Posted by: billpurdue | March 4, 2011

Two Childhood Memoirs

Whenever I read an autobiography, especially one about someone’s early years, I often wonder whether I could remember enough of my early life to put in a book, but then my early life wasn’t as eventful as these two were. Both these childhood memoirs were very good in their own individual ways, but there was quite a contrast between the two.

Nigel Slater is well known to fans of TV cookery programmes, to Guardian readers and listeners to Radio 4’s The Food Programme. He has seven cookery books to his name and three about cooking and growing and there’s one other book which became a BBC Film last year : Toast [Fourth Estate £8.99 9780007393619] For those who don’t know, this is about his boyhood and adolescence and the awakening of his passion for all things to do with food as well as his sexual awakening.

It isn’t divided into chapters, but into very short sections , each with titles such as “Lemon Drops”  or “Cheese and Onion Crisps”. (Nigel seems to have  – or have had – a very sweet tooth) His parents were reasonably well off, his father being the co-owner of a small company. His mother didn’t really enjoy cooking: before she met his father she had “ never made so much as  sandwich”, so making meals was quite an effort for her. We are not told exactly what was wrong with her health, but she kept several inhalers in various parts of the house. Nigel was not told very much about his mother’s death and was packed off to relatives instead of attending her funeral. Not long afterwards, his father employed a cleaner, Joan, who quickly became more than just a cleaner.

In contrast to his mother, Joan was a fanatical cleaner and an expert cook and seemed determined to make herself indispensable to Nigel’s father. Nigel was impressed with her cooking, but was never comfortable with her taking the place of his mother. Inevitably one thing led to another and his father eventually announced that he was going to marry Joan.

Nigel seems to have had an unhappy or at least uncomfortable relationship with his father and there is certainly no love lost between Nigel and Joan. In his teens Nigel tried to learn as much as possible about cooking and took every opportunity to get away from the home in which he was no longer happy. In fact, after the marriage, Nigel’s father, now retired,  busied himself with activities not involving either Nigel or Joan. Nigel almost felt sorry for Joan who seemed to be as lonely as he was.

When the TV version of the book was shown, Nigel’s stepsisters were appalled at the way their mother (Dorothy in real life) was portrayed. They claim that the whole story of how Nigel’s father and Joan got together couldn’t be further from the truth. For more on that read the Daily Mail article.

In contrast, here’s a memoir about a happy but poor childhood. Roy Bainton, an author and jobbing writer based in Mansfield, grew up in Hull, or rather in different parts of Hull and the surrounding area. In Crazy Horse and the Coalman [Lulu £9.99 9781446197271 available from] Roy tells of his almost nomadic childhood when just as he was beginning to settle down and enjoy life in one location, his family had to up sticks and move on – and not necessarily to a better house. This was in part due to his stepfather’s (his real father was arrested for bigamy) desire to set up a small holding and keep livestock. In spite of the fact that his father was very hard working, he and his mother were not good with money and the attempts at self sufficiency didn’t work out. So it was like a game of snakes and ladders, where they moved from a comfortable new council house to a hovel without electric light or running water. Then when things didn’t work out, it took a long time to climb the ladder again. The “coalman “ in the title refers to the times when they were unable to pay the coal man and often had to pretend not to be at home when he called for the money.

In spite of this and in spite of the poverty, Roy’s was a happy childhood. He made friends, loved reading and enjoyed school – at least the bit that involved English lessons. He admits he was a dunce at maths.  In his childhood, Roy was very interested in American Indians and in particular the Sioux tribe. Each chapter begins with references to the Sioux and Crazy Horse, comparing Roy’s life with the trials and tribulations of the Indians in the nineteenth century. There are many humorous moments (as well as some sad ones) such as the time when his stepfather asked him to go on his bike to see Uncle Sid (another “uncle” he didn’t know he had) on Christmas Eve to buy a couple of ducks for the Christmas dinner. I won’t repeat the whole story – Roy can tell it much better than I can.

On his blog, Roy has included a review of this book by Ross Bradshaw which is rather unkind I think. He criticizes the book because it is self published and has had no editorial input. I would disagree that “the Crazy Horse storyline becomes increasingly forced” Still, I would agree with Ross that “Roy can write well, and wittily” – I certainly enjoyed the book and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Roy very kindly agreed to be interviewed about his career and you will be able to hear the interview attached to a future posting later this month.

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