Autobiography 2 - The good life

Where Did It All Go Right?: growing up normal in the Seventies

Andrew Collins <em>Ebury Press, 320

This book is being marketed as an "anti-memoir" - a tale of happiness and contentment in a market saturated by misery - and Andrew Collins has set himself the unenviable task of making his banal childhood interesting over 300 pages. His early years, even by his own admission, were very ordinary. "It was a bread-and-butter upbringing," he writes, "with most mod cons, and nobody had consumption."

Born in March 1965, Collins grew up in Northampton, a modest town in the Midlands described by the author as "everytown and anytown". His father worked for 40 years in insurance and his mother was a housewife and compulsive worrier. Collins is at pains to point out that nothing terrible happened to him. He works through his childhood more or less chronologically. He talks of his love for the Molesworth books, tells us about his primary school in Abingdon Vale, and we discover how he got over his phobia about school playtime and of the nice teachers at his comprehensive.

As a young child, Collins developed a facility for drawing cartoons. He sent a letter to Jim'll Fix It and, following an accident, he developed a scar that looks like a dimple. Later, he suffered from an ingrown toenail. He enjoyed eating lots of processed foods such as Supermousse, as well as waiting for the Alpine lorry that brought fizzy drinks to his door. When being driven to holiday destinations, he was required to eat a nasty pill called a "Joy Ride" to alleviate his travel sickness. He was a great fan of the disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure, even if it troubled him.

As a teenager he became a punk rocker because he liked the badges, became interested in girls in a chaste fashion and then had a brief flirtation with Alan who, although only a year older than him, had his own flat and was manager of Collins's pop band. This caused tensions with his mother that were exacerbated when he left home. Luckily, his father made his son see that she was upset only because "one of her chief functions on earth . . . was over, done with, gone". Andrew learns the error of his ways and decides to put "Mum and Dad at Number One in my People Charts". This sort of cloying neatness is characteristic of the book.

Andrew Collins is a well-known film and music journalist and it is not his material that is at fault here but his attitude towards it. There is little sense of any kind of journey; the book, though witty and candid, reads more like a list than a memoir.

There is a reason why a book such as this has not yet been successful; without conflict, there can be no sense of characters learning and progressing. Such a book could be written but it would take a very skilful writer indeed to make it work: minor conflicts would have to be dramatised and serve to illustrate the fundamental humanity of those involved.

The best memoirs of recent years - Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Andrea Ashworth's Once in a House on Fire, Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow - used novelistic scene-building to convey fundamental truths. But Collins has little facility for drama. No scene here is animated or made vivid through sustained description or dialogue. We are simply told what happened to him, and presented with tedious childhood diaries or self-effacing journalese. A missed opportunity.

Francis Gilbert's account of his life as a teacher in the state sector is to be published this autumn by Short Books

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Can Blair survive?