10 NOVEMBER 1990, Page 42

What are little boys made of?

David Jenkins

SON OF ADAM by Denis Forman

Deutsch, £12.99, pp. 201


Bloomsbury, £14.99, pp. 167


Methuen, £12.99, pp. 231

Sensitive evocations of childhood carry the same hazards as a mother's recital of her little darling's prattlings; bliss for the teller, but just a little, well, indulgent. The novel raptures of onanism, the comic `supplicating' of the Methodist chapel, the hierarchy of the nursery, the eccentricities of uncles, aunts, cooks and muffin men this is terra cognitissima. Even in the severally skilled hands of Sir Denis For- man, Paul Bailey and Don Haworth, total recall lacks Arnold Schwarzenegger's allure.

Son of Adam is suffused by a passion for Craigielands, the Palladian home of Sir Denis Forman's youth, an overpowering sense of smell, and the author's good fight against the pi certainties of Loretto, his and his father's school. Sir Denis was seen as 'a pretty bad boy in need of correction': it is not a view he shares. His 'badness' allowed him, eventually, to cast aside his parents' religiosity and to make his mark on public life — something his father, whom he holds in contempt, signally failed to do. Sir Denis had an excellent war, became chairman and managing director of Granada TV and is a director of Covent Garden. His eminence has made him a master of the succinct put-down: his father is 'such a decent chap', his ludicrous Great War obsession with the healing properties of sphagnum moss 'his finest hour'. Of his maternal grandparents Sir Denis writes: `Having invented a steam capstan of some significance, he married a dull woman, Mary Taylor.' (His abiding horror of bores he attributes to the stultifying dinner-table at Craigieland:

At the drop of a hat you were into the true meaning of the parable of the loaves and fishes, from there to the place of miracles in Christian belief and onwards and upwards until the grease congealed on the plate.

The cooking was frightful.) Sir Denis's pursuit of intellectual inde- pendence takes place amid an elegantly written compendium of country pursuits, family foibles and, above all, odours. His father is a clean man with pure breath who never farted. One's own sweat when danc- ing is always pleasant. Friends and neigh- bours are known by niff — 'She's lavender and rotten applies.' Marnie, the house- keeper, gets the biggest nose job:

The smell had a basis of unwashed under- parts (very powerful), on top of which was a layer of embrocation. Next were her armpits . . . and her wig smell, something like dead mouse blended with nutmeg.

Son of Adam makes Patrick Susskind's Perfume read like the Clean Air Act. There is much to enjoy but several chap- ters (notably those on fishing and music) seem otiose. The struggle for Sir Denis's soul does go on . . . and on.

Which cannot be said of An Immaculate Mistake. Paul Bailey's affectionate memoir of Battersea life is sparely written, master- fully handled and very thin. His mother commands the book, larky, indomitable (of course) and given to irritatingly sage sayings like 'There's doctors and there's doctors' and 'That Shakespeare must have been a snob'. Immaculate Mistake calls up both Bailey's unintended conception and his mother's passion for the respectability of cleanliness. Indeed she worked at Buck- ingham Palace (secretly) and became Prin- cess Anne of Denmark's treasure. (To mark her retirement Princess Anne gave Mrs Bailey lunch; a lovely day, marred by the Princess's insistence on doing the washing up.) Bailey invents an imaginary twin, finds, to parental bafflement, books and classical music, discovers he is not as other men, masturbates, roams London to expunge grief at his father's death. The book reaches a suitably revelatory climax in the discovery of the brutal miseries of his father's first marriage. But nothing asto- nishes. Life limpidly potters on. The sensi- tive flower blossoms. Charming malaprop- isms abound. It is all very agreeable.

Don Haworth's lollop through pre-war Lancashire is resolutely chirpy. Folks are grand, deprivation bravely borne. The weasel beneath the cocktail cabinet barely shows its snout, save when he refers to his father as a 'shy, private man who confined his violence to the seclusion of home.' The one thumping is played for laughs. Other- wise, we get dear old Blackpool, clogs, cow heels, dotty encyclopaedia salesmen — you were benighted, even in England's Green and Pleasant land, but on a storm): night, would you know how to proceed?. — cracked clock repairers and, most arm-

ably, Charlie Seddon whose pools winnings were submerged in a lagoon of - fatal alcohol. The March of Time is marked by banal asides on the State of Empire, bodyline and much of the As-Hitler's shadow-loomed-we-little-thought school of history.

Haworth's progress from pram to local journalism is undemanding and anecdotal. He cosily concludes that, in the golden haze of selective memory, everybody was somebody, that everyone got respect; the cardinal qualities were 'patience and pas- sivity'. These are qualities the reader would do well to share.