Books: Notes from childhood

MANCHESTER PIECES by Paul Driver Picador pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Apart from obvious, personal motivations - like ordering the past and getting it all out of your system - authors have tended to justify their memoirs to the world in one of three ways: their actions have been so influential that their thoughts are deemed to be of concern to the general public (as in Our Age by Noel Annan); their personality is of interest because it is uniquely eccentric (like that of Karl Miller, as described in his Rebecca's Vest); or, while being somewhat typical, they nevertheless write about a universal experience they have been through, or type of behaviour they have witnessed, with refreshing originality (And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison comes to mind here).

Paul Driver's first book, Manchester Pieces, self-consciously refuses to place itself neatly in any of these traditional categories, and is presented in the form of a series of essays. Each tells a story, either about Driver himself or about some historical figure with whom Driver subtly hints he has something in common, such as Thomas de Quincey or L S Lowry: they too grew up in and around Manchester, and it is the essence of a Manchester or Salford childhood that is Driver's subject.

This is a wonderful subject. The problem is that Driver doesn't seem entirely happy with its apparent superficial simplicity, which is in fact its main strength. He consequently writes at length on questions concerning memories and memoirs, which are presented, in somewhat convoluted style, as being worthily intellectual and profound - as in the long introduction, when the nostalgic act of remembering is said to create different levels of consciousness or "presentness", which complicate our perception of the world. Once you clear away the rhetorical fog, this is merely like saying that different colours are important because, if all the world were grey, it wouldn't be very stimulating to look at. No doubt that could be said obscurely as well.

There is much of this sort of thing in Manchester Pieces, with the effect of making the reader work hard to get to the genuinely entertaining things, of which there are in fact many. Essentially, Driver is setting himself up as a type, and his memoir is of the third kind described above, though it is always trying to be the second. It traces his progression from a working-class, northern background to grammar school, and finally Oxford.

The opening chapter is particularly enjoyable, exploring with charm and childlike simplicity Driver's discovery of a fumbling sort of sexuality with his mates in the local public lavatory, events amusingly interrupted by the local bobby. And then there are the endless rounds of visits to his extended family: aunts, uncles and cousins are brilliantly brought to life in a way that is both deeply sympathetic and yet never sentimental, while the interiors of their houses are presented in striking, stark imagery.

All this gradually reveals Driver's own quiet, inquisitive personality. He was thought of as the genius of his family, and defined himself as such in musical terms until his arrival at Oxford, when he finally accepted a more endearing role of competent, quirky observer of his immediate world. He switched from the Faculty of Music, where the competition he encountered instantly dispelled any grandiose notions of "genius", to the Faculty of English. Driver's passion for music, however, has stayed with him, and many of the essays here are either directly compared to, or gently mimic, musical patterns. It is a pity that so much of the quiet, rhythmical beauty of this book is undermined by the banging and clashing of more trivial concerns.