William Feaver

The usual Soho suspects

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John Moynihan

Sansom & Co., pp. 280, £

When John Moynihan was three and living with his painter parents in a flat off Primrose Hill he used to be terrified by nocturnal howls and squeals from the Regent's Park zoo. Wetting himself, desperate to be 'rescued from the labyrinths of an unspeakable jungle', he was soothed by whoever happened to be around, sometimes the young Bill Coldstream, who would stand beside his 'blabbering urine-moistened form, urging restraint'.

Initiated into parental artistic circles which extended, prewar, from St John's Wood to the New Forest, Bloomsbury and the Euston Road, Moynihan was reared in a ferment of rows and realignments. His father, Rodrigo Moynihan, had an 'Objective Abstraction' phase - thick, pitted and unsaleable - and was apt to slope off to Soho in search of amusement. His mother, Elinor Bellingham Smith, drew for magazines and painted woebegones in school caps on misted river banks. On holiday once at Fryern Court young John crouched in the reeds by a pond while Uncle Augustus (John) peeked at the girls frolicking there and grunted something about Elinor having good legs.

Moynihan grew up to become a football writer. Exposure to the contact sports of his parents' generation may well have quickened his tactical grasp and his eye for the professional foul. As at the Slade and the Royal College, so too at Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane: the clash of personalities and the desperate pressure to succeed. He watched his elders at it. 'The semi-teenage Lawrence Gowing clinging to the artists' shirt-tails he thought worth clinging to' became a professor at an early age. Stanley Spencer ('a natural victim who appeared never to clean his teeth') came close to having a used condom placed in his bed by cheeky young John.

Adulthood brought nights on the town, with Elinor and Rodrigo introducing their son to the post-war Gargoyle, the French Pub and the Colony Room. There was carousing with Francis Bacon and 'John Minton with his descending, waterfall El Greco face' getting hysterical. On Saturdays Elinor provided pre-match and post-match sausages, keeping open house at 155 Old Church Street, next to the Chelsea Arts Club, for football groupies such as David Sylvester and A. J. Ayer. They could afford the sausages because Rodrigo had taken to portrait painting - a trim Attlee and a faintly surprised Princess Elizabeth - and soon became an RA. His great group portrait of himself and colleagues in the painting school of the Royal College, 1950, was, in retrospect, an isolated achievement.

Some stretches of this extended autopsy portrait, which ends with the final breakdown of the marriage in the mid-Fifties, are as overworked as any example of Moynihan Objective Abstraction. Wallpaper doesn't just hang there, it peels 'like the damp rump of a wandering antelope'. Characters peel off too and drop from sight. Where Moynihan senior painted people in a mild light (his Mrs Thatcher in the NPG is a laughable Mrs Miniver impersonation), Moynihan junior brings on his adult acquaintances as though grabbing witnesses, not to say storyboarding a soap opera. Memoir breeds memoir and depression sets in. Muriel, the Roberts (MacBryde and Colquhoun), Johnny, of course, Henrietta, Gaston, Deakin and Jeff are all there, familiar figures doing their usual.