Reviewed by Sebastian Wayneflete

Man on cover of book.The latest publication by Goodge-Street-based Quartet Books has an unexpected intimate connection to the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre.

Backing Into Light is the first volume of the autobiography of Colin Spencer. Many will know Spencer from his many years as a campaigning food columnist for the Guardian or for his much-treasured vegetarian cookery books, 18 in all (“the greatest living food writer” – Germaine Greer) or for his award-winning British Food – an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. Others may know him better for his Gay Kama Sutra, or Homosexuality – a History. But he is also an acclaimed artist, playwright, and author of 9 published novels, whose novel sequence Generation was described by Sir Huw Wheldon as “…affecting, hilarious and grave … a tapestry of unforgettable characters in all their seaminess and sadness, their idealism and desires.” 

This first volume of his memoirs begins “A few weeks before I was born, sometime that June in 1933…my father was intent on murdering me. Drunk and amidst a tirade of vituperation, waving a kitchen knife he was threatening to stab my mother in the womb.” He goes on to describe his childhood during the war, dominated by that raucous, womanising but irrepressible father. The story continues through the 50s and 60s, with a traumatic stint doing his National Service working in a VD clinic, culminated in a suicide attempt, a period amongst the bizarre eccentrics who were habitués of the Brighton gay scene, passionate involvements with both men and women, a disastrous marriage, and fatherhood. These years saw his first successes as he was commissioned by the Times LIterary Supplement to do drawings of the greatest writers of the day, his first novels were published and first plays performed. The account is full of clear-eyed observation and thoughtful reflection, as well as comic incident, and wittily acute observations and revelations which never appear in the textbooks about major cultural figures of the time.

Pencil drawing of young man.
Dave Ferris drawn by Colin Spencer, 1967.

And the connection to the Neighbourhood Centre? Dave Ferris, who worked at the Centre as Neighbourhood Worker from the end of 1976 for a quarter of a century to 2001. He first appears in the book, 10 years before he started at the Centre, as a youthful Canadian “with a strong accent which grated and slim hips which delighted”, about to begin secretarial work for Spencer, and continues as his companion through an idyllic summer on the Isle of Lesbos. He’s last glimpsed in these page sipping champagne with the likes of Harold Acton, Lord Kinross and Paul Dehn, script-writer for Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

All mega stuff, unflinchingly honest and exuberantly entertaining. Giant thumbs-up recommendation.

Backing Into Light, by Colin Spencer, is published by Quartet Books.