Francis Bacon (left) with Dan Farson
Never a Normal Man
16 March 1997
A life of liquor, licence and lyricism
Dedicated "to those who don't belong", Daniel Farson's captivating memoir describes the life of a dilettante (photographer, print and television interviewer, biographer, travel writer, Soho barfly) and also an outsider, who has been possessed by the twin demons of drink and homosexuality. "All my life," he explains, "I have backed away at the moment of success; whether from cowardice or the dread of being caught in a rut, it amounts to choosing to fail."
The author can claim to have been to many places and done many things. The son of Negley Farson, a famous American foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News and author of a 1930s bestseller, Farson junior was patted on the head by Hitler as a "good Aryan child" when his father covered one of the Fuhrer' s speeches. As a child, he also met Somerset Maugham - a friend of his wealthy, homosexual godfather – and Maugham's lover, Gerald Haxton.
Farson's career has been astonishingly varied: Westminster lobby correspondent; national service in the US Army Air Corps, a result of his dual nationality; further education at Cambridge, paid for by the US government under the GI Bill of Rights, with references from the Dean of Westminster and Somerset Maugham ("the one to take the curse off the other"); editor of an undergraduate magazine, Panorama, which boasted such contributors as Peter and Anthony Shaffer, Julian Slade, Norman St John Stevas and Kenneth Tynan; staff photographer for Picture Post; a year spent as a merchant seaman; a pioneer screen personality on ITV, voted best interviewer by the critics ahead of Robin Day and Ffyffe Robertson; owner of the Waterman's Arms, an entertainment pub in the East End; and the Sun's first and only food critic (he lasted for an incredible 18 months). I choose merely a few items from an extensive and rum curriculum vitae.
However dizzying the effect of dipping into this cornucopia of experience, there is a satisfying spine to Farson's book, namely his struggle to come to terms with his own character. The text is spiced with self-analytical apercus. Having inherited from his father the vice of alcoholism, he admits to being bad company when drunk: "I have always been a lousy drunk, wild, euphoric and abusive after that beautiful preamble, and the terrifying thing is that I have not improved in 40 years."
Farson's homosexuality has been a source of guilt to him, similar to the guilt his father felt over his drinking and a long-standing adulterous affair. He talks of "the curse of homosexual promiscuity, the self-deception that an even truer love was waiting round the corner". Indeed, the nether world of Soho is this book's underbelly, full of misfits and slippery characters, from the photographer John Deakin ("my evil genius") and the painter Francis Bacon ('the life-enhancer') to the American millionaire Arthur Jeffress, who so adored sailors that he bequeathed his fortune to a naval welfare organisation on the specific understanding that Wrens or officers would derive no benefit from his bequest.
Another attribute Farson has inher ited from his father is an inclination to seek out "the grace of life", away from the fleshpots and the temptations of career and metropolitan fame. Hence his fascination for travel in general, and for Turkey in particular; for the East End of London before King Midas touched and ruined it; and for Devon, where his parents lived and where he has kept a home since his mother died. His capacity for observing celeb rities and ribald gossip is matched by an exquisite lyricism when he turns to nature and ordinary folk.
Farson is especially good at telling stories against himself. An accidental double exposure of Salvador Dali earns the admiration of his editor as "a surrealistic photo of the great surrealist", and wins him a professional prize. He asks a taxi driver to take him to an East End pub notorious for its rough trade, the Ele phants' Graveyard, eliciting the inquiry, "Excuse me, guv'ner, don't think me rude, but do you mean the boozer where young blokes go to pick up old geezers like you?" His wry, affectionate reminiscences about the Krays - when he resided in Limehouse they provided him with a live-in minder against burglars, who turned out to be a notorious brute called Edward "Mad Teddy" Smith – are nicely topped off with the judgment of the comic actor Arthur Mullard, who quizzed him about the gangsters, thus prompting Farson to make what he subsequently realised was the "fatuous" remark that they only killed their own kind: " 'Yuss,' he looked at me stonily, ' 'uman beings'."
Despite his fondness for the bottle, Farson still seems, at 71, to be the picture of health, his hair stubbornly remaining auburn without assistance from another type of bottle (at least, not to my eye). One of his journalistic assignments (for The Sun) was an interview in 1971 with Godfrey Winn, the veteran human-interest journalist, who told him, "I owe it to my public to keep fit, which is why I play tennis". A couple of days later, Winn collapsed and died while on the court, thus elevating the interview to a scoop. Farson himself has made no effort to keep fit, yet he is still going strong.
He has undoubtedly plundered his earlier books to enrich this confection, but he has succeeded in giving a pleasing moral coherence to his remarkable life. Sharp, funny, heartwarming, freighted with cheery self-criticism – it is everything an autobiography should be. It makes you want to give the author a hug.