Christmas Books Special: Autobiographies reviewed

Fathers and (mostly) sons
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The Independent Culture

"The three essentials for an autobiography", said P G Wodehouse, "are that its compiler shall have an eccentric father, a miserable misunderstood childhood and a hell of a time at his public school". If public schools are not quite as prevalent in contemporary memoir as they used to be, eccentric fathers still seem to rule the roost. Perhaps it's part of the complex genetic/environmental mix that makes that strange and unnatural creature, the writer.

"Writer" might not be top of the list of words you might use to describe Sharon Osbourne, whose autobiography, Extreme (Time Warner, £18.99), has been dominating the bestseller charts for weeks. "I know I have as much raw talent as a fucking lobster," she confesses in her prologue, "but at least I'm working hard". As a writer, she doesn't need to have much talent - or indeed vocabulary - because her life, splurged straight on the page, could hardly fail to fascinate. The "Extreme" of the title doesn't begin to cover the excesses of a life as daughter of a mafia-modelled agent and wife of a drug-fuelled bat-biting rock legend. Osbourne's account of a childhood that vacillated wildly between rags and riches, punctuated by tea with the Krays and fear of the bailiff's boots, and of an adulthood with a "soulmate" who regularly drank and drugged himself to oblivion and once tried to strangle her, makes for a compelling, if expletive-riddled read.

Miles Kington's father was neither violent nor corrupt, but he was certainly unusual. So unusual, in fact, that it's not hard to locate the source of his son's near-genius for surreal comedy. Day in, day out, in the pages of this newspaper, Kington produces a nugget of sparkling prose that remains, after all these years, a testament to the tireless ingenuity of its creator. From his book, Someone Like Me, (Headline, £16.99), it's clear that ingenuity is something of a Kington trait. Kington senior was, it seems, employed as first a German and then a British spy, had a pathological fear of wardrobes and compulsion to invent gadgets, including a new kind of saddle which led, not quite seamlessly, to a minimal, and mortifying, dose of sex education. From this material, his surreally unreliable narrator son shapes a memoir that's as funny as you'd expect.

Slightly less funny than you might expect is Alan Bennett's Untold Stories (Profile/Faber, £20), his first major prose collection since the bestselling Writing Home. Bennett is a fabulous writer, of course, pretty much peerless in his cream-cracker-under-the-carpet deadpan delivery and self-deprecating charm. But deadpan delivery is a hard thing to sustain over 600 pages. Bennett's butcher father and obsessive housewife mother lived in a state of terrified seclusion from the world, locked safely away from "small talk, Buddhism" and "sausages-on-sticks". His account of his mother's spiral into depression and his father's daily vigil at the hospital with a flask of tea, and of his own experience of a cancerous tumour the size of "an average rock bun", is often moving and frequently funny. It is, however, best taken in small doses - the kind of doses, in the London Review of Books and elsewhere, in which it was originally published. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being, like the "speculative" biography of Bennett that appeared in 2001, "kind but dull".

John McGahern couldn't be dull if he tried. His first novel, The Barracks, drew heavily on his childhood as the son of a police seargent in rural Ireland, but it's clear from his memoir, actually called Memoir (Faber, £16.99), that it offered a portrait of a father considerably nicer than his own. When his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, McGahern begged God to spare her. "I'd be waiting for you all in heaven", his mother tells him, but McGahern protests. "God has lots in heaven" he yells, "I have nobody". Nobody, that is, except his brutal, violent, erratic father, who spent the remaining years of his offsrping's childhood raging at John and his cowering siblings. McGahern survived to produce a memoir as searingly moving as any of his novels.

If Nobel prize winner Elias Canetti had children, he doesn't refer to them in his account of his London years, Party in the Blitz (Harvill, £17.99, translated by Michael Hofmann), now published for the first time in English. You can't help thinking that it's probably just as well. His portraits of key figures in his life in London during the war - T S Eliot, Vaughan Williams, Bertrand Russell and Iris Murdoch, among others - are certainly entertaining, but almost breathtaking in their coldness and cruelty. No wonder John Bayley called him "the god-monster of Hampstead".

It's something of a relief to turn to Climbing the Mango Trees (Ebury, £18.99), Madhur Jaffrey's charming and evocative account of a childhood in Delhi in the bosom of her autocratic grandfather's extended family. As you might expect from one of the world's leading authorities on Indian food, it's full of the tastes and smells of India, and of the foods and drinks consumed by a family that's "a hybrid,...Hindu by origin but heavily veneered with Muslim culture and English education".

There are, of course, other approaches to memoir than the chronological prose narrative. Penelope Lively, who grew up in Egypt, could have written a Jaffrey-type account of strange customs, foods and culture clashes, of pergolas and rose-beds among the eucalyptus and palm trees. Instead, she has chosen to write "an anti-memoir", a "form of confabulation" which explores, in fictional form, the alternative stories that could have taken place at any point in her life. The result, Making it Up (Viking, £16.99), is intriguing and well done. Also intriguing, and beautifully done, is Michael Rosen's autobiographical prose poem, In the Colonie (Penguin, £7.99). Completing a trilogy of poetic memoirs, it focuses on his upbringing in a secular left-wing Jewish family and on themes of identity and belonging. Profoundly idiosyncratic, it is also quietly funny and, at times, very moving.

Perhaps most moving of all, and certainly most shocking, is Bernard Hare's Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew (Sceptre, £14.99). A former social worker, Hare was living as a drug-fuelled drifter on a Leeds council estate when he met Urban, an illiterate 12-year old and his friends, the "shed crew". "No one cares about us" , ten-year-old Pixie tells him."All the grown ups are out of it. We're on our own." These children, who spend their time in a subhuman haze of sex, crack and violence, would kill for an eccentric father, for any father, in fact. Instead, they have been abandoned by their parents, abandoned by social services, abandoned by everyone. Hare is no McGahern, but his book has real raw power. Every politician - and every voter - should read it.