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Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent

By Steven Berkoff
JR Books £18.99
232 pages

Dateline: 14th November, 2010

There is a sudden trend for theatrical legends to expose their childhoods to the public gaze. Steven Berkoff's re-enactment of his troubled early years follows hard on the heels of the happier experiences of Michael Frayn, related in My Father's Fortune.

Before purchasing this book, those interested in the career of Steven Berkoff should look carefully at the title. The author certainly gets it right, since in the years leading up to and just after the Second World War, his experiences in the East End and, briefly, New York eventually end with teenage incarceration.

Much of the material covers ground that is similar to the early experiences of Harold Pinter. Both were brought up in the same period and location, as the children of non-practising Jewish parents whose lack of faith meant that neither received the traditional bar mitzvah to herald their entry into adulthood.

Where Pinter was inspired by the teachers at Hackney Downs School, Berkoff was merely beaten by them in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Before that, he had already become unhappy and self-pitying, hating his father and having distinctly mixed feelings about a mother whom he loved but chastises for her lack of generosity.

Soon enough, the diary begins to describe a life of sex and thugs and rock 'n' roll, as Berkoff does his damnedest to fall in with every bad type in town, when he is not jiving the night away in an effort to seduce any girl within reach.

The writing style is not quite what one would expect from this often dazzling playwright and Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent only grabs the attention when the aspiring thief is thrown into a horrendous Boot Camp for young offenders.

Otherwise, this book is exactly what it purports to be, although while the literary style is that of a barely educated youth, the question arises as to whether this is actually pastiche, since some of the observations are related from a period decades later.

In any event, it is not until page 177 that there is even an inkling of a possible future career in theatre. Until then, either a life of crime or an alternative version selling men's clothing seemed much more likely.

As a consequence, Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent might provide some insight into the boy that eventually became the great Steven Berkoff but its youthful self-obsession and lack of verbal fluidity may not be to everybody's taste.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010