From one of our most celebrated film critics and historians now comes a beautifully written memoir about his first eighteen years, growing up as an only child in south London in the midforties and late fifties. Told with elegance and restraint, partly from the point of view of a child, partly from that of an adult, it is the story of a lonely, stammering boy cared for by a matriarchy of his mother, grandmother, and an upstairs tenant, Miss Davis, to which he adds an imaginary sister, Sally. At the heart of this story is David Thomson's profound sadness at being abandoned by a cold and distant father who visits only on weekends and keeps, as Thomson later discovers, another household.
Thomson gives a vivid picture of London in the aftermath of the war, whether it is his grandmother bringing him to a street corner to see Churchill or the bombed-out houses that still smelled of acrid smoke where, though forbidden, he played. Movies became his great escape, and the worlds revealed in Henry V, Red River, The Third Man, and Citizen Kane were part of his rich imaginative life, one that gained him a scholarship to public and eventually film school. And though his father could never tell his son he loved him, he spent the first part of vacations with him and he came back most weekends, taking Thomson to everything from boxing to cricket matches. But as Thomson admits, "I am still, years after his death, bewildered and pained by my father, and trying to love him--or find his love for me."
Try to Tell the Story is a haunting and unsentimental look at the fragility of family relationships, a memoir of growing up in the absence of a full-time father, with movies and sports heroes as one's only touchstones.
Film historian and novelist Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film; Suspects) looks back at his childhood and teen years, beginning with hazy memories of frosty mornings, air-raid shelters in wartime London, fear of bombs and the evacuation of children to the countryside. When the war ended, boys played in bombed-out buildings where staircases stopped in midair: The living rooms were exposed to the night air, but sometimes suggested that the residents had just left for the moment, like stage sets waiting for the next act. An only child born in 1941, Thomson talked with an imaginary sister, Sally, as he progressed from reading comic books to listening to BBC dramatizations on the matchless medium of radio. Probing personal defeats and triumphs, he reflects on his four years of speech therapy: Stammering is a silly little thing. It won't kill you, but it'll change the course of your life. In the heart of this haunting, eloquent memoir, as might be expected, he gets rhapsodic when recalling the films that left an indelible impression on him: Red River, Meet Me in St. Louis, Citizen Kane, East of Eden. While following a film critic in the making, we also see the changing cultural landscape of the 1940s and 1950s through his eyes. (Feb.)
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February 02, 2009
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Excerpt from Try to Tell the Story by David Thomson
I My grandmother told me one morning that Hitler might be hiding on Tooting Bec Common. “Adolf Hitler,” she added. I was four, but it was the spring of 1945 and boys knew who Hitler was. Nearly every day in the papers there was a picture of him, the unsmiling pale face stamped on the page, the mustache like a scar. He was missing. He might be dead—shot, burned, poisoned, whatever anyone could think of. But we did not know that then. There was no official report. He might have been taken by the Russians, for sport or research. And so the word had spread that he might have slipped through the closing trap in Berlin. Such magic would make it more plausible that he was the Devil. And there were hiding places on Tooting Bec Common, the surprising extent of open land that began at the end of our road. The Common was my playground, and I knew dells and glades where the desperate might hide. I say the word had spread, and my grandmother had her way of suggesting that she led a rich and full life, with many chatting acquaintances. But I never saw them, and never really read any message save for her solitude, her loneliness. I should have guessed that she had made it up. She made everything up, including her own superiority in life—and that can prove an odd training for a grandson. But it was tough enough to regard it as my duty, to go out there on the Common, beating the bushes for the sleeping Adolf. Wouldn’t he have Alsatians sitting at his side, too grave to wake him, but so alert as to seize me silently? I knew the Alsatian was a German dog. I wondered why Grannie didn’t speak to people and have Hitler dealt with. She read my thoughts. “Of course,” she said, “the glory could be all yours.” You may begin to appreciate my perilous state—that, still only four, I was reckoned to be susceptible to “glory.” But the word and its power had reached into me already, and I think Grannie had put it in, like the doctor with the wooden spatula looking for bad tonsils. “Glory” shone from the newspaper pictures of the Victory parade in London later that summer. It must have been a Saturday march, for the Sunday papers were full of it, and we took half a dozen Sunday papers (instead of any church attendance). Representative troops of the Empire had come to London: the Aussies in their slouch hats, Indians in turbans, Greeks in dresses, and the Gurkhas, little fellows with moon faces and what Grannie called “wicked knives.” We cut out pictures of these florid regiments for a scrapbook, and there was Grannie, supervising the work, saying “Glorious” under her sour breath. It was as if the war had been fought to rescue her. N And it was glorious, too, when she had taken me out to a street corner not far from where we lived, and she had ordered the gathering crowd aside with, “Let the boy seeWinnie!” So I had been sucked to the front and I had seen him, the Prime Minister, sitting in an open car, Winnie, Churchill, a pink face in a black suit—and I was pretty sure that he had seen me, picked me out, and given me not just his “V” signal but a special grin of encouragement. And when I was restored to Grannie, she had whispered, “Glorious.” I felt sure she must knowWinnie personally— and I did wonder, if Hitler was on the Common, whether it wasn’t really more up to Churchill to find him than to me. Presumably he had bulldogs ready to stare those Alsatians into whimpering Nazi dismay. There was “glory” too in a blue-bound book that sat on Grannie’s shelf. It was a famous book, as it happened, the journals of Captain Robert Falcon Scott on his disastrous expedition to the South Pole that ended in 1912. Grannie read to m