Robert Edric’s memoir of his Sheffield childhood opens with one of the best set pieces I’ve ever read in this kind of book: an absolute masterclass in how to set a scene. It is 1968 or thereabouts, and in the small rented house the author shares with his family, something even more than usually unnerving is happening. Why, wonders 12-year-old Robert, has his father, a man whose vanity, bullying and tendency to show off conceal all manner of unspoken insecurities, chosen to come home early from work today? What on earth is going on? The situation can’t possibly be good: for obvious reasons, his son cherishes the 90 minutes between his arrival from school and the sound of his dad at the door. But… oh dear. In truth, the merest glance provides an explanation. His father, who is bald, is proudly sporting a toupee.
Edric senses he must tread carefully. When his father overrules his mother, who’s busy pretending that her husband simply has a “new hairstyle”, and proceeds to show his son how his expensive “Crown Topper” is stuck to his head with special double-sided tape, the boy tries hard to appear impressed. “You can hardly see the difference,” he says, feigning a search for the invisible seam between the toupee and his father’s real hair (it’s not even remotely invisible, for while the toupee is gingery, what remains of his father’s hair is grey). Edric already knows in his gut that this wig is an “explosive charge” placed at the centre of his home. What, for instance, will happen when people outside the family notice it? (And frankly, how could they not?) Mockery is bound to follow. Worse, he and his siblings and their mother will henceforth be complicit in an embarrassing charade. The wig will never be mentioned again. It will just sit there, either on his father’s bonce, or draped over the polystyrene head supplied by Crown Topper, until the end of days. It is the weave of doom.
This is the first time Edric, who is best known as a novelist, has written autobiography, and his approach – once the wig is out of the way – is singular. My Own Worst Enemy reads like a kind of inventory, each short chapter devoted to one aspect of working-class life in Sheffield in the 1960s. He writes about smoking and drinking and the grammar school that separates him from his peers; about his extended family, and the various kinds of house in which its members live, whether newly built by the council, or Victorian and arranged around a shared yard and an outside loo; about Fine Fare, the supermarket where he gets a Saturday job as a teenager, and about the holiday camp on the east coast to which they travel every summer. The detail is incredible, a film running before the reader’s eyes. Whether he is describing an onyx cigarette lighter or a spinning leather chair, you realise all that you have forgotten, but he has not, and you feel both grateful and just a little alarmed. Though Edric eventually escaped his tyrannical father – the book’s central character, and a coercive controller avant la lettre – this is principally a social history and therefore a book that is, in ways both straightforward and profound, about loss.
I appreciated Edric’s lack of sentimentality. I wouldn’t say that he’s cruel about his people, a tribe he will one day leave far behind (thanks to his grammar school teachers, the first men he’s able truly to respect, he will get a place at Hull University, his arrival at which draws this memoir to a close). But he won’t make excuses for them: here they are, warts (toupees) and all. People fall out, and don’t speak for years. Both adults and children are cruel to those who are different, or poorer than them, or more desperate. A mother passes off her daughter as her sister. A divorced father struggles not to cry. In some ways, everything is out there, entrails on a plate. Edric’s father makes no effort to hide from his mother “the fancy piece” he has begun driving to work every morning. Men are always fighting, and vomiting all over their front doorsteps. In other ways, though, much is deeply buried, utterly concealed. People don’t talk, not really. Every little house is a locked box, impenetrable to outsiders, and sometimes even to insiders, too.
The 60s, of course, are happening elsewhere. Not that elsewhere really exists, for Edric. Even the Peak District, which borders Sheffield in the most startling way, vast housing estates suddenly giving way to moorland, is a far-off realm for him (he sees it only once a year, from the windows of the charabanc that takes the Fine Fair staff on their works outing). As for the city, though we hear it – the steel industry is still going strong, and “the beating of distant machinery could always be heard” – we don’t really see it, or not much of it. If Jane Austen gave us two inches of ivory, Edric works on a single roof slate. I’m from Sheffield, too, and I recognised a lot that he describes; the house he grew up in, reached through a kind of tunnel between the terraces, is built to the same design as my granny’s. But with this book, geography is really neither here nor there. Its beautiful topography has to do with the hills of the heart, and the canals of the soul; with the great rivers of memory and experience that sometimes bind us tightly together, but far more often separate us, making us feel so very lonely and misunderstood.
My Own Worst Enemy: Scenes of a Sheffield Childhood by Robert Edric is published by Swift Press (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply