names, giants of American politics. But you could say the same about Britain and Europe. The reason was simple: unlike today, the most talented out there generally went into politics.


When it says, “most decorated”, it’s no joke. He won three Military Crosses, three Croix de Guerre, a Légion d’Honneur and a Papal knighthood. During the Second World War, he was behind enemy lines for four years and never slept in the same bed for more than one night. He worked with both French and Italian partisans, and single-handedly negotiated the surrender of two Axis units, totaling over 20000 men. He was a phantom… a superhero. He should never have survived.

I was lucky enough to meet him when he was President of Athletics at Oxford and immediately loved the man; he was everything that I admired. We won the war and were able to establish our modern, free democracies because of men like Tommy.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - Today We Die A Little


On the whole, I’m not really a fan of sporting biographies. The modern ones tend to be quite dry and what these ‘heroes’ have achieved doesn’t always add up to much. But then you’ve got someone like Zátopek. In the 1952 Olympics, he won both the 5000 and 10000 metre races in Olympic record times, then – just in case we weren’t convinced – he asked if he could run in the marathon. It was the first marathon he’d ever run in his life. And he won it. In Olympic record time! He wasn’t much to look at and, when he ran, he had the gait of a clobbering, old carthorse but, my god, he was the best.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - The World of Yesterday


A work of total genius. Totally unputdownable. This is nothing less than a masterpiece.

It looks at the period leading up to World War Two as seen through a young man’s eyes and later as a more mature man. He believes Hitler will take over Austria, so flees to New York where he eventually commits suicide because he can’t escape Hitler’s shadow. He posted the manuscript to his publisher the day before he and his wife took their own lives. Unquestionably, one of the greatest biographies of all time.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - The man who pays the rent

11. SHAKESPEARE: THE MAN WHO PAYS THE RENT  by Dame Judi Dench (2023)

A masterful insight into the world of Shakespeare through the eyes of one of theatre’s most revered actresses. As a lifelong fan of both Shakespeare and Dench, I found this book to be a delightful journey. Dench’s love for Shakespeare’s works shines from every page, offering a personal and profound connection to his plays. Her experiences, both on and off the stage, are woven seamlessly into an exploration of Shakespeare’s timeless relevance.

What struck me most is her ability to make Shakespeare accessible and deeply human, bridging the gap between the Elizabethan era and the modern reader. For anyone who appreciates theatre, literature or simply the art of storytelling, this book is a treasure.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - Becoming

12. BECOMING by Michelle Obama (2018)

A rousing and candid memoir that resonates with the warmth, wisdom, grace and strength of its author. Reading her story was a total delight. The narrative, which charts her journey from a working-class neighbourhood in Chicago to the White House, drew me in and is deeply human. The reflections on her personal, professional, and public life offer a unique perspective on American history and politics of the period, and the realities of it all.

What I admire most about this book is its honest portrayal of the challenges and triumphs she faced, both as the First Lady and as a woman striving to balance her roles. Michelle’s voice is totally authentic and engaging, making the reader feel like a confidant, almost a friend, rather than a spectator.

Much more than a memoir, this is an invitation to reflect on our her, but also our own journeys and the potential we hold to shape our destinies.

A must-read for anyone seeking inspiration and a deeper understanding of one of the most influential women of our time, and hopefully our future.

Unputdownable Top 12 (auto)biographies - Samuel Pepys

And one more… SAMUEL PEPYS: THE UNEQUALLED SELF  by Claire Tomalin (2002)

I couldnt leave this one out. It’s the life of one of history’s most intriguing figures, viewed through the lens of a biographer who has truly mastered the art of storytelling. Tomalin’s meticulous research brings Pepys to life with vivid detail and analysis, turning the 17th-century diarist into a flesh-and-blood character with whom we can relate.

What makes this biography stand out is Tomalin’s ability to weave the personal, political, and social fabric of Pepys’ time into a narrative that is both educational and immensely entertaining. She delves into his diaries, unearthing the flawed fullness of his character – his ambitions, his indiscretions and his humanity. A time-travelling glimpse into the Restoration era, highlighting Pepys’ role in pivotal historical events and everyday life in London.

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