BOOK REVIEW / Voice of sanity from the suburbs: 'Something in Linoleum' - Paul Vaughan: Sinclair-Stevenson, 17.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
PAUL VAUGHAN, the urbane voice of Radio 4's Kaleidoscope, was a suburban lad squared, a young veteran of both south London and Surrey. His family first lived in Brixton, then in 1934 moved to New Malden, where the population was doubling every decade. The countryside was within walking distance of the Vaughans' new semi. This was supposed to be Arcadia-on-the-bypass but turned out to be instant suburb. There is nothing wrong with London S-something, but New Malden seems to be where Essex Man lived before he reached Essex.

Vaughan's father provides the title of this excellent autobiography: he was a big noise in the office of the Association of Linoleum and Floorcloth Manufacturers. He also took both the Daily and Sunday Express - and took them seriously. During the war he drove around with a loaded pistol in the glove compartment of his Wolseley in case he met any Hun parachutists; a German fighter once strafed the Kingston bypass but dad's trigger finger wasn't quick enough. His war service was confined to putting on his air-raid warden's hat and going out for a drink. He also put in sterling work on the wife of a journalist posted overseas - New Malden Man was not be confused with New Man - and later remarried.

Mrs Vaughan remains more shadowy and gradually drops out of the chronicle altogether. Presumably her son has fonder memories of her; or perhaps she is still alive and knows the address of a smart libel lawyer.

The real star of this autobiography is not Paul Vaughan, as you might expect, but John Garrett, his grammar school headmaster. These days Garrett, who on retirement set up home with one of his former head boys, would be denounced as the Bugger of Suburbia. But in the less prying days of 1935 there were no homophobic suspicions when 33-year-old Garrett started up Raynes Park County School. Its catchment area was undistinguished and so was its area: the Masters' Common Room could look at a factory printing banknotes or at another which churned out fish paste. Yet by 1942 it became, according to a contemporary educationalist, one of the two best institutions in the country.

Vaughan found Garrett uninspiring in the classroom but a fantastic head of school. Teachers were hired for their talent. The novelist Rex Warner was on the payroll. The art teachers were real painters. The woodwork instructor didn't know his adze from his elbow but he was a Balliol man with a first in modern languages. W H Auden, with whom Garrett had edited a poetry anthology, wrote the school song.

T S Eliot was inveigled into presenting prizes on speech day. So many literati popped in that the school felt like the contents page of the New Statesman.

Vaughan's chronicle takes him from school to university to call-up and back to university, stopping just as he escapes from the suburbs. Oxford offered a temporary getout from the Southern Region. There followed five long years of highly suburban employment, exporting pharmaceuticals for a company that made Mother Siegel's Syrup (for dyspepsia) and Dethblo (for ringworm). Then with one bound the hero was free or, as Vaughan puts it, 'one thing led to another . . . and I became a presenter of an Arts programme on the radio'.

He writes with the agreeable fluency of a professional who has handled a lot of words in his time. The suburbs may be great places to leave but they produce wonderful memoirs. Vaughan is a credit to New Malden even if New Malden might not quite see it that way.