Memoir is an odd genre, and increasingly popular, yet we don't seem entirely sure what it's for. Excluding the "celebrity" memoir (and though there have been moments of celebrity in Griff Rhys Jones's life, he is not a celebrity), there are books that take the form of memoir while achieving something altogether more profound. Recent years have seen a flowering of this form. Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Andrew Collins's Where Did It All Go Right?, and Jeremy Harding's Mother Country all address far wider questions of origin and childhood. Darker and more complex memoirs, such as Lorna Sage's Bad Blood and Elizabeth Speller's The Sunlight on the Garden, set honest and often disturbing self-revelation against broader issues of politics, war and deracination.
Rhys Jones's book is more of a sentimental journey than any of these. In some ways, all memoir must be at core sentimental, since it addresses that most unaddressable of all things, the writer's own past. Yet, as we Baby Boomers grow into middle age and beyond, we seem to feel a collective instinct to re-examine our individual and collective histories. We are the first truly self-invented generation, and have brought upon ourselves a maelstrom of social and technological change. Nothing is as we found it; and perhaps we now feel the dawning of, if not wisdom, at least the instinct towards wisdom. The question we may be asking is posed by Rhys Jones's and my contemporary at university, the late Douglas Adams, in Last Chance to See: is everything we have no more than the shadows cast by what we have lost?
Though the question is never explicitly asked (or answered) in Semi-Detached, it hovers behind his account of growing up not, perhaps, in the semi-detached suburbia his title suggests (his father was a secure, if unambitious, Essex physician), but certainly in an England semi-detached and suburban to its very soul. In a sense - I think, an honourable sense - Rhys Jones uses his fame (and the curiosity that it provokes) to draw us into what is, in many ways, an account of a rather ordinary life. One, it's true, of some degree of media stardom; and one that has delivered millions of pounds to its hero; but an ordinary life nevertheless. He seems driven by no great creative tides, no terrible hunger for gold, nor even forced into comedy by rage or revenge, but because he thought it seemed like fun.
Like all ordinary lives, this one has its idiosyncracies, its transiting heroes, its mad relations and dicey friends, its barking escapades and helpless yearnings, its lost loves and its warm comforts. And, in the end, he remains a citizen of the not-so-very-lost world of his childhood.
Except when Rhys Jones remembers he is supposedly a funnyman, or when referring to an old chum he feels the duty to boost, Semi-Detached is written with a quiet, gentle eloquence, free of pretension or bombast. His accounts of his father, of his foppish Uncle Ieaun, of rowing off in a dinghy and watching "an oil lamp on the boat reflecting on the water like a connecting thread" are beautifully achieved: "I got back in the dinghy, pulled the thread in and rowed back to the intimacy of the little cabin. It was what my father wanted from it all. He gave that to me."
If we are never entirely sure why he is writing this book, it presents an effective counterbalance to celebrity self-congratulation. The proper study of mankind being Man, this is a fair and unadorned account of the life of a pleasant and diligent chap, with the addition of some good anecdotes. But beneath it all (though I can't be sure whether this is quite what he intended) lies what, perhaps, so many of our generation of self-invented, self-uprooting men would really like to write: an extended love-letter to his father.
Michael Bywater's 'Big Babies' is published by GrantaReuse content