Sam Miller (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)
KARL MILLER was a student at Cambridge when he made the visiting Dylan thomas the present of a new phrase. the poet, he recalled, kept repeating it, ‘in disapproving wonder, as if he were broadcasting on the Third Programme… I had never known such a way with words, such a tasting and mumbling. they were his girl-friends’. Miller, one of the fathers of Sam Miller’s title, has a similarly sensual attitude to language. He rolls his words on the tongue, tinkers with sentences, takes flight with fancies, chases after allusion, picks up puns on his way.
His son Sam, a sometime BBC journalist, whose mother, Jane, is herself an accomplished memoirist, is in awe of Karl’s verbal agility. In his public life, Karl is remembered as the founder of the London Review of Books, a muchloved editor who was later professor of english at University College London. At home, he emerges as a benign, teasing paterfamilias, who casts his middle child as ‘rufty tufty’ and applies himself to discussions of rugby, rufty tufty’s preferred game, of which Karl knows nothing, being a devotee of football.
Childhood memoirs are the rage. families display a geometry that we can all understand—everyone has parents. But does everyone? Karl’s separated before he was born and he was brought up by his grandmother; he shared her house with two aunts and his bed with his Uncle tommy. His own, extraordinary, childhood memoir, Rebecca’s Vest (1993), is the story of an ‘orphaned’ boy who takes sanctuary in the printed word.
Sam’s touching memoir, loving, halting, yet always honest, begins and ends with Karl’s death in 2014, but hinges round a ‘family secret’ Sam was told when he was 15. Working diligently through family papers, he seeks answers to questions that can no longer be fully answered. James Fergusson