Mem­oir Fa­thers

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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