Paperbacks

25th August 1995 at 01:00
The biographer Catherine Peters has written well in defence of biographies of "secondary lives", the lives of the not-so-famous and those who have lived in the shadows of the famous. Paul Vaughan's Something in Linoleum (Sinclair-Stevenson Pounds 9.99) needs no such defence.

He himself describes it as an autobiography (the title refers to his father's job) but it is equally a portrait of a "new" suburb (Raynes Park) as it developed in the Thirties and of John Garrett, his idiosyncratic headmaster who, with his assiduous courting of the literati, definitely counts as a secondary life.

Paul Vaughan has an eye for the telling detail and writes affectionately about suburban pretensions, schoolboy scatology and wartime Oxford. But most of all, this is a highly evocative portrait of a boys' school (Raynes Park) that dared to be both different and ambitious. It (and its head's enthusiasms for blonde boys and posh pronunciation) were neatly pilloried in a rhyme about "the wonderful school They've built on the Kingston bypass, They say it's no place for a fool, But it helps if you've got a nice arse."

A differently eccentric schoolmaster is Caught in the Web of Words (Yale, Pounds 10.95). James Murray was largely self-taught, became a Scottish schoolteacher at the age of 17, worked in a bank and was persuaded back into teaching in north London's Mill Hill School. A keen amateur philologist, he became the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary in his spare time.

K M Elizabeth Murray tells the story of her "Grandfather Dictionary" with a sense of fun and attention to detail that are obviously family traits. One is left marvelling at the man who set out to entrap the earliest known usage of every English word on millions of slips of paper, filed in pigeon holes in a specially built corrugated iron shelter. Now that's what I call "making good use of the summer holidays".

How contemporary academics embrace a second, literary career is illustrated by Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks (HarperCollins Pounds 8.99). Ben Pimlott teaches politics at Birkbeck College and is sometimes described as "Labour's best known academic". This is a reprint of his collected journalism (mainly reviews and "background pieces") and while they read agreeably well (especially if you loathe Tory education Ministers), too many sound as if they began with similar phone calls. "Ben, can you do me 1,500 words on . . ." It does all feel a little secondhand.

If only an editor had imposed a word count on Martin Seymour-Smith and Humphrey Burton as they started their biographies of Hardy (Bloomsbury Pounds 12.99) and Leonard Bernstein (Faber Pounds 9.99). Both books are too heavy to read in bed, both too big to take on a train journey and both too devoted to their subjects (Burton even got Bernstein to play the organ at his wedding). The 900-page Hardy volume will doubtless tell me every detail I need to know about the novelist when I need such details; Burton on Bernstein is more fun - but then Bernstein was more fun than Hardy.

A wider view of the American music scene can be found in a series of unpretentious interviews conducted by Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker-Smith with American Originals (Faber Pounds 12.99). These composers (including Philip Glass, Meredith Monk and John Cage) reject the European tradition and favour minimalism and self-conscious experimentalism: jazz and rock meet "art music".

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