As the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, Tory MP, cofounder of the British publishing house Weidenfeld & Nicolson, writer and editor, the author can't fail to pen an amusing though occasionally flat-footed memoir. As in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), Nicolson is best as Proustian observer, recounting with calm acquiescence the misadventures of his mother, the libertine, the influence of his father, the patrician man-of-the-world, and the antics of their Bloomsbury friends: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, et al. Though his tone is blithe and his sense of time past more a laundry list than a cohesive web, Nicolson's insights are sometimes startlingly profound, as when he says of Virginia Woolf's death: ""The reason why she killed herself was not that she feared madness or found the stress of war unendurable but that she thought she had lost the gift of writing, and what was the purpose of life if she could not describe it?"" His accounts of school days at Eton and Oxford are banal, as are reports of his stint with the Grenadier Guards in the African and Italian campaigns during WW II. His early fascinations with Mussolini and Hitler, and his failed attempt to snipe a German guard solely for the purpose of impressing a female war correspondent, are the only memorable facets of this period, and their sheer mindlessness makes Nicolson seem churlish. His subsequent account of his years as an MP and ""the single most important moment"" in his life, as an honorable abstainer in Parliament's vote for military intervention in the Suez crisis of 1956, redeems him as a conscientious statesman. More a compiler than a writer, the octogenarian Nicolson does manage, nonetheless, to sketch an insider's 20th-century Britain--a quiet treat for hopeless Anglophiles.