Book Review / Swann's Way to Salford and Failsworth

Manchester Pieces by Paul Driver Picador, pounds 15.99

In the part of Salford where I grew up it was always either Light Oaks Park or Oakwood Park, quite distinct in character though separated by only a few hundred yards, and forming a fundamental dualism in my mind, my homely version of Proust's archetypal choice between Swann's and the Guermantes' ways. Broadly, Light Oaks Park was maternal, Oakwood the opposite."

This is classic bad writing in the most approved, up-to-date style. It hits us on the head with allusions. Proust makes a good short cosh, but "Proust's archetypal choice", incorporating a Jungian buzz, is sensational. We are wowed by "fundamental dualism" before male and female elements are mutually opposed, exactly as psychiatry has taught chatterers to chat. Finally he grovels: "My homely version of Proust's archetypal choice". We talk Proust you see, but we're not proud.

Four bits of nicely-polished one-upmanship and a deft little cringe, all in under 60 words, will scare the bookies, but such archness in an account of Manchester is something else. I don't think they reckon much to fundamental dualism in Failsworth...

There is merit in Manchester Pieces, the merit of intelligence and sensitivity. Mr Driver has put together a clutch of essays and essayettes to convey personal autobiography - being a child among aunts and uncles, finding a talent for music (much the best thing in the book) and random accounts of great men seen fleetingly (Barbirolli, Anthony Burgess) or thought about portentously (Thomas De Quincy). The whole wispy ensemble is linked by the single theme of having something to do with Manchester.

Where Mr Driver stays with the family - Grandma seen through admiring childish eyes and resentful adult ones, Uncle Dick with his obsessions and dedicated immobility - he keeps up interest and attraction. When he talks about violin practice, grasping the point of vibrato and breaking through to a world of youth orchestras, he is talking as a decent technician lapped with unaffected enthusiasms. But when he goes literary, he goes phoney. Take his introductory fanfare:

"Inasmuch as the names of cities mean anything Manchester is a city a breast-like hill Mamucium a Roman breast later Manigeceastre Mamecestre a Norman breast and even eventually Madchester which is more like city built on a tilt a city of nightclub obsession pop music ecstasy crack the latest thing for Manchester has been doing many things though during the Middle Ages it was pretty much nothing marking time nicely with a flourishing trade in wool." And so on for 2500 words, without full stop, comma or apostrophe, of cod Molly Bloom spattered with psychiatrist's smut.

The worst of Manchester Pieces wears its knowingness like a T-shirt and has damn-all to do with Manchester. The best, in "Avatars of Genius" records him trying to keep up with John Clayton, a more dazzling music student, getting sniffy about Shostakovich for being too conservative and, at Oxford, being touchingly stricken with disbelief in the musical talent which had buoyed him up for seven years and brought him there. It is fine, endearing and real. But in "Parks in Parenthesis", he strikes up with that archetypal witterer, John Berger and says "A park is partly a field and a field is what? What defines a field - or a forest: the fence that bounds it or something more integral, more conceptual?"

The difficulty is that the author's style - Arts Council-ingratiating - does not fit his subject. There is an historic Manchester of riots and night schools, native Wesleyanism and immigrant Catholicism, the Jews and the Germans and their music and science - the Manchester which Engels lit upon and the Manchester Guardian before it went south.

Although it would sustain a fascinating book, one doesn't require Mr Driver to write about it. But neither was there a need, under Manchester colours, to drift self-consciously through a gauze jungle of interesting reminiscence and abominable affectation.

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