Books: Soldiers, sailors and airheads

There's more to life than dropped names, says Michael Arditti; Never a Normal Man by Daniel Farson, HarperCollins, pounds 25

In his early days at Picture Post, Daniel Farson photographed Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell. This breathless account of the myriad people, places and careers (among them critic, biographer, TV reporter, pub owner and merchant seaman) he has packed into his 70 years would prompt that forbidding character's most reproving reference to "a life crowded with incident", even as her creator was greeting a fellow-diner at the panthers' feast.

In the art of being in the right place at the right time, Farson is a Michelangelo. As the son of a celebrated American journalist, he had an early brush with fame and infamy when Gandhi visited his London home and Hitler patted his head in Munich. Evacuated to Chicago in 1940, he was taken by Somerset Maugham to spend a weekend with his lover's lover; walking into the French pub in Soho, he was instantly befriended by John Deakin and Francis Bacon; he even contrived to be sailing down the Volga and suspected of spying during the coup against Gorbachev.

He drops names at a rate which would not disgrace Dempster's diary. As a parliamentary correspondent, he was chased down Westminster corridors by Tom Driberg; as an undergraduate editor, he commissioned Kenneth Tynan. He discussed film-making with Orson Welles in Paris, the crucifixion with Dali in Spain and was treated to a very laboured pun on his "behind" by Noel Coward.

Politicians too came within his orbit. Lady Thatcher prodded his chest to illustrate her credo "See, see, see; learn, learn, learn", while his association with Jeremy Thorpe almost led to his arrest in the Norman Scott case. He flitted from East End low-life (the Krays provided him with "Mad Teddy" Smith as a minder) to Hollywood high life (organising Judy Garland's birthday party). And that is not to mention Colin Wilson, Caitlin Thomas, Joan Littlewood, old Aunty Diana Cooper and all.

His most sustained claim to fame is as a denizen of Soho and a modern Vasari to artists from John Minton and Lucian Freud to Gilbert and George and Damien Hirst. His closest association, however, was with Francis Bacon. Much of what he writes on Bacon has appeared elsewhere, although it is salutary to discover that even such a privileged eye can fail - as when he congratulated David Sainsbury on a Bacon portrait of his father, only to be informed, stiffly, that it was his mother.

There is not much evidence that his current retirement in Devon has left any time for reflection. On the contrary: despite the initial promise that, because he has no family to embarrass, he is discarding reticence, he engages in little introspection and less self-revelation. He is happy to discuss Francis Bacon's masochism but - apart from revealing that he belonged to a world where AC/DC meant "he liked soldiers and sailors" - he tells us very little about his own affairs. It's a strange lacuna given a concluding admission that sexuality has ruled his life. Likewise, he discusses his father's alcoholism, while merely reporting his own penchant for two or three bottles of spirits a day.

Ultimately, both the strength and weakness of these memoirs rests in the fact that Farson is, primarily, a photographer: a profession that has become almost a fictional shorthand for the moral vacuum at the heart of great events. What he provides is a series of vivid snapshots, devoid of any attempt to set them in a broader context. The blessing is that he has had such fascinating subjects in front of his lens.

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