Faber & Faber, £16.99, 252pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
My Father’s Fortune: A Life, By Michael Frayn
REVIEWED BY BOYD TONKIN FRIDAY 27 AUGUST 2010
In June 1944, Adolf Hitler almost did for Michael Frayn. A V1 flying bomb (“our doodlebug”) skimmed over the top of the 10-year-old’s surburban home in Ewell, Surrey, before the “giant bluebottle” killed a family in the next street. After air-raid warnings, the Frayns had slept downstairs – thankfully, since the bomb’s passage had left “a tangled mass of window-lead set with broken glass… curled up as peacefully as Goldilocks on my pillow”.
So, a fairy-tale escape: a bit of the “pure luck” which, along with “hard work and quick wits”, forms part of the inheritance of Tom Frayn, the beaming, mercurial, light-spirited dad whose presence his son conjures on every page of this entrancing memoir. The Germans’ near-miss made possible a radiant career in journalism, drama and fiction which in its rare blend of wit and depth has enhanced our literature for (can this be true?) around 50 years. Yet quicksilver Frayn, an Ariel of letters, has always defied gravity. Although he casts himself as slow and vague in contrast to his father’s pace and edge, surely the humour, dexterity and resourcefulness of the son’s work echoes a smartly sceptical parent (with his “indifference to all systems of belief”) who owned next to nothing, bought as little as he could and “moved lightly over the earth”.
Born in Holloway in 1901, Devon-descended Tom Frayn inhabited – with guts and gusto – that liminal class space between “skilled working” and “lower middle” that has given us so many great London books. He came from a clan cursed with hereditary deafness, a creeping ailment that quite failed to cramp his style. His son has escaped, again. Always “smart as a whip”, Tom grew up fast with relatives whose up-and-down lurches between modest prosperity and near-penury match anything in Pritchett or Wells. Meanwhile, the Seven Sisters and Holloway Roads “flow through the history of the Frayn family like the Tigris and Euphrates” through Mesopotamia’s.
Luckily born too late for the First World War, Tom met violin-playing Vi from an aspirational family in 1919. With a readily-shouldered responsibility that awes his son, he put their romance on hold while he made his own way and cared for others as their fortunes crashed. Michael (born 1933) first grew up above an off-licence in Mill Hill. Then Tom’s security as a building-supplies salesman allowed a shift to suburbia – albeit to a rented house, with the firm’s car outside.
Tom (later Tommy) sold asbestos roofing. In the innocent 1930s and 1940s, “asbestos has no vices”. Frayn – whose riffs on the prewar virtues of smoking also delight – knows how to skirt hindsight while nodding to his clued-up readers now. Tough on himself, tender on others, his loving but unsentimental evocation of the Ewell years will stand in its own right as a classic account of suburban childhood – as well as offering, for readers of his flawless novel Spies, a textbook revelation of how memory feeds fiction.
Then, in 1949, comes the disaster that both shatters his father’s fortune, – even if he remade it, with a little help from Elsie the high-maintenance Ye Old Oak ham heiress – and propels the son into a nervily sophisticated adolescence. Slowly, through Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge, early career and his own family, he awakens to his father’s improvised, irreverent virtues, grasped “only when one has stepped into the shoes one saw before on someone else’s feet”.
In the theatre and his novels, Frayn gnaws creatively away at the edges of genre. Likewise, which form should this memoir of a parent take: biography, autobiography, social history – or, as he rightly deduces, some nimbly-stitched patchwork of the lot? The past few years have seen some outstanding reinventions of a parent’s life, from Miranda Seymour (In My Father’s House) and Hanif Kureishi (My Ear at his Heart) to Hanan al-Shaykh (The Locust and the Bird) and Rupert Thomson (This Party’s Got to Stop). Spookily, the pivotal tragedy here corresponds exactly to Thomson’s own.
All must negotiate, as Frayn does, those hazy borderlands between self and others, subjectivity and objectivity, in the knowledge that family anecdotes consist of what he calls “formalisations”: as artful, artificial in their way as the cutaway drawings of bombers or submarines sketched by an illustrator neighbour in Ewell.
A knack for angle and perspective means that he notes, for instance, how sister Jill’s more troubled and fretful childhood recollections challenge his nostalgia. Abashed, he tries to understand “how much harder things were for her”. Forever alert to the inner processes of art and mind – in fiction from Sweet Dreams to Headlong, on stage from Noises Off to Copenhagen – Frayn from time to time cuts away and nips backstage to show how the memoir machinery works. Yet, almost miraculously, this keen self-awareness never compromises the deep poignancy – and the rich comedy – of the story he has to tell. Here, as always, that’s part of the trick of it for Frayn.