Kinsfolk

D.A.N. Jones

  • A Sort of Clowning: Life and Times, 1940-59 by Richard Hoggart
    Chatto, 225 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3607 3
  • Tilting at Don Quixote by Nicholas Wollaston
    Deutsch, 314 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 233 98551 4
  • Finger Lickin’ Good: A Kentucky Childhood by Paul Levy
    Chatto, 202 pp, £13.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3521 2
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Adewale Maja-Pearce
    Heinemann, 154 pp, £13.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 434 44172 4

Men who get their memoirs published are generally confident enough to report, gleefully, their victories over particular opponents, and to try to explain any defeats. There is another sort of memoir in which the author tells how he has failed to fit in, or slot in, or lock in, to something called ‘society’, how he has been made to feel an outsider, a fish out of water, an oddball. All four of these books tend to the latter sort. Adewale Maja-Pearce has strong grounds for taking this line: he is an English-born novelist, the son of a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. In How many miles to Babylon? he tells us that he came home from his London school complaining that the other children called him a wog: his Scottish grandmother gave him the well-meant, useless advice that he should tell his schoolfellows that the word meant ‘gentleman’. He published another memoir in 1987, In My Father’s Country: as an adult visiting Nigeria, he had been harassed by the African children chanting Oyinbo! – which means, roughly, ‘Paleface!’

Paul Levy’s experience, recorded in Finger Lickin’ Good, is not wholly dissimilar. He is food correspondent for the Observer and has written scholarly books about Bloomsbury people: we might suppose him to be British-born, but he was raised in Kentucky, the child of Russian Jews. There is a photograph of the young Levy with his great-grandfather, a sacred scribe, a beautiful, bearded patriarch, not looking All-American. Kinsfolk might be Kentucky colonels (like finger-lickin’ Colonel Sanders) but society in Lexington, Kentucky did not wholeheartedly accept the Levys. Clubs and restaurants were often ‘restricted’ – which meant that Jews were conscientiously excluded. His book is lightly written, but reveals that he has consulted an analyst, a Dr Kavka.

It might be supposed that Nicholas Wollaston has escaped such conflicts with society. He has written admired novels and travel books since his education at Winchester and King’s College, Cambridge, where his father, a celebrated explorer, was a tutor. In the wartime Navy, his officer-like qualities, his OLQ, were favourably remarked. However, Tilting at Don Quixote is a desperate sort of memoir, sometimes almost distraught. Wollaston has long been haunted by a remark from his Winchester schoolmaster, suggesting that it was impossible for him to be ‘slotted in’, like other Wykehamists. He is still made uneasy by schools and by OLQ. As for Cambridge, that was where his distinguished father ‘made news’, getting murdered by a wild undergraduate. Very bad things have happened to Wollaston and his family. His bold travelling is presented, in Graham Greene’s phrase, as ‘ways of escape’ – escape from society.

Finally (and to be taken foremost) is A Sort of Clowning by Richard Hoggart, perhaps the most usefully class-conscious English writer of our time. He created an accepted general idea of the British ‘working class’ in 1957, with The Uses of Literacy. He developed his concept, most recently, in his memoir, A Local Habitation, recording his life from 1918 to 1940: in this sequel, going from 1940 to 1959, he tells of his war-time military service and his post-war academic life. A characteristic sentence records his feelings as he went home on leave, the first army officer in his extended family: ‘It had been odd to sit on a Leeds tram in a Cockburn High School cap: it was odder to do so in an officer’s outfit ... feeling like a budgie on display after it had successfully mounted the little ladders in its cage.’

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