My Family: The Memoir by David Baddiel review – meet the parents

<span>David with his brothers, Dan and Ivor, and parents on holiday in Swansea Bay, 1974.</span><span>Photograph: David Baddiel</span>
David with his brothers, Dan and Ivor, and parents on holiday in Swansea Bay, 1974.Photograph: David Baddiel

In another life, David Baddiel’s mother, Sarah, could have been an aristocrat living in a big house with servants and married to a rich businessman – or so she imagined. In the early 1930s, her German Jewish parents, Ernst and Otti, had been extremely wealthy; according to a cousin, they owned a painting by Rubens. But then the Nazis took their home, their livelihood and murdered their relatives, so they fled with their baby to England. Twenty-five years later, their daughter was living in a modest house in London’s Dollis Hill with three sons and her husband, Colin, an emotionally detached, working-class research scientist who, after being made redundant, sold Dinky Toys on a market stall. For Sarah, the most exotic life got was when the family went on their annual holiday to Swansea. And so, to assuage her disappointment and “block out complex realities”, she embraced a fantasy version of her life with the help of David White, her golf-obsessed, polo neck-wearing, pipe-smoking lover.

In My Family: The Memoir, the comic and Jews Don’t Count author spills the secrets of Sarah, Colin and his own outre childhood in 60s and 70s London. This isn’t the first time their story has been told. Baddiel’s 2016 stage show My Family: Not the Sitcom revolved around his mother’s infidelity and her sudden, improbable interest in golf memorabilia, which was triggered by White and which, equally improbably, she managed to turn into a thriving business. That show also revealed the impact of Colin’s illness: in his later years he had Pick’s disease, a form of dementia affecting the frontal lobe which is known to cause angry outbursts and disinhibition, traits he already possessed in spades.

My Family takes that material, fills in the gaps and once again draws out the comedy as it reflects in greater detail on why Baddiel’s parents were the way they were. As the author makes clear, this is no misery memoir. Though his childhood was characterised by chaos and neglect, there was also silliness and love. Much of that love radiated from his older brother, Ivor, who, just 18 months his senior, would step in and parent him, getting him up in the mornings, giving him breakfast and putting him on the school bus. But there is a seam of sadness, too: at the loss of his parents (Sarah died in 2014 and Colin in 2022), at their dysfunctional relationship and at their failure to shield their children from that dysfunction.

The book reproduces photos, drawings and miscellaneous paperwork from his parents’ lives (they were compulsive hoarders), allowing us to share in the weirdness of his mother’s communications with White along with her vast stock of eccentric golf-themed trinkets. Perhaps the strangest part of the story is that Sarah would leave evidence – such as love letters – of her affair lying around for all to see. To let her friends and family in on this supposedly secret life was to proudly show them how interesting she was, even though Baddiel insists Colin remained oddly, perhaps determinedly, in the dark.

When her children were adults, Sarah would copy them into her emails to White. In case there were any residual doubt as to identity of her lover, she even had White’s face put on a mug. Once, while making a guest appearance on her son’s TV show, Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, Sarah suggested that not all of her children had been fathered by her husband. While Baddiel notes there is no concrete evidence to corroborate this, Ivor’s childhood drawings tell their own story. Reproduced here, each features a tall man smoking a pipe. “My father did not smoke a pipe. I think we know who did,” writes Baddiel, flatly. In the fifth and final picture, the pipe has grown and taken on the unmistakable aspect of a penis. “It may not surprise you to know that I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy,” he adds.

Baddiel writes with a comic’s fluency and timing. His prose is conversational, frequently pre-empting potential misgivings or questions from the reader, and contains lengthy digressions into his own life as a standup, TV presenter, film-maker, father and cat lover, some of which are more necessary than others. Remarkably, the tale of his mother’s affair is told without judgment, and with genuine empathy, while gleefully dancing around the edges of decency. It’s with much amusement that he shares an email from Sarah, written to White, where she announces, in capitals, “MY CLITORIS IS ON FIRE !!!!!” This leads to a gag about her funeral that I won’t ruin but which for me prompted more of a choke than laughter. There are lots of these woah-did-he-just-say-that? moments (there’s another where Baddiel refers to himself as an intellectual, linking to a footnote that states: “I’m aware you’re not supposed to say this”). But in this instance, the author taps into something important and rarely examined: how we talk about the dead. Should we talk only in hushed, respectful tones about those who have left us, Baddiel asks. And should we pay any heed to the phrase “It’s what he/she would have wanted?” There is, he notes, “some emotional point in asking what a deceased person would have wanted, but we tell stories of the dead not really for them, but to help the living”. He

recalls being at his mother’s funeral where people he’d never met kept telling him how wonderful she was. Overwhelmed by the one-dimensional platitudes, he found he wanted to talk about her complexities, her singular vitality, her transgressiveness and absence of boundaries. In other words, the things that made her her. In this book, a eulogy of sorts, he does that for both his parents – in the case of his father, detailing how, long before his dementia, he was sweary, charismatic, embarrassed by emotion and capable of devastating verbal cruelty. Baddiel recalls, as a child, once leaning his head affectionately on his father’s shoulder. “I didn’t know you cared,” Colin said sarcastically – a mean, throwaway comment that left a deep wound. In a possible bid to balance out the references to his mother’s clitoris, Baddiel also recalls the noises Colin made during sex, an unholy racket redolent of a wounded walrus that once frightened a friend who was sleeping over so much that he thought someone, most likely Baddiel’s mother, must have died.

Has Baddiel, who says he is an uncontrollabletruth-teller, shared too much? I would argue not. Telling deeply personal stories that include the good, the terrible, the humiliating and the ridiculous is the job and compulsion of effective memoirists and comics. My Family is less about how mums and dads fuck you up as how they are weird and complicated and hilarious, and how you can miss them once they are dead even though, in life, they could be massive pains in the arse. In giving us the full, unvarnished picture, Baddiel has done his parents proud.

My Family: The Memoir by David Baddiel is published by 4th Estate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.