Happy Christmas Eve! It seems the right time for a Slightly Foxed memoir – and another Reading Presently candidate, since this book was a birthday present from Mum and Dad.
|This was supposed to look festive…
…not like I’m about to burn it.
Slightly Foxed are, as I’ve mentioned before, utterly dependable when it comes to insightful, moving, and often rather laced with nostalgia – albeit invariably for a past I have not myself experienced. The two-for-one set of memoirs by Denis Constanduros gives an interesting spectrum of childhood experience and reflections – although also something of a self-contradictory portrait.
When the good people of Slightly Foxed were sorting out a reprinting of Constanduros’s My Grandfather (first published in 1948) they discovered that there was an unpublished sequel of sorts – yes, you’ve guessed it, Father, Dear Father – both of which were read on the radio in the 1980s. They are very different creatures.
My Grandfather is, as it sounds, a depiction of Denis’s grandfather – centre of his home, where myriad women (his wife, sisters-in-law, maid, housekeeper, cook, and daughter) fit in with his ideal of the home – the only other male being Denis. In the hands of a tyrant, this household would have been miserable – but Grandfather could scarcely be less of a tyrant, at least through the eyes and memory of Denis. Through this lens, Grandfather is the jolliest, most amenable man imaginable. Good-nature and kindness line his every thought, as do childlike delight – even if it is for hunting. He is a creature of routine, and Denis’s documenting of Grandfather’s weekly meetings with a lifelong friend, and the conversations they repeat every time, is really rather lovely.
It was lashings of cosiness and niceness, filled with character and vim (it is no coincidence, surely, that Grandfather loved Dickens dearly). And then everything changes when we get onto Father, Dear Father. Unlike the first memoir, it isn’t really a portrait of a single man – indeed, I came away from reading it with very little idea what Father was like, except that he liked sports and thin-lipped masculinity.
The book is quite sad and sombre, even when describing eventful days and happy occasions – you can tell, throughout, that Constanduros did not have an easy relationship with his father, and it didn’t come as a great surprise when it was revealed, towards the end, that he didn’t see his father after he was a boy – at least not until shortly before Father died. The most curious scene is the one shortly before Constanduros’s parents get divorced – he seems to believe, still, that it was related to a practical joke that went awry. The scene is given – seemingly unintentionally – through the uncertain and fragile eyes of a child who mixes up causality and thinks himself in some way to blame for his parents’ incompatibility.
I still enjoyed reading Father, Dear Father, because Constanduros is a good writer – but I can’t feel the affection for it that I feel for My Grandfather. It is as though they were two different childhoods – and, indeed, I cannot understand how they fit together, since it seems throughout My Grandfather that Constanduros and his brother live in the grandfather’s house, yet it clearly isn’t the case when you read Father, Dear Father. Would I be too much of an amateur psychologist to think that he compartmentalised his memories of childhood into the happy and the sad, aligning each with a different home and household?
Having not quoted from the book(s) yet, I will end with a lovely passage which is relevant to almost every book I read, and which I think will bring nods of agreement from most of you:
Sometimes it seems that only the tremendous is worth writing about, that everything one reads or writes should be full of mighty catastrophes or upheavals and that nothing less is worthwhile. Earthquakes, wars, tragedies and triumphs have stretched our compass to such an extent that the sheer ordinariness of ordinary people and their lives seems absurdly trivial by comparison. But there is a virtue in triviality. I remember looking into a dog’s eye when I was a child and being surprised to see reflected, not only myself, but the whole garden. There it all was, complete and exact, in brilliant miniature.