Animal Magic: A Brother's Story, By Andrew Barrow

Growing up with the Barrow boys
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The Independent Culture

Quentin Crisp once observed to Andrew Barrow: "Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural. But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd.

Except in appearance. He's the opposite of you." In April 1970, a few days before their wedding, Jonathan Barrow and his fiancée Anita Fielding were killed in a head-on collision while driving in Buckinghamshire. He was just 22, a successful copywriter at J Walter Thompson; she was 23, "traffic-stoppingly beautiful" and worked in PR. The Brompton Oratory, where their wedding was to have taken place, instead became the setting for a joint requiem.

Jonathan was the youngest of five brothers, and Andrew, the next youngest, to whom he was closest, has written a poignant and often very funny memoir of this sadly brief life. He draws on his brother's unpublished novel called The Queue, which was completed only a few days before his death. It is a wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous, scatalogical, with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals. It also has a fascination with violent death and features fatal car crashes, often head-on collisions.

Barrow teases out the origins of this odd work in a closely observed portrait of their childhood and adolescence. Jonathan and Andrew move from the family home, through prep school and Harrow, to Sixties' Chelsea and various attempts to make a living in the lower rungs of show business, in the hotel trade, as writers or painters. They share a variety of obsessions: the masters at Harrow and their school contemporaries, the comedian Tommy Cooper, a raffish, upper-class genealogist neighbour, and the serial killer John Christie.

Jonathan always had strong emotional ties to animals. One of the most striking portrayals in the book is of Gilda, his parents' dachshund, a powerful and cantankerous personality who fascinated Jonathan and whom he transformed into the sexually rapacious and amoral heroine of his novel.

There is a sense of the rivalry between the brothers as well as camaraderie. Animal Magic is as much an indirect autobiography of Andrew Barrow, who very much defined himself in terms of his brother. After his death, Barrow found "for the first time in my life there was a sense of doors opening and possibilities presenting themselves. I found I was liberated by his death. I no longer felt upstaged by him. His death removed some of the shackles of adolescence and family life and cleared the decks for the relationships and projects that came later."

Barrow's previous work includes both novels and social histories. He once said that he wanted his writing to do for the upper-middle classes what Nancy Mitford did for the aristocracy. He certainly seems to be succeeding. His first novel, The Tapdancer, painted a very funny portrait of his flamboyantly eccentric father, and this touching memoir of his brother is an entertaining addition to this work in progress.