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My Father's Fortune - A Life

By Michael Frayn
Faber and Faber £16.99
255 pages

Dateline: 6th September, 2010

My Father's Fortune is the kind of book that would not be published but for its author's reputation. Put simply, it is a memoir of a nobody, Michael Frayn's father Tommy.

Somehow, one expects that highly educated, deeply intelligent writers must come from special stock. This book proves beyond doubt that this need not be the case.

On both sides, Michael Frayn's progenitors going back several generations contain neither any writers nor indeed anybody especially artistic or creative.

The people affectionately portrayed in this book are ordinary salt of the earth types who might best qualify to be defined as lower-middle-class, doing ordinary jobs and struggling to make ends meet.

That, however, does not make them valueless and in a way they are more interesting than any number of Oxbridge intellectuals about whom one can read any day of the week.

In part, My Father's Fortune is a triple love story since Tommy Frayn fell in love with Vi at 18 and after the longest of engagements, married and loved her until her premature death. By that time, they had two children, Michael and Jill. Father's second marriage was to manic depressive widow Elsie, and ended in tears but by that time, he had already fallen in love with a colleague 30 years his junior.

As well as a need for female company, the quick-witted salesman genuinely seemed to dote on his children, although like so many of his generation he struggled to express his feelings. This means that love and admiration remain unspoken or at best are delivered through a veil of irony.

The book gives a fine portrayal of not only Frayn père but also of so many other family members and friends who together, helped to form the character of one of our greatest living playwrights.

The amazing thing is that before deciding to write about his father, Michael Frayn had clearly forgotten most of the facts and perhaps the greatest value to him in creating My Father's Fortune lies in the efforts that he put into reconstructing the life of his father and, in passing, the first 30 or so years of his own.

It is quite fascinating to see how a man that might justifiably be described as a genius went through his early years regarded as a little on the slow side until he began to develop a love of literature and music that eventually led him to Cambridge and then a job in journalism.

There is very little about the playwright in this book per se but at the same time, anybody who reads it will view Michael Frayn's plays in a different way.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010