Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir
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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.
to us at the window. My mum leans out and gets the egg, like a princess taking a gift of gold. And I look down at the man's face and it's absolutely clear—because I know the feeling— that he's in love with my mother. An extra egg could mean a happier evening. We used dried egg, too, and I can recall sticking my finger in and out of that jar. The truth is I had to be educated to appreciate real eggs and I still like an omelette made of dried egg and rolled up as tight as a carpet. But better go
main railway line to the South Coast ports only a few hundred yards away. Diligent Germans aimed at that rail link for years, with the result that our house was hit three times by bombs or bits of their fire. Or so I was told. It was my father's straight-faced humor to suggest that Hitler was targeting me personally because somehow if I survived he knew his Reich was curtains. It was not a joke he was telling. It was a strange, hopeful gesture—a way of saying don't worry if you're unknown. Even
bad man.” It was a valiant try on her part, and well meant. But as the cat curled on Lime's feet in the doorway, I was with the cat. And when the light from a room upstairs fell on Welles's face and he grinned at us all, I was sure he had seen me—just like Winnie in the street. I believed then, and I have only enriched the point of view after a book on Welles and seminars on him, that this immense talent and personality began with the idea of a boy dressing up to look like a grown man. Lime was
decisions and much more persuaded by determinations I had made. So Dulwich wrecked me—no doubt about it—but it also made me. One day in September 1951 I turned up as one of the two hundred new bugs, raw around the collar, and tried to find a place of some security. The scale of it all was overwhelming. At least half of the intake that year were LCC scholarship boys, places traded away for government funds to build a new science block. After all, a great school in the nuclear age had to have a
chamber pot that perhaps Mum could deal with. So with Dad away, Mum was getting trapped into being a nurse to his mother. She didn't like it. Mum would say, “She's a dirty old woman.” And then it turned out that Dad had done a deal: he had had Grannie give him the house and in return he had promised to provide for her as long as she lived. With Mum doing most of the providing. Grannie was the first person I knew who died. She was a large presence in my early years. In the passport that she and