Robin Dalton's memoir is 50 years old; Clive James' fond, flashy foreword is 20 years old. Don't let either of these facts deter you.
The procession of eccentric and grotesques from 1930s Kings Cross reappears in this Text Classics reissue. Very appropriate: the author is something of a classic herself, in her mid-90s as I write this, a one-time spy for the Thai Government, film producer, literary agent for writers luminous (Orwell) and writers ludicrous (Joan Collins).
After its famous opening, which most authors would give their dentures to have written, the novella-sized narrative hurtles into Dalton's childhood in the Cross' only private home, outside which prostitutes hailed customers with "Thirty bob - strip to the earrings!"
Everyone is a Great Character, especially the elderly rellies. There's Auntie Jan, who died from blowing up a balloon. Aunt Bertie, who could never bring herself to write the words "Roman Catholic", but always put a large black cross. Aunt Juliet, who wore dark glasses, a silver fox jacket and an osprey-feather hat - in bed - and who kept her diseased appendix in the drawing room.
Then there was the time Dalton's mother killed the plumber; the patient with the boil on her backside; the lobsters waving at passers-by.
Don't forget Uncle Ken, who died "leaving the imprint of his teeth in the sugar". Or Grandfather, who fought bare-knuckled against the Kelly Gang, or Rosa the Cook, who comes to work each day with her life savings in a suitcase, or Tony the Bookmaker, with a breakfast display I can't describe in a family newspaper. Or the author herself, who goes to school with the Governor's daughter, whom she beats up regularly. Even the rats are performers.
It's a hugely energetic gallop, nicely complemented by Dinah Dryhurst's spikey, spirited illustrations, but it becomes just a touch monotonous. Everything is lived at the same hectic pace.
A number of characters don't get beyond cartoon dimensions. You wish occasionally for a little calm or contrast. Paradoxically, it's the darker moments - the bigotry, alcoholism, gambling, illness and rampant snobbery - that linger more.
Robin Dalton was a precocious little creature who had read most of Hardy by the age of 10, who named her childhood cat Samuel Pepys, and who had a store of cutely inappropriate sayings that make you want to smack her leg sometimes.
She's lived a technicolour, quite glorious life, which you'll enjoy being diverted by.
If yours seems tame by comparison, feel relieved.
AUNTS UP THE CROSS
By Robin Dalton
Text Classics ($15.99)