Nowt so queer as an old queer

NEVER A NORMAL MAN: An Autobiography by Dan Farson, HarperCollins pounds 20

There is a dour old Scots saying, honed to a double edge: "I kent his faither." Implicit in this gnomic statement is the dilemma that the son is judged by the old man's reputation, for good or ill. Dan Farson is the son of the distinguished journalist and writer Negley Farson (about whom he writes with affection and understanding). His own journalistic and authorial career, therefore, is shadowed by that of Farson senior. And it is also overshadowed by his own reputation as a sexual reprobate and spectacular drunk.

If "sexual reprobate" strikes us nowadays as offensive, particularly in terms of homosexuality, it is justified by Farson's title for his autobiography - Never A Normal Man - which seems particularly incongruous in the aftermath of The Normal Heart, the Larry Kramer play which helped to close perceived differences between gay and straight life and love. But Dan Farson is an old-fashioned, unreconstructed queer - even though that word, since its rehabilitation by gay activists, makes him sound too modern. Farson is not ideologically or actively part of the post-Stonewall generation of gay men. Rather, he is a hangover from the Victim Generation, a bit-part player in the demi-monde of pre-Wolfenden West End homosexuality. The tendency then was for toffs and haut-bohemian punters to pick up bits of rough, sailors, Guardsmen or gangsters, mostly heterosexual, and to idealise their drunken violence and sexual opportunism in a romantic haze of alcohol and sentiment.

Though he was one of the first to colonise Docklands, before low-life loft living became fashionable, Farson's attitude was, and remains, one of winkle-picking gaiety, a Joan Littlewood knees-up jollity, in Limehouse or on the Isle of Dogs, where he ran of one of the last pub music halls - built it up and ran it into the ground. This is the autobiography of a Nearly Man - nearly a distinguished documentary -maker, nearly a music- hall impresario, nearly a famous journalist, nearly a best-selling author, nearly a brilliant photographer, but in the end a dilettante. Being an artistic all-rounder can occasionally pay off, though: note the coincidence of Farson's being once a neighbour of Cecil Beaton in Pelham Crescent. Beaton, far from being a dilettante, was the antithesis of Farson - always narrowly focused, ruthlessly ambitious, prepared to ditch love in favour of career. But the result was much the same: both end up disappointed in old age, in lonely, remote retreat from London and metropolitan life and gossip.

Farson's autobiography is a jar of pickles. Put in a hand and pull out that old meanie Somerset Maugham; the doyenne of the Colony Room, Muriel Belcher; the journalist Beverly Nichols; that prissy queen Godfrey Winn, disrespectfully known as "Winifred God"; Brendan Behan, perpetually in his cups; Caitlin Thomas playing up on live television and being faded out; Henry Williamson in sad old age; Kenneth Tynan at his most dandyish; John Osborne, both mild and bitter; and just about everybody else from Sloane Square to Soho, from the French Pub to the Ivy.

Everyone has a terrible friend - some of us have several, and some of us are someone else's terrible friend. Farson had John Deakin, the sometime Vogue photographer, referred to occasionally as his "evil genius". That seems to be pushing it a bit, since there is no Mephistopheles without a corruptible Faust. Not that Deakin offered Farson anything - it is interesting to note that the Devil never pays for his own drinks.

There is a faint smell of must, of the dead, sour grape, about these reminiscences; though, to his credit, Farson in this book manages to maintain the tone of Archy the cockroach, amanuensis and soda-water sermoniser to himself in his earlier persona, the Farson who adopted Mehitabel the cat's high-stepping attitude when she comes home bedraggled with her tail between her legs, given the bum's rush from her high-tone ambitions. "Toujours gai, toujours gai," Mehitabel would say, tottering along the back alleys in search of a fish head or a dish of cream after another disappointing night on the tiles.

After too many disappointing nights on the tiles, Farson gives us a number of lively set-pieces, but many - particularly those featuring Francis Bacon - are spent fireworks, reconstructed from previous writings. One would rather have had more of the interview with James Baldwin, say, referred to but not pursued, than the regaling of Bacon's gutter life (though it was worth telling the story about Margaret Thatcher at a Bacon private view). We could also have done with more, please, about Farson's private life: he skates too lightly over his last substantial relationship, with a young blond named Peter Bradshaw - with whose widow he has remained close friends in retirement.

Farson's has been a life measured in bar-room optics, a rattle-bag of gossip, entertaining and lively. Thankfully, he has taken his cue from Mr Song, the Chinese chef at Wheeler's who, when Lucian Freud made a point of always asking him how he was, invariably replied, "Mustn't grumble".

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