Magazine article The Spectator

Too Odd Not to Be True

Magazine article The Spectator

Too Odd Not to Be True

Article excerpt

THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN

by Bruce Robinson

Bloomsbury, 14.99, pp. 256

One of the worst hazards of male puberty is the random erection. How well I remember the terrible Latin lesson at prep school where, for no discernible reason, I developed an awkward, adamantine bulge in the flannel shorts department at the precise moment my Latin master asked me to chalk something up on the blackboard.

`What is the matter, Delingpole?' asked Mr Pearson, as I staggered from behind my desk, bent over double and blushing furiously. `It's um . . . um . . . it's my stomach, sir!' I said. `I've got a dreadful tummy ache.' `Then go and see matron, you blinking boy!' Mr Pearson snapped as the class dissolved into giggles. They knew, all right.

I only mention this sorry tale because Bruce Robinson describes a remarkably similar episode in his first novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. But his version ends with the character pooing his pants and being sent to the headmaster for a thrashing, having been found to have defaced his exercise book with pornographic jottings. Clearly Robinson's childhood was a good deal weirder and more traumatic than mine.

Though it's always dangerous to speculate how much of a novel is made up and how much based on personal experience, I suspect that quite a bit of this book is autobiographical. Partly it's because Robinson once intimated as much over a bottle or two of fine claret when I interviewed him at the splendid Hertfordshire farmhouse he bought from the proceeds of a lucrative career in film, partly, because the story is too damned odd to be the work of even the most warped imagination.

It concerns the rites of passage of a 13year-old schoolboy in Fifties Broadstairs. He lives in 'a dislocated, unfriendly old house' clinging with the smell of cooked meat, whose inhabitants include two remote, unloving parents, several revoltingly incontinent dogs, and a grandfather whose unrivalled pornography collection includes a photo of a woman with a live duck's head protruding from her bum.

His grandfather, who lost part of his brain in the trenches, is the only family member to whom Thomas can relate. …

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