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".

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas