David Hare’s beautifully abrasive memoir suggests, as with a firework, that you light the blue touch paper and stand back. Bristling with a magnificent arrogance, it coincides with a time in his playwriting career when he mines his own experience at Lancing College in the early 1960s in South Downs, commissioned as a companion piece to Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version. Hare was unbottling his autobiography for the first time. His parents were dead—his father, a naval officer and full purser with the Peninsular and Oriental, had been away at sea for most of each year; his mother, a sensitive soul from Paisley—and he found himself explaining to young actors what living in a post-war, God-fearing middle-class environment meant.
The lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim once said that “no-one’s childhood is uninteresting.” In telling the full story of his apprenticeship as a playwright from school through Cambridge and the early days of fringe theatre, Hare delivers the angriest and most impassioned account of growing up I’ve read recently outside of Edna O’Brien’s. He’s had 17 new plays performed at the National Theatre, but his political and literary impulses remain subversive and contrarian, despite (because of?) that knighthood from Tony Blair. He also reveals a profound tenderness, as well as a disarming frankness, in mixing up his marriage to the television producer Margaret Matheson with his love for the Canadian actress Kate Nelligan, who starred in his first great play, Plenty, in 1978—which is where the book, completing a perfect arc of dynamic self-explanation, ends.