He ain't lightweight - he's my brother

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The Independent Online
A BOOK to be published next week intriguingly reveals that had John Major's father not failed a routine eyesight test at the Canadian Embassy in the late Forties, the family would have emigrated to Canada. How differently might history have turned out? Would John now be an investment banker in Winnipeg? Might he have become the leader of the Canadian Conservative Party and presided over its loss of all but two seats in a general election?

The hypothesis of a Canadian Scenario for the British Conservative Party adds new urgency to this latest account of who John Major is and what he might be up to. And interest is fuelled further by the fact that this is the first insider's biography of the Prime Minister. Major Major (Duckworth, pounds 12.95) is the work of Terry Major-Ball, the PM's brother.

The current fuss over the apparent discovery of a long-lost brother of Lord Archer simultaneously reminds us of our fascination with celebrity siblings. Sharing genes but not destiny, these lesser-known chicks from celebrity nests are viewed as clues to their high- profile counterparts. Although experience tells us that families are a lottery, we become stern determinists when faced with the famous. We read Terry Major-Ball's book for what it might reveal about the moulding of his brother's soul. We are encouraged in this because, even after nearly four years as PM, John Major remains an elusive, mysterious figure; the published biographies of him more like police photofits than oil paintings.

Mr Major-Ball's bizarre but charming book is an attempt to be helpful to his brother, and its revealing personal details are few. Apparently German PoWs tried to teach baby John the Nazi salute in his pram in Norfolk until his mother hustled them away: an anecdote which may help his credentials with the Euro-sceptics. And young John put his female pet rabbit together with a friend's male one, and sold the products of this merger: a tale which may earn Brownie points from Tory free-marketeers.

The problem is that the book's revisionist intentions - he ain't lightweight, he's my brother - seem short on evidence. This is most apparent when the First Brother directly tackles the greyness thing. As testament to our kid's vivacity and personality, he tells a story from 1960. Working together in the family garden ornaments business, John and Terry are unable to enter their premises through the gate, which has been damaged by a car. Climbing over the wall, they are apprehended by a mounted policeman. The lads laugh so hard that, Terry reports, 'it was some time before we were able to regain a straight face and explain to his satisfaction about the gates. How I wish the people who say John is a grey man could have seen him then.' Well, perhaps, although it is still hard to imagine Conservative Central Office basing a party political broadcast around the story.

Although it attempts an upbeat respray of young John, the book has a frequently melancholic tone. Terry regrets the direction of Britain. In his childhood, 'we could walk to school in safety. We respected adults and they treated us with respect.' His headmaster 'got the best out of his pupils with discipline, understanding, humour'. Now the BBC is full of vulgar comedians and the 'left- wing Panorama'. Terry was made redundant when his company made cuts.

This is a familiar enough lament these days, to be heard on radio phone-ins and by- election doorsteps. Usually, however, it ends: 'And so I won't be voting for those bloody Tories again . . .' Uniquely, loyally, perhaps genetically, Terry Major-Ball makes no connection between his discontent and his brother's government. We should all give young John another term. 'John has formed his main ideas over a period of many years,' his sibling insists. 'And they are not fleeting fancies of the moment, though how quickly he can implement them may depend on the amount of co-operation he gets.' Tantalisingly, though, Big Brother declines to outline what those ideas might be.

Sibling pride and devotion shine through this volume, but I fear that one of its declared aims - to end press suggestion of curiosities in the Major family background - will not be achieved. The very fact that a memoir of John Major by a blood brother should display on its jacket a completely different surname revives one frequent source of intrigue. Terry does try to straighten out the name business. Abraham Ball (stage name Thomas Major) used different combinations of his name on the birth certificate of each of his three children. Terry and John's sister, Pat, was a hyphenated Major-Ball. The first boy was officially Terry Ball, with 'Major' as his second Christian name. By the time the future PM arrived, the 'Ball' had dropped off, and he was simple John Major, though, to complicate matters, some old biddy at the font seems to have shouted out the middle name 'Roy' against the family's wishes. The author expresses the hope that this clears things up, but I am not sure that it does. A family with such baptismal eccentricities might well develop a name for strangeness.

The Prime Minister's brother also clarifies the career of their father. As well as being a trapeze artist and garden gnome manufacturer - professions which have fed satirists and cartoonists - Abraham (Thomas Major) Ball turns out briefly to have led a faction of the Uruguayan army after losing his passport on a tour there.

Terry Major-Ball suggests that media interest in the PM's exotic father results from English snobbery, a wish to mock him as 'the son of a trapeze artist'. I think, though, that the fascination is more serious and forgivable. The concept of biography assumes a genetic and behavioural coherence. Researching the Kennedy family, we find the foundry of power from which the sons were cast. Reading of Alderman Roberts, we recognise character and values transmitted to his daughter, Margaret. Yet - learning of Abraham (Thomas Major) Ball - we are struck only by the lack of fit between father and son; we are faced with a conundrum of non-inheritance. The showman begat the public stumbler, Technicolor genes replicated themselves as greyness. Jokes about Major as a son of the circus are the humour not of snobbery but of improbability.

His oddly incoherent personality adds to the air of doubt around Major - who is he? What is his purpose? - which has led some to claim that he is an alien or a foreign national. Mr Major-Ball's tender memoir assures us that he is neither, but the questions about Britain's mysterious leader will not, I think, be ended by this book by the brother with a different surname.