Beyond the fragments

Michael Rosen seeks a story in a tantalising memoir
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The Independent Culture
Flickerbook: an autobiography by Leila Berg, Granta, pounds 15.99

In Reading and Loving, children's author Leila Berg made the outrageous suggestion that parents cuddling children while reading them books fostered literacy. Indeed, the Leila Berg who appeared in public view in the sixties and seventies was full of outrageous suggestions.

In 1968, she made Janet and John own up to their politics. Her own reading scheme, "Nippers", was the first to put early words into the mouths of working-class children and their families.

She got some flak for being vulgar and patronising, but we owe it to Leila Berg that publishers began to take seriously the idea that all children have the right to see their own lives depicted in books.

That same year, 1968, she wrote the post-mortem account of Risinghill Comprehensive School in Kings Cross, London. Nearly 30 years on, you can still turn up at parties and find people snapping at each other about it. When Tory ministers rail against the terrible "progressives" in education of the past, then Leila Berg and the Risinghill head teacher Michael Duane are always in their Rogues' Gallery.

In flickerbook, she has turned to memoir. The style is more James Joyce than Gerard Durrell, as the text begins with glimpses, sensations, misunderstandings and queries. Even by the end, with the outbreak of the second world war and Berg aged around 20, she is still telling her tale in episodes and reveries.

As the little preface reminds us, a "flickerbook" is "a series of sequential pictures. When the book is flicked through, you get the illusion of a moving picture." So this autobiography is even more shadowy than most.

Aunts and uncles appear unannounced; one of them has written a play that will be acted in by Sybil Thorndike. Even some family acquaintances of mine put in a fleeting appearance - sadly, a bit too briefly to satisfy. Leila Berg's father spends most of the book glaring and scowling at her. The only reason offered to us is someone explaining to young Leila that she had a baby brother who died. So we have to do quite a bit of our own surmising in this book.

The setting for most of it is Salford, but not the Salford of Albert Finney. This is Jewish Salford, with Hebrew Class outings, Bobbie Goller's barrels of pickled herrings in the sitting room, and Yiddish used as a code beyond the reach of the children.

The family's destiny is on the up: the unfriendly father has gone from being a teacher to a doctor. Coinciding with Leila's scholarship to Manchester High School, the family moves into a larger house in a posher area.

Berg shows herself as a curious but unsatisfied child. No one explains what's going on. When her mother squashes a flea on the bedsheet, young Leila thinks that a flea is the black smudge left behind afterwards. Harold Lloyd becomes something medical: a "haroloid".

She is told by school friends that her kind drink baby's blood. (A story alive and well, I can report, on the 253 bus in London not six months ago, coming from two young black Christian fundamentalists.) When one of Leila's school friend has a pen-pal in Germany (after 1933), there is a well-meant flutter and scare but no one thinks things are worth explaining in full to these children. As we flick through these episodes, we can perhaps feel here the guiding hand of Leila Berg, giving us a "moving picture": her coherent stance on children's liberation.

Through 1934 to 1936 she becomes a more political and sexual creature. She responds to events in Germany and to her older brother's friends as theycome back from Cambridge University. In fact, there is a touch of Wilhelm Reich's sexual politicsl running through the book.

It begins with Leila as an infant finding a pleasant place between her legs, through to her having several lovers among the comrades in the Communist Party. Two of them die in Spain while others - rather absurdly, she suggests - propose marriage almost immediately after the first bonk.

It's a sensual, musing account, that often suggests rather than reports. Yet each flick of the page finds Leila Berg claiming things for her own: her sexuality, her right to question her parents, or not to be directed along their tramlines, or to talk the way she wants to, or to learn what she wants. I'm not quite sure that we ever find out exactly why she is like this, but we certainly feel it.