Semi-Detached by Griff Rhys Jones

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Semi-Detached by Griff Rhys Jones

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Alas, Jones's suburban childhood don't match up to the competition in this overcrowded genre.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141012872

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At either end of this childhood memoir, Griff Rhys Jones's father is in bed. At the beginning he is the reassuring hulk whose ponderous breathing fascinates the infant Jones. By the last page he is on his deathbed, and his laboured breaths are his last.

In between, the father, Elwyn - a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians - is a vague but persistent presence. His medical career dictates the family's moves around the English home counties of the late 1950s and 60s, ending up in suburban Essex. His over-cautious, unsociable personality has a less tangible influence.

Griff's story begins in an idyllic Enid Blyton world of unsupervised adventures and mild mischief, tree-climbing and train sets. Then it's on to schooldays and family holidays, dull visits to grandparents and interminable voyages on his father's beloved dinghies. Before you know it, we're into teenage sexual fumblings, gap-year romances, Cambridge, amateur dramatics and the foundations of his media career.

Jones recounts his first 20 or so years in a readable, sardonic style. However, he interleaves memories with recent visits to childhood haunts. And he doesn't just mine personal recollections. He quizzes his elderly mother, an old girlfriend and the odd acquaintance. This makes for a disjointed and sometimes confusing narrative, as he jumps between past and present.

Maybe this is deliberate, an attempt to convey the fragmentary and unreliable nature of memory. That, if anything, is the theme of the book. At one stage, Jones describes the regretful, nostalgic melancholy evoked by old family photographs. The same emotion suffuses this whole account of his early years. This is surprising from a man who came to public prominence as a comedy performer (in the early-80s series Not The Nine O' Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones). But even then, his comic persona was of slightly detached bemusement. Hence, I guess, his choice of title.

I often felt similarly disconnected from proceedings. This wasn't generally due to deficiencies in the writing, although odd sentences were plain inexplicable. Also, a few self-consciously 'purple' passages escaped the editor's red pen ("At night the blank coastal strip simmers under a Lucozade dawn." runs one such example). No, it was the sense of déjà vu that unsettled me most.

The suburban 60s and 70s celebrity childhood memoir is an overcrowded field. We're bombarded with tales of fairly uneventful, slightly privileged, middle-class upbringings. As such, this book falls socially and intellectually between Andrew Collins's Where Did It All Go Right?: Growing Up Normal In the 70s and Stephen Fry's Moab Is My Washpot. While not as prosaic as the former, it lacks the verve, humour and skill of the latter.

Sincere and occasionally amusing as Jones's story is, it rarely justifies its existence beyond the the author's need for catharsis and closure. Yes, he is appropriately embarrassed at his precocious theatrical pretensions, and candidly moving about his caddish treatment of girlfriends. I identified with his hatred of sport and of organised religion, and with his contempt for domestic ritual. He even impressed me with the way he sprinkled architectural jargon around the text.

But in the end Semi-Detached lacked the exceptional story or insight to lift it above other examples of the genre. Like so many premature partial autobiographies, it stops just before fame intervenes - when it could have become more than another competent plod through childhood and adolescence.

If I want to read such stories, I'd rather turn to novels like Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club, or superior memoirs such as Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father? They achieve the sort of depth and resonance to which this book aspires but which it rarely achieves.

If you enjoy showbusiness or theatrical memoirs of a slightly earlier generation, I'd recommend Alan Bennett's Untold Stories, or The Year of the Jouncer by Simon Gray.

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Magda said:

The Lucozade dawn brings to mind Scunthorpe, definitely not Home Counties. Lovely.