BOOK REVIEW / No depth, please, I'm British: Yesterday came suddenly - Francis King: Constable, pounds 16.95

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The Independent Culture
THIS autobiography is a stiff read, and it shouldn't be. Francis King's novels are admired for skilful structure and emotional intensity. He is a perceptive critic, with a knack of going for essentials - though theatre people still blink at some of his judgments (for example, renaming Brook's Mahabharata 'Megaborata'). He has lived in some interesting places - imperial India, Florence, Athens, Helsinki, Kyoto - and has numbered among his friends and acquaintances Anthony Blunt, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Daphne du Maurier, Duncan Grant, Edith Evans, Malcolm Sargent and Angus Wilson, not to mention such diamante dazzlers as Godfrey Winn ('Winifred God') and Douglas Byng (about whom an old lady once remarked: 'Such a kind man. Not a night seems to pass when he doesn't give some homeless serviceman on leave a bed').

All this should make for a savoury book, bubbling with wickedness and insight. Instead, Francis King joins (or parodies) the precious school of literary reminiscence. He regrets his father's death (when he, Francis, was 13) because it prevented Mr King Senior from keeping him in 'affluence' at public school, introducing him to his tailor, arranging for him to become a member of his club, or 'speaking to the right people' when the lad had chosen a career. His main memory (one of two) from the Second World War is picking his way across huddled sleepers in the London Tube. Working for the British Council, he seems to have spent 20 years of his life physically 'abroad' but mentally in a kind of Eng lit ghetto, failing to engage with - or even, it seems, to notice - any aspect of non-Anglo-Saxon culture except Ming vases and Turkish baths.

The sense that Mr King behaved like the curator in a human zoo extends to his descriptions of the distinguished people he met. Each has a tic (drunkenness, panic, rudeness) and an attitude, but no inner life whatever. L P Hartley refuses to smile when King tells him an anecdote not a million miles remote from the donnee of The Go-Between; C P Snow pees copiously before confessing his inadequacy as a husband; Borges plays with Lego as he talks; Olivia Manning is miserly about a mirror. Henry Reed used to write like this in his 1950s Third Programme spoofs.

What we're reading about, perhaps, are the contortions of a private man forced to live a bustling public life: officer of the British Council, chairman of PEN, drama critic seeing half a dozen shows a week. King is also hampered by his style, a kind of Latinate 'fine writing' which died out with the Bloomsbury set. Genuine emotion breaks through only at the end, in a heartfelt memoir of his partner's last illness.

It seems churlish to cavil that someone's life or character was not what one expected. But no one compels people to expose their inner selves in autobiographies. I think that anyone who admires Cecil Beaton's or James Lees-Milne's autobiographies will enjoy this book, but that other readers may find it, as I did, a curiously arid joy.

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