Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson

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Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Crystal clear prose, a dry sense of humour and a complete lack of self pity elevates Keeping Mum from the swollen ranks of the "poor me" memoirs into something that is really quite sublime. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 234 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Atlantic Books
ISBN: 978-1843544982

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There are more poor me memoirs around than you could shake a stick at. David Millionaire Pelzer has a lot to answer for. It's got to the stage where I creep past the autobiography section in a bookshop in as inconspicuous a manner as possible, lest one of the heroic survivors actually reach out from the cover of their therapy-masquerading-as-book and hold me for ransom. Less offensively, wartime childhood memoirs look chirpily on, willing me to pick them up and take them home. They're nice an' all, but one is so often much the same as another.

So, when people started raving about Brian Thompson's Keeping Mum, I was disinclined to believe them. I was wrong. It's spellbinding.

Thompson grew up in London and Cambridge during the 1940s. His parents, Peggy and Bert, were the two people most unsuited to be parents that I've ever read about. While Bert went to war with the RAF, Peggy spent it "running around with the Yanks" and completely neglecting her young son, much to the disapproval of family and friends. My great aunt Helen did much the same thing and is similarly disapproved of by family today, despite her ninety-odd years. Peggy was a manic-depressive and was by turns neglectful of and abusive towards her young son. Bert, once returned from the war, can't see past his wife's infidelities and views the hapless Brian as having collaborated in them. He becomes a weekend visitor only, and spends most of his time either arguing violently with Peggy or resolutely disparaging everything Brian is or does.

It doesn't sound promising, does it? You've probably been there, read that and got several t-shirts to prove it. Poor me authors probably trapped you in the book shop too. But read on, Macduff.

This isn't a poor me memoir. It isn't a chirpy, jolliness-in-adversity memoir. It hasn't got its eye on a bank balance and it isn't cathartic therapy for the writer forced upon the reader. Keeping Mum sparkles with crystal clear, elegant prose. It is clear-sighted and kind-hearted but it is never sentimental. It contains not an ounce of self pity. At moments when a lesser book would be wringing the last, despairing tear from you, Keeping Mum makes your roar with laughter. And yet, somehow, the laughter doesn't seem out of place.

Thompson's grip on your emotional engagement is a subtle thing. Having laughed when I should have cried, I found myself bursting into real, devastating tears at his sublime definition of jazz, which seemed to me to be a metaphor for his own childhood and, indeed for this book itself:

Jazz... the steady traffic of vibrant human-interest stories, told in an idiom as powerful as film but without, for the most part, film's saccharine sentimentality. The presumption of every film made in America was that at the end goodness triumphed and the building blocks of the story went back into the box. In jazz, by comparison, the story was left spilled on the floor, to be continued in the next instalment.

If that doesn't melt your heart, it's made of stone. I can't recommend Keeping Mum highly enough.

Another wonderfully-written memoir standing clear of the competition is Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush.

Buy Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson at Amazon.com.


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Diana Sholl said:

I thoroughly enjoyed the review of the above book and will be stepping out to Waterstone's to buy a copy tomorrow. I enjoy most of the reviews on this site as the books chosen are among the best on the market and I am never disappointed when the review leads me to buy a copy.

It is, however, a little unkind to mention other books that have been written by people with bad childhood's as 'poor me' books. Yes, there are alot out at the moment but only because it has been such a closed subject for years but in the great scheme of things there are only a few when compared to the number of years they were absent from the bookshelf. Child abuse is a dreadful thing to suffer from, trust me on this and there is no 'poor me' about it. The writers of these books have not thrust it on the reader, you can chose to buy or not to buy, simple as. What is outrageous is that these human beings have had to experience it in the first place.

It shocks me, sometimes, how flippantly this country takes child neglect.

I hope the above does not sound like a lecture! You site is brilliant and will always have my attention but I felt very strongly on this point and hence the email.

Regards and best wishes Diana Sholl

Jill replied:

Um... yes, I see your point. However, I didn't coin the term, and I do think an industry has grown up around these kinds of memoirs. And the industry is profit-based. I object most strongly to books in which the ghost writing employs the crude literary tactics found in thriller novels to prolong tension and force emotion from the reader. And many of these books do just that. I don't denigrate anybody's experience, neither do I object to those experiences being published. I do, however, object to the experiences being manipulated by literary technique to cause shock and horror. There is no need.

But thank you for all the kind compliments!