Monday, 6 September 2010

Memoirs of a phynodderee

Pleasingly offbeat review by David Lodge of the late Frank Kermode's memoirs, in which the subject's humble Manx background looms large:
'...to become a university teacher is inevitably to become middle-class (if one is not already)—to grow out of, or away from, the subculture in which one grew up, to learn a different style of living, speaking, behaving... [I]n Frank Kermode’s case the required adaptation was particularly challenging and his self-transformation particularly complete. He gives a vivid account of his introduction to the middle-class home of his fellow student (and later colleague) Peter Ure:
'At dinner I sat listening to a continuous stream of well-formed sentences about important topics. I had never before eaten asparagus, and wouldn’t have guessed that in England it is finger food; and when strawberries appeared I refused sugar, not because (at that time) I liked them without, but because after the strain of the asparagus I had simply run out of courage and did not trust myself with the shaker.'
The reference to “England,” as if to a foreign country, is telling. The Isle of Man, at least as it was in Kermode’s childhood and youth, was not merely provincial; it was in many respects culturally and socially separate from and indifferent to the mainland...
As Kermode himself comments, “It is not surprising that some of us Manx who have made our lives in England have had to settle for a permanent condition of mild alienation.”

Just as Ireland is without snakes so The Isle of Man lacks asparagus.

I shall certainly be adding the work to my list of books to buy when out in paperback:
This is a very honest, sometimes painfully honest, autobiography, without a trace of vanity or pomposity in it. “I am not the sort of person I should choose to know if I had any choice in the matter,” he bleakly remarks at one point. It is also elegiac in mood... But this is a far from gloomy book—on the contrary, it is full of dry humor and occasional high comedy.

Lodge's review goes on to justify this view. On the way, it also introduces us to the word 'phynodderee, the charming Manx word for a clumsy fairy', which his father called the young Frank.

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