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<strong>From Working-Class Hero to Absolute Disgrace: an Eighties Memoir</strong>

Stephen Foster

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown believed they had obviated the need for any further discussion of class, this breakthrough being a by-product - don't you see? - of their victory over the economic laws of "boom and bust". The availability of cheap credit did indeed act as a social balm for a while, but now we have all been thrown back on the question of who we are and where we stand. Consequently, these two class odysseys, telling how upper-working/lower-middle-class boys gravitated towards the literary life, are timely, as well as being highly readable.

Stephen Foster is a writer of fiction who has also scored two bestsellers with books about his pet dogs. I had accordingly expected something a bit more dewy-eyed than this at times rather brutal account of leaving Stoke to make it in London.

Foster is hardly Dick Whittington. There is very little gaucherie or naivety about his view of the capital, upon which he falls rapaciously in the 1980s. No sooner is he out of Stoke ("a doomed anachronism", to his young mind) than he is driving around London wearing a two-tone suit in "a black Mini with a white vinyl roof and tinted-out windows". Having secured an apprenticeship in hotel management at Claridge's, he, of all the trainees, lands the plum job of serving Clint Eastwood breakfast in bed: "scrambled eggs on rye, freshly squeezed OJ, black coffee, all of which struck me as perfect".

The book, like Foster himself, moves at an amazing pace. He quits the hotel business, but these are the "Loadsamoney" years and he falls into a succession of jobs: as a maker of designer furniture, as a painter and decorator, as a clerk at the Gas Board HQ on the Victoria Embankment - "the kind of place where they serve biscuits on paper plates with clingfilm over them". He takes drugs and has sex in the better postcodes, makes friends with people who have en suite bathrooms, names like Toby ("There are no Tobys in Stoke") and mothers who elide "Darling! How lovely to see you" into "one single, high-pitched multi-syllable: Darholseyoo!". His friends in Stoke, to which he returns periodically, become a dour chorus, noting that he has become the sort of person who doesn't have a carpet on his floor, and taking a sceptical view of his three-quarter-length Italian mohair overcoat: "Not being funny, but you look a bit of a twat."

Yet, behind the brassy front, his guilt and ambivalence about becoming the kind of person who "feels symptoms of physical distress at the sight of decorative motifs with which I disagree", give the book soul and poignancy on top of its sharp humour. Foster concludes that he is middle-class enough to want to be déclassé, and to take a cultural studies course.

Fowler cuts a more reserved figure. His book is an almost Morrissey-like lament, with a similar plangent drollery, for a Sixties childhood spent in a backwater of Greenwich ("You could hear conversation in the next street, and perhaps in the street beyond that"), living in a house presided over by a tyrannical, passive-aggressive, practical father - manager of a gas showroom at Elephant and Castle - who doesn't understand his dreamy son. Fowler's father is "wired differently, like a Continental plug". So the boy retreats into Marvel comics, Hammer Horror films, Ray Bradbury and Conan Doyle: "Even his cheerful scenes felt vaguely gruesome: shopkeepers would drape a Christmas goose around a character's neck like a boa constrictor . . ."

Fowler has both a taste and a flair for the lurid. After Greenwich, his family moves into a ramshackle, lonely house in Abbey Wood called Cyril Villa: "I was reading Gormenghast at the time, and living in it, too." The Fowlers take a holiday in Sheerness, "where the beach was covered in reeking green weed" and where they "sat huddled in a wooden hut watching huge tattooed women eating whelks while their children dropped bricks on stranded jellyfish".)

His mother Kath's main ambition is to have a starter in a restaurant. She encourages her son in his reading, however, and is lovingly evoked in this memoir: "When she stood with her right hand on her hip, she was meant to be obeyed." The book has a well-rounded narrative arc, incidentally, and the father is redeemed by some closing revelations.

Here are the roots of an author who would become romantically committed to the most imaginative sorts of storytelling: crime, horror, humour. Fowler discovered that, by opening a book, he could drift off into this other realm at will, and that he would thereby "be kept safe" - not least from the British class system. I wonder whether the computer-game generation will find the same solace, and the kind of energy that drive Foster and Fowler.

Andrew Martin's novel "The Last Train to Scarborough" is published by Faber & Faber on 3 March (£12.99)