Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson

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The Independent Culture

Most of us think our childhoods were odd or our parents more eccentric than most. I recently gave a talk as part of a course on memoir and biography writing and almost every single one of the participants was incubating a book on the curious world in which they'd grown up. If they need a model, they would struggle to do better than Brian Thompson's Keeping Mum. His upbringing truly was bizarre, while the way he tells it, the adult writer merging seamlessly with the bare-kneed, innocent observer, is flawless.

Whatever had first attracted them to each other (and it isn't very clear), his parents, Peggy and Bert, had been driven apart by the war. He went off to the RAF and got ideas above his station. She was left alone with her young son Brian in a house in Cambridge, miles from London where she'd grown up, drinking, smoking and fooling around with Americans. When peace came, war broke out between the reunited couple and endured ever after.

"The weekends we spent together were purgatory. My father discovered a yard which sold American war surplus, from which he bought entrenching tools, musette bags, strange little flashlights and brown kapok-filled bedcovers. 'You both like the Yanks so much, you can keep yourselves warm in these,' he muttered, throwing them in the dining room... When he was on his theme, my mother would walk out in the garden and sit at the very end smoking. Her perch was the huge pile of chalk he had dug out in the days before he volunteered. If she had enough cigarettes, she would stay out there long after dark, whether it was raining or not. He would send me out to coax her in. I never succeeded... Of the two models offered to me - my father's searing ambition, my mother's empty heart - hers was the more attractive. Sitting out in the garden half the night, struck blue with cold, seemed to have a heroic nihilism about it. It was frightening; but as a commentary on our general situation, poetic."

The drama is small-scale, suburban and told without self-pity, psychobabble or bitterness. Often Thompson manages to make you laugh out loud at an incident that, when you reflect on it, is truly chilling. It is the genius of the book - events told as if ordinary but simultaneously extraordinary, humour masking what today would be labelled child abuse, the personal always opening up into the general as the author goes through the landmarks of every adolescence, touches on the agony of every damaged childhood, and recalls the paraphernalia that cluttered every 1950s home.

There is, for example, his first school dance, where his mother unexpectedly drags herself from her bed and to his horror makes a late entrance, walks straight across the floor to the headteacher and puts in an eye-popping exhibition (in the best sense) of how to do the quickstep. Thompson is both horrified and scintillated. "Whoever that bloke is, he knows how to dance," she tells her son afterwards. "He's the headmaster," he replies. "Yeah?" she says, blowing smoke distractedly at the ceiling.

At such moments she sounds great, but then other people's parents often do when you don't have to live with them. Thompson has, by this stage, stumbled into the local grammar school almost without knowing it. Certainly his parents were in the dark. In some ways this memoir is a tribute to RA Butler's 1944 Education Act. Whatever the manifest failings of a system that selected and discarded at 11, for some lucky ones from homes where the possibilities offered by education were just unimagined the chance to go to a grammar school was a godsend.

Without it, Thompson might well have lived up to the ideas his parents had for his future. His mother had him down as a model for knitting patterns or the before bit of before-and-after advertisements for chest expanders. His father insisted that he got a proper job when he'd finished his "O" Levels in the Post Office - his own alma mater. It took a home visit from Thompson's headmaster to redirect him to the Sixth Form which then led to university and a career as an author, playwright and documentary maker.

Much material there, no doubt, for volume two, but it can't possibly match what is here. It was the sort of childhood that by any contemporary standards should have left Thompson appallingly damaged, but not so you'd know from the text. At a time when the merest mishap in childhood is considered sufficient cause later for years of self-exploration with a shrink as to why your parents didn't love you enough to take you ski-ing, this book is evidence of children's capacity not only to survive and thrive, but also to look back and laugh.