Now in his late 70s, Michael Frayn, the accomplished British novelist (“A Landing on the Sun”) and playwright (“Noises Off”), turns his hand for the first time to nonfiction, a memoir of his childhood and the maddening, endearing father who played so large a role in it. “My Father’s Fortune” is funny when it needs to be, touching when it needs to be, and for the most part is cast in smooth, beguiling prose with the exception of one rather bizarre grammatical tic, about which more later.
For many years the Reader’s Digest ran a popular feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Thomas Frayn was precisely that so far as his only son was — and is — concerned. He was born, in January 1901, into a poor London family of which “every single member except for the two-month-old Thomas” was “deaf and dumb” (and in time it caught up with Tommy too), or so they were described in that year’s census, though in fact they could speak. Frayn writes:
“What they were all suffering from was presumably, as I have discovered from the Internet, late-onset hereditary deafness, for which apparently the gene has now been discovered, though I’m not quite sure what’s happened to it in the three generations since then. A puzzle remains, though. If it’s hereditary it’s not surprising that one of the parents was also deaf. But both of them! Was this pure coincidence? Or had they been drawn to each other in the first place because of their deafness?”
Tommy’s education was limited, indeed. “At the local central school he was given personal tuition in French by a master who perched on the desk in front of him and brought a book down on his head each time he made a mistake. As a teaching technique this was remarkably effective — it knocked every single word of French out of him.” Never mind. Tommy was smart, and soon he was “leaving school at the age of fourteen and just starting out in the world to help support his family.” In time, he worked his way up to a job as sales representative for Turners Asbestos Cement, which manufactured and sold roofing and was a particularly important government supplier during World War II.
When he was 18, he met Violet Alice Lawson — she “was still only fourteen” — and fell in love with her immediately. They waited until 1931 to marry however, because in the meantime, with the death of his father in 1920, Tommy had become his family’s principal means of support, a burden he shouldered without complaint, just as he declined to complain when, at his marriage, Vi’s querulous mother moved in with them and remained with them for the next 18 years.
Michael, their first child, was born in September 1933, followed four years later by a sister, Gillian Mary, known to all as Jill. “So there we all finally are,” Frayn writes. “Mother and father, a boy and a girl (and Nanny [grandmother] to fuss over them). At 3 Hillside Road, East Ewell, twelve miles out of the smoky heart of London — a detached house at last . . . with no one quarreling and banging about on the other side of the wall, no one overhead, no one underneath. In a trim green cul-de-sac where no trams clatter and no drunks sing and vomit.” They had crawled into the lower regions of the middle class, where they remained — at times somewhat precariously — until Tommy’s death at the age of 69.