Complete Surrender, by Dave Sharp
Another child in his time
Friday 08 August 2008
Like those cowboy films that only kick into gear when the tall, lantern-jawed stranger strides retributively towards the dangling double doors of the saloon, so Complete Surrender has to wait until the 15th of 23 chapters for anything momentous to happen. This is not to deny the human interest of Dave Sharp's saunter through his Thames Valley childhood, and a married life that began as the Swinging Sixties burst into bloom. But it is not until the author wanders into an Oxfordshire wine bar in early 2002 to meet his long-lost brother, Ian McEwan, that a succession of money shots start to snap reliably into place.
The parentage of the brothers McEwan, confirmed to both by a Salvation Army lieutenant shortly before the meeting, crashed into the newspapers last year. Younger sibling Ian (born 1948) had always assumed he was the solitary fruit of his mother's second marriage to an army sergeant-major, David McEwan, after her first husband, Ernest Wort, died in action in the Second World War. In fact there was another son, born out of wedlock in 1942, while Wort was away on military service, his birth concealed from his putative father and wiped from the family slate by his transfer – on Reading station – to a couple who had replied to an advert in the local paper.
It is an extraordinary story, yet one of the inferences both from Sharp's memoir and his brother's thoughtful introduction is that most family histories, if investigated, will turn out to have these bygone wraiths capering mournfully in the woodshed. As for Sergeant-Major McEwan's separated sons (the sub-title about "a family's dark secret and the brothers it tore apart at birth" is misleading; how can you tear apart two people who don't know of each other's existence?), Ian enjoyed a peripatetic childhood, courtesy of his dad's army postings, went to a state boarding school and university and became a distinguished novelist. Dave worked as a bricklayer, supports Reading FC and has a weakness for the mildly sarky aside.
As a piece of drama, Dave's slow but purposeful trip along a path to the half-brother and sister of his mother's first marriage, wide-eyed Ian and even old Mrs McEwan (sadly in no state to recognise him) shortly before her death in 2004, can hardly fail, even if some of the dialogue clunks like a wicker gate. But what about the story of Dave's life, that series of contrasts and comparisons on which, after all, the book relies on for its ballast? This is full of fascinating detail: the privations of the Fifties childhood redeemed by its elemental freedoms; the hospital matron who, as the young father quits the premises with wife and newborn child, snaps: "Remember, six weeks – don't be an animal".
Yet the lurking presence of the amanuensis, in this case John Parker, stirs faint unease about the purity of some of the memories on display. Did Sharp's recollections of, say, Churchill's funeral or the Moon landings spill unchecked onto the page or were they prompted, however indirectly, by his ghost?
There is, of course, another book waiting to be written about l'affaire McEwan. More than one critic has noted that McEwan's novels are simply stiff with children who have either been abandoned (The Cement Garden) or vanished from their parents' grasp (The Child in Time), and hazarded the existence of a vast reservoir of "secret" knowledge periodically escaping from its mental vault. This will probably take a psychologist to construct. In the meantime, Complete Surrender is an intriguing social document.
DJ Taylor's 'Bright Young People' is published by Chatto & Windus
JOHN BLAKE £17.99 (256PP) £16.29 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 3 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 4 Motorists taunt suicidal woman on bridge and tell her to 'get on with it'
- 5 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
Church of Scientology allegedly sent threatening letters to film distributors and festivals showing damning documentary
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
Chris Moyles reportedly set to make radio comeback with new breakfast show on XFM
Contemporary art is a fraud, says top dealer
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture