Childhood memoirs are hazardous affairs because their writers run the risk that events which are sacred to them can be soporific to their readers. For such memoirs to be successful, a writer's childhood must have been extraordinary or, through his superior observation, impressive recall and evocative insight, inspire empathy; preferably both.
Philip Norman grew up on the Isle of Wight in circumstances of which many children would dream. His father owned an amusement pier, his grandmother ran a sweet shop and his distant cousins produced Babycham, a drink that became a benevolent presence in his life, symbolising glamour and success. Nevertheless, Babycham Night makes difficult reading. Norman insists on lacing the text with his infantile idiom. For example, his prelinguistic tongue misshapes 'Maltesers' into 'Maltesies', and he uses the 'cute' misnomer throughout the book; as a result of his grandmother's line of work, it occurs often enough to be profoundly irritating. More seriously, his account of his parents' abusive marriage is distressing but not especially enlightening, and midway through he reveals, without warning, that his father interfered with him sexually. This is potent, painful stuff, but Norman gives no real response to his experiences, emotional or otherwise.
Whereas Babycham Night is alarming because of its numb narration of traumatic events, A Spoilt Boy is distinguished by Frederic Raphael's agonising over not a lot. Really very little happens to Raphael. Highlights include the time when he very nearly eats a bad egg, but doesn't, and also when a teacher gets caught short and uses the boys' (rather than the staff's) lavatories, which causes much hilarity (though said teacher does just use the loo and leave). Nevertheless, he continually portrays – albeit with a degree of irony – his childhood as a microcosm in which world events were foretold. Thus, the departure of a system of merits at his prep school with the teacher who instigated it was 'a pretty presage of what would happen in Germany when Hitler was finally crushed'. What legitimately irks hm is the anti-Semitism that he encounters throughout his education, and at Charterhouse in particular, but there are points at which he seems to confuse bigotry and ordinary bullying, though making the distinction would probably have been of little consolation at the time.
Hugo Hamilton spent his postwar youth subject to a different variety of jingoism. The Speckled People takes its title from the Gaelic for people of dual nationality. Hamilton's father was aggressively Irish (to the extent that English was banned from the house) and his mother unapologetically German. He and his brother wandered Dublin dressed in lederhosen and Aran sweaters, teased so persistently about the Nazis that one day he came home and told his mother: 'I am Adolf Eichmann and I'm going to get an ice pop.' Hamilton's narrative is childish – scatological and impressionistic. His style develops as his younger self matures and that process allows us to achieve an intimacy with the boy he was. Wisely, Hamilton doesn't rely on his childhood alone to carry the plot. He interweaves it with stories about his parents and other family members, and the result is an extremely effective memoir which illustrates how his family was able to create a nation of its own in the absence of the two his parents yearned for: a Germany that had been destroyed, and an Ireland that didn't yet (and perhaps still doesn't) exist.
Derek Malcolm's childhood, as told in Family Secrets, is a litany of public-school cliches. It seems everyone had romantic designs on him: teachers, boys, rugby opponents, even his mother, who pulls him aside at one point to test how good a kisser he is ('Not at all bad' apparently). With this utterly unrevealing section out of the way, Malcolm sets about narrating how he discovered that, in 1917, fifteen years before his birth, his father had been put on trial for shooting his mother's lover dead. He did it, but was found not guilty because the jury felt the murder to be a crime passionnel. Malcolm deals well with interesting material (the case knocked the War off the front pages of newspapers), harnessing the dramatic potential of the court transcript and including a few twists in the tale.
The parents of Augusten Burroughs, by contrast, definitely ought to have been put on trial. In Running with Scissors Burroughs tells how, when he was twelve, his mother sent him away to live with her psychiatrist, Dr Finch (himself quite mad), and his family. At thirteen, Burroughs is smoking, rarely going to school, taking whichever prescription drugs he chooses and sleeping with a 33-year-old male patient of Finch's. What ensues is even more alarming (at one point Finch helps Burroughs fake a suicide attempt just to get out of school). Burroughs handles it all with great comic flair, though there are some harrowing passages, such as his first sexual experience, which is almost rape.
One wonders what Raphael would have done with the same material, but at least he and Norman have the virtue of treating their childhoods as personal and precious. Unfortunately, they also both declare early on that they were not the boys they would have liked to be, and partly use their books to examine where they went wrong; or worse, where they were misdirected. Hamilton's text is more successful, remaining highly personal but using family stories to give structure to the freewheeling prose. Burroughs's effort is the most disturbing: partly because he manages to make such light reading of such devastating events, but also because he is the only one of the authors here to have truly commercialised his childhood; as his author's note states: 'He has no hobbies, interests or skills, other than writing about himself.' Witty though that is, it might also describe a cursed existence.