Magazine article The Spectator

No Pains Spared

Magazine article The Spectator

No Pains Spared

Article excerpt

MATTHEW: A MEMOIR by Anne Crosby Haus, £9.99, pp. 354, ISBN 9781906598228 £7.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Matthew, the author's son, and the subject of this memoir, had Downs Syndrome, but I should state at once that the book is much more than a guide for parents, or carers, of such children. It stands on its own as a work of literature and should win the PEN/Ackerley prize for memoir and autobiography.

The author, in her poised, sometimes old-fashioned prose, beguiles the reader.

As a little girl, she befriended a neighbour's child whom she first saw through the hedge:

Large and silent ... she wore a bow in her hair and usually carried a doll in her arms.

Her smile melted my heart, and though I could not understand the reason for this, it sometimes brought tears to my eyes.

Later, married, but still childless -- her first baby died -- Crosby is similarly touched by the son of a Hammersmith vegetable vendor whom she sees collecting coins, calling: 'Money for mongols like me. Money for mongols' place please.' The 'mongols' place' was the nearby Normansfield Hospital, founded in 1868 'to study and care for a particular kind of inmate', by a Dr Norman Langdon Down, hence the term 'Down's Syndrome'.

Crosby puts her own son in there when he is three, and removes him less than two years later, after a strongly worded letter to the grandson of the founder, stating: 'Most of your patients spend their lives doing nothing at all'.

Crosby is a painter, and has a memory for visual detail. However, she also has the ability to reproduce dialogue and, in particular, her son's idiosyncratic remarks. In a lift, Matthew says nervously: 'This horrid room got bad floor, make my legs go shorter, ' and, in a rocking train: 'Got be brave walking in train .... Careful, Mum, train too 'cited.' I have a son with Asperger's Syndrome, now 25, the age Matthew was when he died. Crosby describes well the gratitude and awe which one feels for certain characters who appear in one's child's life, and who willingly share the burden.

One such, Gladys Strong, is 'a small birdlike woman with bright eyes set in a sallow, starved-in-childhood face'. A local foster mother, Strong appears on Crosby's doorstep during Matthew's first week at home and offers to take the baby for the afternoon, addressing him: 'Too blue-blooded for our street, are you?' (Crosby writes tenderly of her husband's first sighting of 'his little blue shadow of a son. …

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