20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 20

Bits of skirt

Simon Raven

A Life of One's Own: Childhood and Youtit Gerald Brenan (Jonathan Cape £5.95)

A Life of One's Own is the first volume of Gerald Brenan's autobiography, covering the period from his birth in 1894 to the end of the Great War. First published in 1962, this book has now been reissued at £5.95. The new edition is handsomely got up and very decentlY printed; there are four pages of photograPhs which project a winsome Mr Brenan in a variety of poses and costumes from skirts at two to Service Dress at twenty-three; and the bookjacket carries a reproduction of a portralt by Dora Carrington in which Mr Brenan, looking more winsome than ever, is wearing hiS Bohemian gear and wondering (or so one maY imagine) what to write about next. For this, it seems, was Mr Brenan's hardY perennial problem, and to this we owe the wock,, under review. "I lacked a subject for a novel, Mr Brenan tells us in his Preface, "and found my own life ready to hand." Very true,. n° doubt; the thought occurs to all of us from time to time. Most of us, however, then have the modesty to concede that it is a bit steep t° Charge the public (even if we charge substantially less than £5.95) just for reading about

ourselves, with or without fetching photographs. Are we, we reflect, quite interesting enough for the money? In 999 cases out of a thousand the answer is a very flat no; what Makes Mr Brenan so confident that he will Prove the exception? Well, let us see. To begin with, he loved his Mother and disliked his father, who was a soldier and a bully. In his infancy he was fond of

flowers and picture books, and was very Mischievous. Hm. I'm afraid Mi. Brenan must

do better than that — but we, for our part, must he fair and patient. To continue . . . the little Mr Brenan had a young nursery governess who °hoe took off her stockings and her knee length knickers in order to paddle, and then, in full view of her charge, bunched her skirt right

1-IP round her waist. Unfortunately the big Mr Brenan cannot remember how he reacted, though he thinks he might have felt aa secret Pleasure". The same governess later stripped Gff completely in his presence and rubbed herself all over with scent; once again, however, Mr Brenan does not recall how he responded.

The governess was then sacked, and nothing Much in the carnal line came Mr Brenan's way for some years, until he accidentally discovered

how to masturbate. This he enjoyed very much, t,h°tigh the official doctrine at his school, ''adleY, was that it made your eyes drop out or something of the sort. In other ways too Radley Was an odious and philistine place, and everYone in it absolutely loathed Mr Brenan,

Who decided to revolt and not to go into the Army. This made his mother and all his

relations loathe him too, but he must have had r,s°rIlething going for him, because a maid in a rarench hotel lifted her skirt and showed Mr rehan her thighs. Unhappily he was too slow ,erl the uptake to do anything about them, a failure which was due to all that repressive talk at hateful Radley; and so Mr Brenan now ,..,becatne more rebellious than ever and ran away with an older but equally impecunious chum to the Balkans. f CM the way there, another girl lifted her skirt forMr Brenan, who was this time inhibited by ear of the pox (Radley's fault again, needless to sRaY). By now he was revolting, not only against adleY, his parents and England, but also against the whole corrupt and conventional Continent of Europe which, indeed, he would Probably have left for good and all, had not !honey (another thing against which he was revolting) got its own back by running out. Mr Brenan then returned to his parents in ..tngland, where the kitchen maid at once lifted her skirt for him. This time Mr Brenan at last I.,12allaged to take action, but so ineptly that it was all a dismal and somewhat messy disaster blocKly old Radley, of course). A little later the 7ar came. Mr Brenan, promptly commissioned 'Tito a Territorial Regiment, went to the front, Where he watched a woman lift her fifteenear-oid daughter's skirt for him — a welcome variant on the usual theme .—and subsequently ,ePerienced "a testing and consolidation of 'cril.aracter". After the war he left for Spain with th8t), "in low spirits" because he had pleased m.e. wrong sort of people by winning the r,,,IlltarY Cross. His later adventures may be ps-ad in Volume II of his autobiography, _ersonctl Record, and also in South From (4814 our present business is only with A Life fr Cine's Own. It is a well-written book (apart • 13:41 on e or two atrocious muddles over rticiPles — Radley yet once more, I suspect —

or in subordinate constructions); and some of Mr Brenan's narrative about Dalmatia is definitely memorable. The trouble is that Mr Brenan, on the showing of this volume at least, thinks of himself as special; or rather, the older Mr Brenan, who should know better, thinks of the younger Mr Brenan as special. Yet with the exception of the Balkan trek we have heard it all before. Bright young man reacts against stuffy parents and soul-destroying public-school . . . the tiredest autobiographical clichd of the lot. And then Mr Brenan is so priggish and portentous about it all; even the recurrent skirt-lifting episodes are presented as deeply significant, their comic and erotic potential wiped out by self-pity and self-regard, by Mr Brenan's conviction that everything which happened to him, however commonplace, was somehow unique — uniquely poetic, uniquely unhappy, uniquely perverse, touching or unjust.