BOOK REVIEW / The Huntingdon blues and the grey: Norma: A Biography by Tim Walker, 4th Estate pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
WHEN NORMA MAJOR first appeared outside Number 10, various 'style experts' - battered and frizzle-haired veterans in Lycra tights and violet eyeliner - came on television to sneer: not only was her frock dumpy, she had worn the same one twice. My dear] The press, meanwhile, decided her husband was 'grey'. So pleased were they with this insight that every time his or her name was mentioned in any context, the word 'grey' was appended. At a stroke Mr and Mrs Major had proved themselves not only less snobbish but also less boring than their critics.

Tim Walker's book is admirably sympathetic to its subject, though its pitch is uncertain. He seems at first to be aiming for the genteel end of the women's magazine market. The prose is of a world in which alliances are 'unholy', film stars are 'larger-than-life' and the phrase 'for what seemed an eternity' passes without comment.

In some ways this suits the story of a worryingly shy girl, born in Housman country, educated in south London, with few ambitions beyond sewing and family. As a child Norma desired little but feared much, like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. She was saved by a love of opera, and was taken on as a nanny by the Australian opera singer June Bronhill, who took pity on her bedraggled fan. Norma's heroine was Joan Sutherland, of whom she came, most improbably, to write a biography by the simple expedient of asking her permission.

Addicted to home in Huntingdon and to her children Elizabeth and James, Norma Major is portrayed by Tim Walker as increasingly horrified by her husband's success. Successive jobs took him away for longer periods and disrupted her privacy more and more. In the background of the book is the quiet hiss of a man ascending almost without trace; in the foreground, the anguished face of his wife as the security men's bungalow is erected in the garden and the bullet-proof glass is hammered into place behind the lounge curtains.

When he comes to this part of the story, Walker writes more freely than at first and delivers some interesting opinions, particularly from other politicians' wives such as Judy Hurd and Jane Ashdown. The Majors' marriage is portrayed as strained and unusual, though not exceptionally so by Westminster standards, and it was not tactful to include a photograph of Mr Major's previous girlfriend. But otherwise it is hard to see why Mrs Major should, as is rumoured, have taken exception to this unthreatening account of her life.

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