BOOK REVIEW / When life is just a growl of Perry's: 'Tricks of Memory' - Peregrine Worsthorne: Weidenfeld, 18.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH I've seen his name in the papers for years, and although I've bumped into - indeed collided with - him, it is hard for me not to think of Pergerine Worsthorne as a fictional character. Someone who urges that blacks be called 'nig-nogs' so they can be part of the English world of jolly nicknames, who says that a meritocracy is unfair because of its cruelty to people without intellect or talent, and who thinks the Holocaust may have been justified after all because a rabbi trod on his wife's toe - surely such a man has been invented solely for the New Yorker's 'There'll Always Be an England' column. Reading his book, though, convinced me not only that Worsthorne does exist but that he is ridiculous and rather pathetic.

His sadly familiar background was one of material dispossession and emotional starvation. His father disappeared early, and the two did not meet 'properly' until Worsthorne was in his twenties. His mother, 'a formidable personality whom it was easier to admire than to love', broke with her Catholic family in order to divorce her first husband and marry a Protestant. Though her new husband was the Governorof the Bank of England, scandalised relatives put an end to cosy Christmases at Windsor with King George and Queen Mary. Nor did the marriage - which Worsthorne and his brother learned about when a servant read them the story in a newspaper - mean greater intimacy at home: in the country, the couple lived in the Governor's house, the two boys in 'a lovely thatched house', with servants, nearby.

Life at boarding school was even lonelier, as well as brutal and presumably hungry: the memoirs are full of references to food, and to a seduction enhanced by 'a beautiful platter piled high with finely sliced Ardennes ham'. (The lady in question inadvertently spoilt the relationship by ordering the wrong dish at dinner: 'There had been an earlier offputting experience of a more intimate kind, too unsavoury to mention, which the sight of the steak tartare suddenly brought back to the surface of my mind.')

As a young journalist in London, Worsthorne was inveigled into renting a house he could ill afford by a conman who illegally sublet it several times, plundered the contents, knocked Worsthorne's teeth out and left him with the bill. This Gulley Jimson-like existence drove Worsthorne into the bedroom of one of the tenants: the result was a pregnancy, a near-fatal abortion and a guilty proposal to what sounds like a mostly wretched 40-year marriage.

The accounts of Worsthorne's hapless living, loving and partygoing are of greater interest than are his dutiful and unproductive encounters with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or the rulers of South Africa - not surprising when 'my heart was not in the job of asking questions . . . the last thing I wanted to be taken for was a nosy parker'. As Worsthorne's columns show, he is not afraid to be flaboyantly rude as a writer but, in person, restrained by gentility, he is a theatrical figure without the nerve to step on stage; no wonder he is nervous about a meritocracy.

This book doesn't entirely remove my distaste for his loony reactionariness - all those nasty imbecilities to influence the impressionable young or justify the incorrigible old. But it does make me revise my opinion of him, much as he changed his mind about Oswald Mosley: 'Not so much evil as frivolous . . . In convincingly demonstrating that he was not a monster he had succeeded only in showing that he was unquestionably a most appalling fool.'

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