A Short Gentleman by Jon Canter
|A Short Gentleman by Jon Canter|
|Reviewer: Sharon Hall|
|Summary: Robert Purcell is a civil law barrister, modelled on his polite and restrained father, a High Court judge. Robert maps out his own adult life in advance, with the personal and professional accolades he expects to garner. However, his controlled and well measured life unravels in this humorous spoof biography. An enjoyable read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 384||Date: March 2009|
The narrator of this spoof biography is a civil law barrister. Robert Purcell has been educated at Winchester and Oxford. He has modelled himself on his polite and restrained father, a High Court judge and, as a child, Robert maps out the components his own expected adult life – wife, two children, career – and the respect which he will gain from this, together with his undoubted intellectual superiority. At the age of eight, he writes a future Who's Who entry for himself, with all the academic and professional accolades he expects to garner.
Early on in the book, we discover that Robert's life has gone somewhat awry and that this biography has been written as a reaction to a crime which he has committed. He's a well-ordered, self-satisfied and ridiculous character reflecting on his life from the middle years, and we begin to wonder what on earth he could have done to have been sent to prison.
As the setting for this as-yet mysterious deed, Robert’s childhood, his studies and his career are examined. The family live in Notting Hill, but spend weekends and holidays at Aldeburgh, twixt the marches and the sea. He notes that "twixt" is a winsome and writerly word … but appropriate in this context. Life in Aldeburgh at the house his mother has inherited (we are quickly appraised that she is the daughter of the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire) is traditional, as Robert and his family mix with the likes of the Moxon-Smiths and the Cattos. His mother is a livelier character, with the confidence that her background brings, and is in sharp contrast to his father. I particularly liked her method of boiling eggs, timed against the smoking of a cigarette.
Robert goes to Oxford and acquires a working-class friend, Mike Bell, who introduces himself, armed with a law textbook and a bottle of Hirondelle. Robert muses: … in 1974, working-class men and women [at Oxford] were like blacks are, to this day, in Aldeburgh: people one is tempted to photograph. Robert sees Mike Bell in the same light as his father sees his own friend Maurice, a Jewish greengrocer, as someone acquired for the purposes of philanthropy.
Robert becomes a barrister and eventually meets Elizabeth, an English rose. He wants to impress her and so takes her to a production of Peter Grimes: with its complex, morally ambivalent hero … its themes of isolation, alienation and self-destruction … [it] was utterly inappropriate for a first date … I wanted her to associate me with a great but difficult work.. He buys her a carpet. She turns out to be an enthusiastic and abandoned lover, which he finds worrying: this was not what he was looking for in a wife. All very funny. The marriage is attended by six judges, an Oxford don and the Lord Chief Justice; Robert was keen that his bridegroom’s speech contained no humour. The marriage is run along contract lines and they have the planned-for two children.
As one knows it will, his life starts to unravel, via the "Lemon Man", toilet paper and a visit to Greece, leading to the fateful night of 29 September 2003 and the subsequent revelations, which are the reasons why Elizabeth has urged him to write the biography in the first place.
There is humour and wit in the writing and the style of the book is carefully developed to illustrate Robert’s character, especially in the form of footnotes which include how to pronounce "Aldeburgh" and his announcement that his daughter's favourite band Gorillaz are not without merit and infinitely preferable … to Oasis. It took me a while to get into to it, but my smiles and chuckles increased as I progressed through the story. Robert is insufferable, but his seriousness and pomposity is very funny, and there are some nicely drawn minor characters. Despite it all, you do warm to Robert, who is a excellently developed character as well a short gentleman.
If you like this book, you may well enjoy The Timewaster Diaries: A Year in the Life of Robin Cooper by Robin Cooper.
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