England, First & Last by Anthony Bailey (Elizabeth Sifton/Viking: $15.95)
This sometimes charming, occasionally graceful, always lucid book is a little memoir making a global round. The individual stops are more engaging than the whole journey.
Read about Anthony Bailey, then a boy, coming home to England after four formative years in the United States. Understand Bailey's rediscovery of class and custom after leaving the privileges of Dayton, Ohio, for the perquisites of a British prep school reserved for children of proper birth. Appreciate Bailey's sense of singular self as sailing becomes his passion. Explore Africa's Gold Coast with him as Bailey serves the English military in the waning days of empire.
There is more casual going than organized arrival here, less rite of passage than writing about passage. The book, then, is more coming upon than coming of age, meaning that Bailey--for all his gifts of language and sensitivity--is a better reporter than interpreter. His itinerary hardly includes much of a psychological journey although the places visited and the oddities experienced might have lent themselves to inner travel in the manner of a Waugh or Orwell. The result is also not much of a diary for similar reasons; Bailey does not--or would not--much comment on his own emotional responses to diverse experience; there are no ardent romances and few signs of lust along the way. The eye for good detail is almost always looking outward.
Ward of World War II
Readers of "America, Lost and Found" will remember that Bailey, at age 7, left home and Britain for Dayton as a ward of World War II, sent for safety by his parents. The Spaeth family of Ohio was well-to-do and welcoming; Bailey was treated as a family intimate and the American experience was warmly cordial rather than culture shock. Now, we pick up Bailey's trail in the new book as he returns to England, to family, to postwar material shortages, to discover he has a decided Dayton accent. The transition, like most of the travel here, however deftly described, is relatively painless, comparatively easy.
Notes about lineage are occasionally quite funny: Great-Aunt Kitty, for instance, from the Irish Molony branch of the family, told stories about her husband, Tom, who "had died of damp blankets while serving in the British Army in the First World War."
Admissions of youthful self-absorption are rare but seem right: " . . . in having spent most of the war in America, I had been given an exceptional opportunity to see beyond family confines. In a way this confidence helped sustain for a long time my suspicion that I was very different from my contemporaries, a feeling that all youngsters no doubt have about themselves at one point or another, but one that I regarded in my own case as particularly correct."
Confessions of inadequacy as a British officer plopped in Africa illuminate the limits of transcultural understanding: "Here, as I asked a question that was meant to get to the bottom of it all, the large, moist, dark eyes would shift and the personality being probed would retreat into unreachable depths."
Observer Bailey generally travels at depths most readers will reach and enjoy. But he seems unwilling to take the daring plunge, unwilling to risk looking truly foolish on foreign turf. He is, at first, a bright boy, then a good student, finally an officer and a gentleman. He knows where he has been but he rarely makes the reader worry about him and the good reader, like the good parent, should be concerned about a young person arriving safely. You always know Bailey will be all right, will be home on time.