Roger Mortimer (1909-1991) fought at Dunkirk, spent time as a PoW, and in civilian life spent three decades as a racing correspondent for the Sunday Times. He's the sort of man who reminisces at 80: "There was a boy called Peel at Eton with me who went off his onion later and sawed the head off his ever-loving wife. He was very odd when the moon was full."
Roger's son Charlie, born in 1952, represents a different generation and an equally enduring English archetype: the public-school waster. We first encounter Charlie – whom his father nicknames "Lupin" after Mr Pooter's useless son in The Diary of a Nobody – as a 15-year-old boy on his way to dropping out of Eton. This collection of Roger's letters to him has been compiled by their recipient, who after a succession of rackety careers now describes himself as a "middle-aged, middle-class spiv (mostly retired)".
If you're one of those flinty-hearted souls not charmed by books where everyone's pissed up on gin, has a nickname like Pongo, Bingbong or Wiffwaff and comments that the doctors in a hospital are "as black as ten feet up a factory chimney", this may not be for you. It's of that world, though less PG Wodehouse than Cold Comfort Farm: something between a posh English version of Shit My Dad Says, and the self-knowing curmudgeonry of Roger Lewis's Seasonal Suicide Notes. It is often funny, of its kind:
"I have heard nothing of your sister and Hot Hand Henry [the sister's disapproved-of husband]. Can it be true they are residing at a nudist colony on one of the remoter Greek islands? It would surely be a weird choice for a honeymoon? Or perhaps not. Except for the first fortnight at their preparatory school a honeymoon is for most people the least happy experience of their life. Mr Parkinson woke up on the third morning of his first honeymoon and found that his ever-loving wife had done a pineapple chunk. I think Mr P is scouting around for a fourth wife. If he does succeed in his quest, I hope I shall be best man again: it has become part of the tradition."
But these letters also say something a little poignant about how upper-class (they insist "middle-class", but they're not middle-class as most of us would recognise it) men of that generation communicate, or fail to. Discrete gobbets of information are delivered in a briskly telegraphic style and apparently random sequence – as if to imply that a dog being sick, a friend leaving his wife, a child being run over, or a spillage of orange juice in the front seat of the car are matters of equal moment; or, to be more precise, equal indifference. There's a sad tug between the jocularity of the letters and the dysfunction they describe. Roger is funny, but he isn't very happy. He luxuriates in gloom, and his letters return over and over again to a handful of favourite topics: the depredations of the Inland Revenue, disgusting dinner parties with boring people, the incontinence of the family pets, the miseries and illnesses of advancing age – and a meticulously kept tally of car accidents.
"Not much news. Old General Scobie died from a heart attack. He stopped Greece going communist in 1945. Your mother has had flu. Her little plan to give up spirits for Lent lasted 3½ days. Pongo has chewed up a rug and had very bad diarrhoea in the kitchen. Six Indians were killed in a car crash in Newbury."
The peril the Mortimers and their neighbours encounter on the roads may be something to do with the amount they drink. It's pretty plain from early on that "Nidnod" (Charlie's mum) is an alcoholic. She's "v. tiresome at present and by 8:30 pm seems to have reached the point of no return"; "endeavouring to live on a purely liquid diet with unfortunate results"; "had her noggin in the bucket for a considerable period and was totally unplayable in the evening".
Roger himself is no teetotaller: he passed out after lunch at a neighbour's house "with a glass in my hand and spilt the contents all over my new 'special offer' trousers. Of course, ill-natured persons suggested I peed during my brief period of repose which I am happy to say was an unfounded allegation".
About two thirds of the way through, Charlie, now in his 30s, having never held down anything like a proper job for any length of time and having already spent two months in hospital with liver failure, is consigned to rehab for drink and drug abuse, where – his greatest life-achievement to date – he becomes head boy. This often reads like a horror story played for laughs. What lifts it is the dogged love Roger feels for his son: angry admonishment, repeated forgiveness, resigned support, and, finally, fellow-feeling. Sometimes, he breaks character and speaks directly. In the mid-80s he wrote:
"My inside is giving me hell at present but if I go off to surgery for some soothing medicine I shall be whipped off to hospital, deprived of the last tattered shreds of human dignity, and tubes will be inserted into every orifice that I possess. The biggest mistake I ever made was to come round after passing out when buying cut-price gin in Newbury. I have hardly had a day's health or happiness since. I suppose very few people are ever really happy. The most one can hope for is to be reasonably content."
In his introduction, with Roger dead two decades, Charlie writes: "I suspect he would be delighted that, now almost sixty, the same age he was when he wrote me the early letters, I had at least survived thus far and was moderately happy." I suspect he would, though he might find it hard to say so.
• Sam Leith's You Talkin' To Me? is published by Profile.
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