Friday Book: The powerful curse of the famous parent

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The Independent Culture
Father, Dear Father

by Petronella Wyatt

(Hutchinson, pounds 15.99)

THE CHILDREN of famous parents are born with a special curse on their heads. It goes without saying that the fairies usually give them plenty of gifts. But, for many of these children, the curse is more powerful than the blessings. The fear of negative comparison haunts them from the moment they become self-conscious individuals.

At the start of her career, the curse of the famous parent stalked Petronella Wyatt. The world used to sneer that there was nothing to the girl except her father's connections. A decade as one of the leading journalists in the Tory press has put a stop to that. The girl can write. Politics, history, the zeitgeist: she can hold her own against anyone, including her father's ghost.

That said, she is in the wrong career. Her father, a political columnist extraordinaire, was probably to blame. All those years churning out articles for The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator - what a waste of a superb talent! As shows, she has a sense of humour the size of a house. She could be the next Gerald Durrell if someone could persuade her that comedy is as important as politics. There are scenes here with the same laugh-out-loud comic timing as My Family and Other Animals.

Admittedly, the Wyatt household provided rich material. The late Lord Wyatt indeed had a mesmerising talent for making friends with the rich and famous. A Labour MP when there were still toffs in the party, a life peer, the chairman of the Tote, and "The Voice of Reason" in the News of the World, Wyatt had (as they say) an extremely good innings for the son of a prep-school headmaster. He moved effortlessly up the ranks of society and yet, crucially, never sacrificed his individuality. If anything, he became more irascible with each passing year.

Perhaps having his histrionic, Hungarian mother-in-law to stay for 30 years had something to do with it. It was an affair of the heart from the moment they met; each wished to plunge a knife straight into the other's. Grandmama had a curious habit of shouting from her bedroom window, "Help, help, they're trying to murder me." After "they" locked the windows, she made it a practice to throw herself at the mercy of Lord Wyatt's guests, crawling on all fours while groaning, "They are poisoning me."

However, the sympathy that Lord Wyatt might otherwise receive dies crushed beneath the weight of the ritual humiliations that he directed towards his wife and daughter. Under such headings as "Father is ejected from the Uffizi", Petronella Wyatt recounts her life with a man who was a cross between Evelyn Waugh and Bertie Wooster. Whether it was pretending to have seizure on an aeroplane (on account of the bad wine), or jumping off a gondola into the Grand Canal to prove he was no old codger, Lord Wyatt had a Thespian's sense for the dramatic. The more she would plead, "No, father, please", the more determined he would become.

All too often, the drama of the occasion would override his sensitivity or loyalty. Most children dread the arrival of parents at sports day. Petronella had genuine reasons. On one occasion he turned up with Sir Robin Day. The pair placed their chairs on the finishing-line, thereby blocking the race. A stand-off ensued between Lord Wyatt, who said he was there to watch Petronella "win her race", and the games mistress, who loudly told him not to "spoil the hurdles". Just this once, God took pity on Petronella and sent a shower to stop the proceedings.

That she adored her father for all his foibles is abundantly clear. A less robust or talented child might have wilted. Instead, Petronella Wyatt thrived (the fact that her half-brother Pericles is largely missing from the narrative is another story in itself). She met more interesting and successful people during her adolescence alone than most people meet in a lifetime.The anecdotes about Count this and Chancellor that will probably appeal only to a certain kind of reader - and Lord Wyatt covered the same territory in his notorious diary.

has much to recommend it. Petronella Wyatt has a true gift that could develop into something unique. If she continues in this vein, she will have readers for generations to come.

The reviewer's book `Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire' won the 1998 Whitbread Biography Award

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