1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
eccentric and charming ramble, 30 Aug 2011
While working for Randolph Churchill in the 1960s Andrew Kerr, the author of this memoir, was a researcher on the biography of Winston Churchill. Kerr must have picked up a few pointers, because he brings to the writing of his own life the same painstaking attention to minute chronological detail that was employed in the life of the great statesman, But a technique that is justified by a man of Winston's stature verges on the bizarre when applied to Kerr's interesting, but it must be said, slightly marginal life. And yet this eccentric and unusual book somehow manages to charm.
Kerr begins at the beginning, and slowly works his way through the early years, so often a graveyard for readers of biography, not that that would put off Kerr. I felt Kerr's childhood diaries open by the keyboard being turned over page by page. The effect is one of excruciating slowness; he makes Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shady move like a Jeffrey Archer thriller. On page 31 while on a childhood train journey he describes the colour of the locomotive, and sees a cottage that he relates was up for sale; on page 57 he get his exam results, (and tells us them all), and on page 72 relates that he found a worm in a salad at Lyons Corner House. It is like his memory is too good, which is surprising as you feel a good deal of what happened in Kerr's life was the consequence of being a committed herbsman.
But the book's incredible meandering shape is one of its great charms. There is no deviation that Kerr will not make if he can include some absolutely irrelevant detail. He writes as if cutting a sentence was like cutting an artery. There are too many beautiful examples of the irrelevant to give you an idea of the total effect here, but I must quote this gem from page 33: `While I was at school we performed pieces from The Pirates of Penzance, The Gondoliers and The Mikado.' Those assuming this would be followed by a witty anecdote about amateur dramatics or pithy remark about Gilbert and Sullivan will be disappointed by this book - these facts are mentioned a propos nothing. This book is not Hemingway's legendary iceberg, with 90% of what is in the author's mind hidden from the page, but the other way round, with every single thing Kerr can remember well above the water line.
Some of the details are self-seeking. He never misses a chance to mention a flattering (or even neutral) reference to himself by any member of the Churchill clan. On page 154 there is a classic example when he quotes from a letter verbatim in which Randoph praises his `usual efficiency' in a mundane plumbing crisis (frozen winter pipes bursting). It is a footnote to any life, but here masquerades as a headline.
The chapters when he worked for Randolph Churchill reminded me of Remains of the Day, in which the butler with a walk on part in history tells the backstage story of appeasement. Tom Stoppard wrote a play called Travesties in which he placed a footman at an extraordinary cross roads of culture and politics in Geneva in 1921. But Kerr does not stoop to irony; it is all recounted with Churchillain adherence to facts and chronology. Analysis is not required, as though it were beneath Kerr: he brushes aside exactly why Randolph took such a shine to him, or why he left his children and wife on an island in Northern Scotland, or why he felt the need to personally bankrupt himself to pay for the first festival. He includes many interesting details of life on Worthy Farm in the 70s, but never goes into any depth about Michael Eavis' character or motivation. I got the feeling he considered it vulgar to write about intimate things. I understand this outlook, but can't say it suits a writer. Kerr also gives us almost no social history of the eras he lived through. Instead we get the name, length and engine details of a boat (one of many) he accidentally nearly sunk in the Med. It is of no interest, but by this point I had to say I rather admired him for his outright refusal to pander to the legitimate tastes and curiosities of the ordinary reader. It may run to 370 pages, but there is not a single sentence of idle gossip. The book is an antidote to all these hard written fast paced biographies' that celebrities now publish, which skim over many facts and home in on the gossip.
Like Churchill's biography, Intolerably Hip also includes a large appendix - so large that it looks like rupturing. Kerr fills it with breathtaking daring: `In May I wrote a piece for the Parish Magazine, Link,...' he writes on page 199, adding `The text of this article is in Appendix III', as if it were not some trifling article about the Glastonbury festival but a declaration of war.
Although Kerr makes no attempt to identify themes in his life, I could not help noticing over the course of his life his extraordinary imperviousity to failure. Almost everything he touched went wrong, sunk, lost money, or fell apart. But never does his sunny, optimistic disposition become shaken. Kerr's marvelous, sweet nature is combined with a barmy but admirable philosophy about trying to improve the human race. I quote from his intention regarding starting the Glastonbury Fayre, a forerunner to the current festival: `What we were trying to do was to stimulate the Earth's nervous system with joy, appreciation and happiness so that our planet would respond by breeding a happier, more balanced race of men and women.' Whatever you think of the sanity of this ambition, you would have to agree that this box thus far remains unticked. The present festival is concerned less with saving humanity than entertaining it as we all go down the swanee.
This book is a delight - but it's for the reader who doesn't have too much going in their life. It as congenial as sitting in a warm sitting-room on a winter's eve drinking tea and enjoying some amusing meandering stoned conversation with a very charming man.