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Memoirs

YESTERDAY MORNING: a very English childhood. By Diana Athill. Granta pound;12.99. OUT OF INDIA: A Raj childhood. By Michael Foss. Michael O'Mara pound;20. THE GATEKEEPER: a memoir. By Terry Eagleton. Allen Lane pound;9.99

If the past is a foreign country, it is a land as culturally diverse as the present. One of the few common threads that connects these three riveting and very personal accounts of childhood is the sense of school as something of an aberration. It is not that any of the writers disavows the value of education; but schooling - "the enduring penance of youth", as Michael Foss describes it - seems so often to erupt into childhood with the destructive force of pestilence.

This sense of crude intrusion is perhaps most acute in Diana Athill's Yesterday Morning, in part because her memoir is the only one of the three unashamedly to describe a happy childhood, but also, perhaps, because of the distinctive nature of her upbringing.

Born in 1917 into the wealth and privilege of the English upper middle class, she spent her early years roaming an idyllic Norfolk countryside rather than festering in stuffy classrooms. Lessons were delivered by hired tutors rather than power-laden teachers, in the company of siblings and cousins.

When the ogre of school appears, its destructive force focuses most cruelly on Diana's brother. At the age of eight, Andrew is sent away to boarding school; at a stroke, "exiled from all that he most passionately loved, in a place where nothing spoke to him", and where there was "no alternative to bearing the unbearable". As a girl, Diana was not expected to endure such deprivation until 14, an age at which she believes she was far better equipped to cope.

Athill's adult life has not been particularly easy, however, despite a fulfilling career in publishing. In two previous memoirs, she has written of bleaker times, including the enduring devastation that followed abandonment by an adored fiance, who was shortly afterwards killed in the Second World War.

Looking back over 80 years, Athill is sure that what enabled her to reclaim her self-belief whenever it appeared to have been dealt a mortal blow was the love she soaked up as a child and "the secret - the inadmissable - self-confidence which underlay it". Yesterday Morning is a wonderful and moving book.

The writer Michael Foss was born some 20 years after Athill, in Murree, an area of India that was later to be subsumed within Pakistan. The events of his early years would lead anyone to write a memoir. His story opens in 1940 with a nerve-jangling account of being winched, aged three, from the deck of a doomed passenger ship, torpedoed in the North Atlantic en route to India. Foss's account closes with the family leaving India for England, just two days after Ghandi's assassination: they make the train journey to the port of Bombay "with heart in mouth".

In between lie a succession of schools in England and the sub-continent, distinguished merely by slight variations in their awfulness. In Simla, for example: "It was education by duress in the old hearty manner, fruition through blood and tears. Meekly, we accepted it and even gave thanks in chapel for the privilege of our pain. Our teachers promised us that it instilled what they called 'backbone'."

Although the family returned to England for good when he was 11, Foss offers an intriguing postscript that hints at a split identity. Years later, on holiday with two friends in Spain, he nodded off at the wheel of a hired car and only just managed to pull it clear from the path of an oncoming truck. That night - 30 years after he had been rescued from a stricken ship - one of his companions wakes to find him sleepwalking and talking in fluent Hindi, a language of which Foss has no conscious memory. Like Athill, he knows that childhood leaves its mark.

Terry Eagleton's native Salford is a far cry from the rural idyll of 1920s Norfolk ("Most of my relatives found real flowers something of a comedown after artificial ones"). Eagleton's asthma - "there was a lot of disease and disability at primary school" - meant he was the only pupil to wear a coat, which "made me a target as surely as flaunting some obscenely taunting slogan on my chest".

Grammar school was worse, run by a "white-haired career sadist" who "ought to have been strangled at birth, or buried alive in infancy in some desolate stretch of bogland".

But Eagleton's discursive memoir is a rollicking read. Reading The Gatekeeper feels rather like being taken for a drive by Jeremy Clarkson, foot slammed emphatically against the accelerator.

It is a breathless and entertaining ride. Anecdotes jostle for attention with wonderfully contentious aphorisms; even when tempted to pause and say, "Hang on a minute", you're swept instantly away as Eagleton lurches off in yet another unexpected direction. He is the very opposite of the pub bore, a natural raconteur it pays not to interrupt.

Steve Flood is editor of Young Minds Magazine

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