BOOK REVIEW / Sins of the father in salt and water: The Tap Dancer - Andrew Barrow: Duckworth, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IN THE library of the Reform Club, 'a lot of old men lay snoring. Some looked very old indeed, on the point of death. 'Of course the club is at its busiest now,' said my father.' William, the narrator of Andrew Barrow's first novel, is the son of a man who could rank alongside Mr Pooter and Nancy Mitford's Uncle Matthew for fascinating awfulness, rooted in the unyielding, heavy clay of the English social system. Poised uncomfortably between the middle and upper classes, he is at this point briskly instructing his son in the arcane rules by which their precarious position can be maintained. The club, he has decided, is a criterion against which potential bounders should be assessed. 'He'd never get into the Reform' is akin to ultimate damnation.

The novel begins when William, the fourth of five sons, is 20. An engaging hilarity lurks just below the deadpan level of his narration. Sometimes it surfaces as bathos ('the big event of the week was the arrival of the dog's meat'), sometimes as a kind of cold comfort pathos: 'In February the odd battered primrose appeared in the garden'. But it blossoms most in the bizarre but alarmingly recognisable characters who do their best to shape poor William's life.

There is Great Aunt Amy, 'a comfortable spinster figure high up in the Girl Guide movement', whose inexplicably unfair will unsettles everyone; Aunt Peg, who grandly chairs committees but lives in unfathomable squalor in Cumberland; and Mother, who roundly curses vegetables slow to boil, but speaks fondly to a plant as she re-pots it: 'How pleased you must be to get into that.' Her great relaxation is to tinker with her fishing tackle and get away from her husband.

This unnamed monster is a magnificent creation. Retired from the Prosecutions Department of the Board of Trade, he exerts a mesmeric power over fictional sons and real reader alike. His pleasures include a meticulous planning of journeys - 'I shall be passing water around the Bishop's Palace' - and the construction of elaborate files on everyone he knows. He revels in local gossip, particularly when disgustingly medical: 'Colonel Cocky's war-wound has started discharging again.' Like Mr Pooter and the paint, he gets carried away by innovations, such as putting castors on everything, so that 'beds now leapt from the walls as you climbed into them'.

Restless and vindictive, he is forever adding to the list of people he hates, including Cockneys, 'homosexualists' and Roman Catholics, who cause him to emit a low growling noise. He is mean, snobbish, selfish and pessimistic, and heaven knows why you grow fond of him. He is a wonderful creation, superbly realised and, we can only hope, based on no real individual but born of Andrew Barrow's fecund imagination. 'Have you ever thought of undertaking as a career?' he asks the demoralised William towards the end, rapidly following up this question with a more solicitous one: 'Would you like me to give you a salt-and-water enema?'