“Familylessness works,” asserts the academic and author John Sutherland, whose upbringing was fatherless and largely motherless. Born in 1938, John would tramp miles to school past marching soldiers as a young child, and “benign neglect” turned him into a bookworm. His escape routes from Colchester included jazz, booze and “a primitive reverence for the book”. Books were succour when feeling on the edge, unbelonging, in the houses of barely known relatives – “every syllable I read put an inch between me and them”.
His mother taught him not to be sentimental about the past or about her. Paradoxically, it is Sutherland’s detached approach to his material that makes him so engaging, particularly when he explores his alcoholism and his oft-absent mother. She “did not just want to live,” he writes, “anyone could do that. She wanted a life.”
What does it mean to have a life? Sutherland fascinatingly explores the difficulties of retaining authenticity while “rising in the world of the British class system . . . The voice is always liable to betray you.” He charts the discovery of his own humorous, reflective writing voice through the words of the many writers that are cited in this book.