Days from a Different World, by John Simpson

A wealth of memories from an age of austerity
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The Independent Culture

His prodigious power of recall has a simple cause, as he sees it: unhappiness shocked him into early consciousness. His first memory, aged one, is of his mother leaving his father for the first time. From then until he was seven, when his parents irrevocably parted, his life was overshadowed by the terrible knowledge that though he loved both his parents and they both loved him, they did not love one another.

Theirs was a misconceived wartime marriage and Johnny, as he was known, was their solitary child. He did have a half-brother and a half-sister as his mother, considerably older than his father, had been married before and widowed. But the children were rarely together and Johnny's early years were marked by loneliness, compounded by being kept out of school (illegally) until his father could afford to place him in a suitable, fee-paying school.

It is never entirely clear why his parents were so incompatible, though at one point Simpson concedes that his father may have been bisexual. All his mother ever seems to have said about him was that he was "impossible". It cannot have helped that in the aftermath of the Second World War, Roy Simpson could get work only as an ill-paid door-to-door salesman. This was a big comedown, because his grandfather's firm had literally built most of the London suburb of Norwood. Eventually, Roy would make good, long after his marriage had failed.

Days from a Different World contains a rich seam of family history, mainly on his father's side. Simpson's account of how the First World War destroyed his great-uncle Harold is particularly poignant, but it is only one of many vivid vignettes and character studies of eccentric relatives. The title reflects its artful structure, by which Simpson focuses on a single day in each year between 1943 (when his parents met and married, and he was conceived) and 1951 (when they split up and he had to choose between them).

It is simultaneously a personal memoir and an impressionistic history of Britain at the point at which she lost an empire and much great-power status, though this would not become fully apparent for several years. This wider history may lack the intensity of the private story, but Simpson's reporter's eye invariably fixes on some telling detail to save it from banality in an unusual and thoughtful book.

Tony Gould's latest book is 'Don't Fence Me In' (Bloomsbury)