BOOK REVIEW / Ten years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery: Stand before your God - Paul Watkins: Faber, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
AFTER reading Cyril Connolly's reminiscences of Eton in Enemies of Promise, George Orwell expressed astonishment that 'cultured middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public school education - five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery - can actually be looked back upon as an eventful period'.

That was in 1940. Fifty years on the question is whether that softness is so endemic that Paul Watkins's boarding school memoir will be treated with respect rather than derision. At the age of seven, Watkins went to the Dragon school (a prep school in Oxford) and then, four years later, to Eton. Events at the Dragon follow a familiar pattern: bed-wetting, nicknames, sad housemasters, games, beatings, naughtiness, holidays and prepubescent groping. At Eton, it is less of the same and more cigarettes plus drugs, expulsions and the obligatory trip from Slough to Soho in search of virginity loss.

Paul has an especially hard time of it at the Dragon because he is an American. This gives the book its unique transatlantic perspective (ie, football is called soccer).

The version of the English class system that the disadvantaged Watkins elaborates for himself is the familiar one about old families and hidden social codes. Outsiders become lost in the intricacies of etiquette and gesture 'and looked foolish'. There is actually nothing more foolish than falling for this Upstairs Downstairs idea of the ruling class. The important point is that all these niceties are predicated on an underlying bed of wealth that determines the fabric of social life so thoroughly as to invest these touches with their defining power.

The limitation of insight is indicative of a more general reliance on accessories. Watkins dutifully lists the various crazes that punctuate school life: sweets, marbles, Action Men, Airfix models. 'Big Treb marbles and two-year-old radiator-hardened horse-chestnuts used for playing conkers' could play their part in the vibrant cross-hatching of daily life; but, throughout, these and other details are merely itemised and ticked off. In the best writing it is not only characters but also objects that acquire an independent existence; those in Stand Before Your God remain exhibits.

To an extent the problem is generic. Constantly lulling the author into the habitual past - on Saturdays we would do this, on Sundays we would do that - the memoir's poor narrative posture can only be corrected by the same concentration, precision and imaginative pressure that Watkins has brought to bear on his novels. Watkins's failure to grasp this lends an ironic touch to the book's sub-title: 'Growing up to be a writer.'

One might wonder if Watkins, at the age of 29, isn't rather young to be writing his memoirs. With four novels already under his belt, however, such an undertaking is characteristically precocious rather than premature. We can now see how the boyhood fascination with war and adventure fed directly into his novels. Even as a child Watkins butches it out, getting footballs and fists in the face, always referring to his stomach as his guts. Toughing up the prose in this way - like whisky, the schoolboys' paper at Dragon costs '2p a shot' - and cutting the text up into one- and three-line paragraphs cannot disguise the fact that there is not an interesting sentence in the book.

Early days at school rely on that aged formula of bewildered, exaggerated wonder: 'Three red marks and he'd give you a chocolate bar. They were big bars, too, and he had a box with all different kinds.' His humour depends on the same mechanical exaggeration. 'When (my father) heard that my name was Watty Dog, he laughed so much, he almost drove through the front door of a big thatched-roof house.' Ultimately, then, the interesting thing about Stand Before Your God is that it reveals what all the action and adventure of Watkins's novels tempts us to forget: how dull a writer he grew up to be.

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