Jonathan Fryer’s moving account of a disturbed child who comes of age is fraught with obstacles in his path to self-awareness. He must follow his best instincts to learn about the world, although it requires arduous travel and great risks, the biggest result of his journey is that he discovers himself.. The hand he has drawn in life begins with a dysfunctional adoptive family: a self absorbed and aloof stepmother with a failing grip on reality, his harsh, spoiled and uncaring stepfather, one of multiple siblings who inherited the family-owned Fryer’s department store, and an older sister who is also adopted. His stepfather, moreover, cares principally about running a respectable son and inflicting upon him his unmet sexual desires. Indeed, it is his warden’s groping hand in his bedroom that repulses Jonathan from his last hope of finding a model for relating to other human beings and haunts him throughout his teenage years.
To escape his prison this disturbed child takes the only route available to him and dutifully attends the prestigious Manchester Grammar School, an hour’s commute across the city from his suburban town of Eccles, failing one subject after the next in the required curriculum. in his final year, the sixth form, he is at last permitted to select his courses. Only then, when he takes on geography, English, English literature and French, does he find inspiring instructors and the academic freedom to experience the give-and-take of the British tutorial system. He hits his stride and his academic career takes off, enabling him to sit for the Oxbridge exams and land a coveted berth at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
Having struggled with the author through his difficult family beginnings as a disturbed child and his grammar school years, we find that the pace of the story picks up dramatically in the second half. Only when Jonathan’s self-absorbed parents take an extended trip abroad, leaving Jonathan to his own devices, can he plan an extended tour of Europe and Asia and a return in time for his first term at Oxford. In preparing for his French, English and geography exams he has closely followed European politics, including the election of Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, and his ill-fated reforms in the hopeful Prague spring, and the May 68 events in France—student uprisings against traditional French values, symbolized by the 5th Republic of Charles de Gaulle and demonstrations against the low estate of French workers, which ground the country’s industrial economy to a halt. I saw the beginnings of this movement from my hotel balcony in 1965, where I stood transfixed and mystified, as compatriots of Danny the Red took over rue des Ecoles, damaged property and even overturned a car before my eyes. With nothing back home to lose, Jonathan plans a Grand Tour in the summer of 1968, with an eye toward becoming a foreign correspondent. He travels first by the Orient Express to Istanbul and then progresses over land to Afghanistan, Pakistan and by air to Ho Chi Minh City (later renamed Saigon), plopping himself right into the middle of the Vietnam war. When he is unexpectedly granted a visa, he makes a side trip to Kathmandu, Nepal, the 1960s mecca for hippies, drug experimenters and the “Make Love, Not War” generation. Since I had followed a similar itinerary in 1965 as far east as Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and Goreme, the ancient city carved into Anatolia’s mountainous badlands, I was familiar with some of the bureaucratic difficulties he had to overcome.
In his self-described “odd” odyssey, once this disturbed child has shaken off the petty values of his domineering father, Jonathan Fryer demonstrates his own impressive abilities. When he strikes out for an extended journey across two continents to a war zone, he shows bold vision, mastery of bureaucratic detail and youthful courage. Review of Eccles Cakes, by Jonathan Fryer, London, 2016.. In the process he finds his vocation, discovers his true sexual identity and, after a loveless, lonely childhood, finds a place alongside the rest of humanity. At last at age 19, he fits in his own skin for the first time.
Until next time, good words to you,
I highly recommend this book to all fans of autobiography, geography and history. For another unique take on history and family life, read Alice Green’s autobiography, Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces.