If there’s a spectrum of Celtic moods then my father tended towards its capricious end. Though he saw himself as rock-solid in the consistency of his principles, you could never quite tell how he would react to anything. The mixture of gravitas and unpredictability made him a remarkable judge, but it was less of a winning formula in the domestic setting of kitchen or sitting room.
This was something I had to try to anticipate when I realised, in the late 1970s, that I would have to break the news to Dad that I belonged to the category he hated and feared. Yes, the moment of coming out, cardinal rite of passage in gay life, though of course the term ‘rite of passage’ can cover anything from bar mitzvah to auto-da-fé.
I had already told my mother, not making a very good job of it. Rose-tinted spectacles is the rule when looking back at the past, though ‘pink cataracts’ might be the more accurate phrase. Researchers have found ways of correlating people’s wishful impressions with hard data, checking the age at which children learned to walk or talk (as recorded by healthcare authorities) against parental boasts of precociousness, establishing the true amount given to charity over a given period as opposed to the inflated claims. So if I’m convinced that I played my coming-out scene to my mother in a key of sickly self-pity, then the reality was surely worse. Did I compare my sexual orientation with her own road accident a few years earlier, as something that had to be dealt with in all its damage rather than wished away? I’m afraid I did. As the years went by she must have been surprised to realise that my life contained both fun and meaning, intimacy and mild self-respect, but then so was I. Finally Mum had asked the question mothers nerve themselves to ask: would this life make me happy? I said that it would, but I couldn’t avoid a vocal wobble and an implication of martyrdom.
It was a big scene in the making, and that was just what I didn’t want made. Dad’s thespian side was strongly developed, mine nipped in the bud for that very reason. Over the years I had observed Dad’s behaviour and learned to some extent to modify its excesses. It was sometimes possible to resist the theatricalisation that was his normal response to crisis, to de-dramatise conflict. For instance, if he ordered all three of his sons out of the house during Christmas lunch after some blow-up at table, a certain amount of de-escalation could be managed as long as we stayed put. The inventive act was not to push back your chair and throw down your napkin but to peel a tangerine or reach for the nutcrackers, to wait a while and then ask Dad why he was so fond of Kentish cobnuts when they were so fiddly, so hard to get out of their shells. Breaking off the conversation marooned us in our roles. Refusing the script as he wrote it guaranteed at the least a new configuration of conflict, and might possibly lead to novelties all round.
What I needed to do, on the brink of my rite of passage, was to shape the event so as to bring something small and truthful out of Dad, taking him away from reflexes and set attitudes. I needed to change the character of his performance by restricting its size, as if I was Peter Brook called on to direct Orson Welles or Donald Wolfit (if anyone remembers that name).
The obvious priority was getting rid of any possibility of an audience. If it was just the two of us there would be more prospect of damping down his reactions. There was a less selfish aspect too: Dad wouldn’t have to consider putting on a show of consistency with his previously expressed attitudes, for the benefit of someone else.
I would need Dad to myself for several days, which by this stage in the evolution of family life wasn’t a natural state of affairs. The tail end of the Christmas holiday in Anglesey offered the obvious opportunity. It wasn’t difficult to persuade my brothers to be reunited with their girlfriends rather than remain with the family group. My mother agreed to head back to London early. I don’t remember what pretext we gave for this piece of behaviour, which could legitimately have struck Dad as odd if he had been in a mood to suspect any sort of ambush. Accomplished lying isn’t much of a family characteristic, though it’s hard to be sure, since it’s the other sort that gets found out.
I strongly suggested to my mother that she didn’t answer the phone on New Year’s Eve. This was a sensible precaution, since I was trying to release Dad’s rage and sorrow in a controlled explosion, far away from other people. I wanted to minimise the possibility of collateral damage. Dad’s reflex and survival instinct was not to absorb unwelcome information and emotional disturbance but to re-export it immediately in a new direction. He would start a fight externally in preference to experiencing his own conflicts. How glib that sounds! And psychobabble had barely been invented in those days. But I knew that left to himself, he would pick up the phone, ventilate some anger in Mum’s direction (you let them walk all over you, and this is what happens!) and then feel much better, leaving her struggling to recover the shreds of her poise.
There was an interpretation of family history in place, available to Dad in times of crisis, according to which he had stuck to principle and refused to buy his sons’ love, while she had capitulated at every stage and never made a stand against permissiveness. This wasn’t always the way he saw things, but it was the version of events that emerged under stress.
Even at the time I understood that this cover story was a result of pained disappointment not just in his sons but in himself. Not only were we turning out very different from the go-getting brood he had so confidently anticipated, but he had reproduced the atmosphere of his own young manhood, with a father-figure reluctantly obeyed but not much liked. He had wanted to be our friend, and to break the pattern, but had no idea how to realise this new approach to family. Much easier to blame Mum for her tenderness than acknowledge that his own, proudly disguised, had been ignored. It wasn’t likely that Dad, under great emotional pressure, would fail to blame her in the case of a warping for which mothers are traditionally held responsible. When sons turn out not to be the marrying kind, fathers can play cherchez la femme with a vengeance.
So I recommended to Mum that she phone relatively early in the evening to exchange New Year messages, and not answer the phone after, say, ten o’clock. This was a married couple who spoke on the phone every day when separated, though they had no special ritual for the end of the year. They hadn’t needed one – I imagine this was the first New Year’s Eve they had spent apart since 1947. There’s a risk of overplaying the psychodrama here, and portraying myself as the son who seeks to divide his parents so as to have his mother all to himself (as in accounts of the Psychology of the Homosexual, orthodox though very passé), but I admit that I hadn’t hesitated to intervene in a ritual communication that was likely to turn nasty under the prevailing circumstances.
The deadline was midnight. I wanted 1977 to be the last year I didn’t see my face in the mirror, and there were only minutes left of it. I ushered in the new era of frankness by turning off the television and topping up Dad’s wine glass. Then at last it was time for ‘Dad … There’s something I need to tell you.’
That’s the formula for this rite of passage, though perhaps I should give myself the benefit of the doubt and say that I introduced some slight variation – ‘There’s something you need to know,’ or something of the sort. There’s not a lot of room available for improvisation. The coming-out speech is a relatively unvarying form because the event has only two parts, a clearing of the throat to demand attention (hear ye! hear ye!) and then a simple phrase that can’t be taken back (I’m gay). After that, as it seems to the person making the declaration, the fixed points disappear. All clocks return to zero hour and the speakers have new voices issued to them, voices that stray so far from any previous conversation they may as well be talking in tongues.
The details of that evening are a blur, not just because it was a long time ago but because it was a blur at the time. I was in shock. Dad was in shock, of course, but I was in shock too, from having administered one and also from the fact of having kept my nerve. Samson had pulled down the temple and the masonry had bounced off him as if it was no more than blocks of expanded polystyrene. Patriarchal authority, as it turned out, was balsa wood under the mahogany veneer.
That first night Dad was stricken but not rejecting. When we finally went to bed he said everything would be all right. There was no hug but then he wasn’t huggy. There was no sense of a hug withheld. His wish of ‘Happy New Year’, returning mine, was subdued but seemed sincere, bearing no trace of satirical aggression, no suggestion that I’d already blighted the twelvemonth to come.
I was buffeted by strong gusts of vertigo and anti-climax. I had made an existential leap, but maybe it was a leap into the void à la Gloucester, over a cliff-edge that loomed only in my head. When at last I could pull air back into my flattened lungs, I was all too obviously the person I had been before. Less was changed than fear had promised.
Everything would be all right. During the night Dad had second thoughts about this. Under the first impact of the news his concern had been to reassure me, but overnight he had looked at things from other points of view and revised his conclusions. He brought me tea, an indication in itself that he had slept badly, or at least woken early. He had his pipe between his teeth, an ex-smoker’s stratagem to ward off oral craving. According to Mum he ground his teeth in his sleep, and if he was going to be grinding them during the day it made sense to erode a replaceable object rather than the fretting mechanism itself. In the same way it’s sensible to introduce a pencil between the jaws of an epileptic in spasm. It may be that at this point Dad was torn between the dangers of speaking his mind and the pain of biting his tongue. Overnight he had come up with a number of arguments to prove me wrong. He would argue every step of the way, he would (as lawyers say) ‘put it to me’ that I was mistaken about what I thought I wanted.
In normal life Dad didn’t do self-catering. He would indicate his needs by saying: ‘I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea, if you’re making one.’ Now he was playing an unaccustomed role, though he sent a signal, with the teabag left in the mug, that there were limits to mollycoddling.
As a general thing, the mollycoddling went the other way. Some household tasks would be evenly divided. He would attend to the kitchen range and I would clean out the grate and lay a new fire in the sitting room. But if food was going to pass Dad’s lips it would be me preparing it. At some stage I hoped that Dad would see the irony of warning me against unmasculine behaviour while expecting me to cook and serve his meals. He liked to be waited on, even in small matters like the clicking of tiny saccharine pellets from a dispenser into his tea.
In any case, kitchen tasks would demand energy that should be devoted to preparing his case. This was a lawyer after all, not only a lawyer but a judge, and the case was closed only when he said so. Our few days together turned into a courtroom drama rather than a soap opera, a long cross-examination broken by domestic routines. An actual day in court would be interrupted by lunch, possibly by a conference in chambers. This more free-wheeling inquisition was interrupted by me making Dad coffee or an omelette, maybe pork chops with gravy and carrots.
To an extent he treated me as a hostile witness whose testimony he was determined to discredit, which didn’t necessarily make him aggressive since undisguised aggression is a very limited courtroom tactic. His manner was sometimes almost seductive, and he knew the effectiveness of seeming to agree with the opposing arguments from time to time. But there was also a sense that I was his client, someone to be got off the hook however strong the evidence against him, however stubbornly he incriminated himself. He had campaigned hard to raise my unsatisfactory grade at Ancient History A-level; he would do a lot more to get my failing papers in heterosexuality sent back for re-marking.
I hadn’t made the mistake of trying to soften the blow. It would have been fatal to say, ‘I think I might be gay,’ a formula which with its hint of doubt would turn anyone into a lawyer quibbling about exactly what was meant. Dad, being a lawyer already, wasn’t in a hurry to accept my verdict on myself.
One of the first things he said on that New Year’s Day was that my situation was anything but unusual, and I should be initiated into the joys of natural love by an older woman, or by older women plural. This was the first indication he had given that the sexual code he preached, according to which two virgins were to approach the marriage bed with a justified excitement, admitted any flexibility. He assured me, though, that the older woman procedure had done the trick for Prince Charles, though several courses of treatment had been needed to guarantee a cure.
It seemed extraordinary to me that Dad should at short notice turn the heir to the throne into a latent but finally triumphing heterosexual. It wasn’t news that my father had a tendency to tailor reality to the demands of fantasy. Keeping it in check may have been one of the things that a life in the law did for him, by requiring him to finesse the facts rather than setting them aside. If I had suggested any ambiguity about Prince Charles’s sexuality before New Year’s Day 1978 he would have been outraged.
That was his first gambit, the Princely Parallel. There were others over the next few days, the Auntly Ambush, the Bisexual Fork, the Bisset Surprise.
Auntly Ambush. Dad asked me to find his address book and look up his Auntie Mary’s phone number. I was surprised by this sociable impulse. Were we planning family visits? It hardly seemed the time for that, with the air so strongly charged with tension. Auntie Mary, widowed since the 1950s, lived in Denbigh. It was true that we sometimes saw her over the Christmas holidays. She made mince pies, and had a little superstition about them. Each mince pie eaten between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day guaranteed a lucky month, so it was necessary to eat a dozen to be fully protected, and each mince pie must be paid for with a kiss. Those kisses of hers, bristly and oddly intent, put me off facial hair for a while.
I asked Dad why he wanted to speak to Auntie Mary. ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘You’ll be doing the talking. Don’t you think you should tell her what you’ve told me? She’s family, isn’t she? She has a right to know.’ He started to dial the number, confident that I wouldn’t let him finish the process and make the connection. I went over to him and pressed down on the prongs of the phone, cutting off the call, and stayed there to prevent him from making another attempt. Dad’s Orson Welles side couldn’t be kept in check indefinitely. He got quite a lot of mileage out of using the phone as a prop in our family theatricals.
According to his script, if I had a duty to tell him about my sexuality (this was how I had described my situation) then I must also inform the rest of the family, directly. He had chosen Auntie Mary as the most rhetorically effective figure for this line of argument, someone so far removed by age and long-standing widowhood from the urges of the body that I would have to explain basic acts from scratch before her disbelieving, Welsh-county-town, Congregationalist-myopic eyes.
I explained that there was no need to explain myself to Auntie Mary because she wasn’t part of my life, while Dad was. This was true in its way, but perhaps he was noticing something else. I might be telling him how important a figure he was in my life, but I was also willing to risk being rejected, which suggested that I could get along without his approval – so how important was he really? If the family divided into two parts, widowed great-aunts kept in the dark about private perversions, and powerless patriarchs presented with deviant lifestyles as facts they had to adjust to, then perhaps Dad had ended up on the wrong wing.
On 31 December, when Dad had tried phoning Mum she had followed my advice and let it ring. After that, they spoke every day, as was their habit, usually last thing at night. These conversations were largely ritualised, and amounted essentially to billing and cooing – ‘Billing and Sheilaing’ was what we called it, my brothers and I. Now of course those phone calls had an extra layer of meaning to them. Usually Dad spoke on the sitting-room phone, without seeking privacy. I imagine Mum had asked lightly, ‘How are you two getting on?’ for Dad to answer with an undertone of weary irony, as he did: ‘We’re having some very interesting discussions. He’s full of surprises.’
Over the days of wrangling I hoped that Dad would at some point acknowledge that in my own way I was standing up to him, something that dominant personalities are said to admire, though not all the evidence points that way.
Bisexual Fork. One day Dad’s rhetoric took a startling new tack. ‘You’re right, Adam,’ he said. ‘My generation was brought up with a very simple sense of these things. When I say I’m heterosexual, I only mean that all my past experience has been with women. There’s nothing to stop me from being attracted to a man tomorrow. Wouldn’t you agree?’
This was so different from his normal patterns of thought and speech that I was stupefied. Was the sly old thespian going to spring a coup de théâtre on me, revealing that he and his rather mousy clerk Mr Cant had been an item these many years, that he hadn’t known how to tell me and was relieved to have someone to confide in at last?
Not quite. I hesitated. ‘Don’t you agree?’
There seemed no way out of it. ‘I suppose so …’
‘And by the same token, when you say you are homosexual, all you mean is that your experience to date has been homosexual.’ He pronounced the word, as was the way with his generation, with a long first syllable. ‘And just as I could have desires for a man, there’s nothing to stop you having desires for a woman tomorrow, isn’t that so?’ And we were back in Prince Charles territory, contemplating his experiments in self-cure by rutting.
The Bisset Surprise followed directly on the Bisexual Fork. Dad told me that he knew for a fact that I responded sexually to women. His evidence for this was that when we had been watching a Truffaut film in the cinema, Day for Night, I had played with myself whenever Jacqueline Bisset was on the screen.
I remembered that evening, which must have been in 1972. I had seen the film already and loved it, and thought it had more than enough charm and humour to qualify as a good choice for a family outing to the cinema. The evening was not a success, I understood that. Dad was seething in some way, though it took a lot of questioning to bring his objections to light. It turned out he had thought the film obscene. Obscene? If anything I thought it was a bit timid, a bit safe. Where was the obscenity? In a gesture made by one of the actresses, looking down at her actor boyfriend as he went off to the studio in the morning. He blew her a kiss, and she made a gesture of crossing her hands demurely below her waist, to signify ‘This is all yours. Yours and no one else’s.’ This gesture, according to Dad, was of a corrosive and contaminating obscenity, tainting the whole film. He gave me to understand that I had subjected the party to a certain amount of corruption by setting up our little visit to Studio One on Oxford Street.
Now, though, he was asking me to believe that I had laid aroused hands on myself during the film, and that he hadn’t made a comment at the time. Adam, old chap, we all get carried away when there’s a lovely lady on the screen – can’t fault your taste, my boy, she’s the most delightful creature – but next time be a bit more discreet, eh? You might give your mother a turn. An unthinkable scenario. Of course he wasn’t asking me to believe anything of the sort, he was asking himself to believe it. He was falling short of the standards of his profession, planting evidence in his own memory to substantiate something he needed to be true. He was tampering with the scene as if he was one of those bent coppers he was known for hammering.
‘Dad … do you really think that could happen? With Mum sitting next to me and you saying nothing?’
Stiffly, troubled, he said: ‘That’s what I remember.’ Perhaps thinking he had revealed more of his own admiration for the sublime Bisset than was really necessary.
Male bonding had hardly begun to work its magic on the culture in those early days of 1978, and a father-son sojourn had an artificial, self-conscious feel even when there were urgent matters of sexual dissidence to be thrashed out. In the aftermath of all those disputes over princes, great-aunts and actresses we were probably both relieved when it was time to go back to London, with a more or less satisfactory deadlock in place. In the car Dad expressed a lowered tension by sucking (then wolfishly crunching) Tunes, his preferred throat lozenge and vocal lubricant, rather than the gnawed twin stems of his disused pipe.
There was a postscript to this protracted New Year seaside debate. A few months later Dad sent me a letter in which he told me that remarkable results had been obtained from testosterone treatment on homosexuals. There were references to medical journals. I found this fairly insulting even before I consulted the journals. The articles concerned testosterone levels rather than treatment, and the homosexuals on whom the tests had been carried out were female. I wrote Dad a curt note pointing this out, saying sourly that rumours of my lesbianism were not to be credited.
The most painful thing about the episode, though, was that the references to journals were not in Dad’s handwriting, but his clerk John Cant’s. There had been delegation. Dad couldn’t be bothered to do his own skimpy, bigoted research. I felt very let down. We’d had our difficulties in the past, but I had always been able to rely on his stamina. I found I missed the personal touch.
Soon afterwards I left for the States. Returning in 1981, I didn’t willingly expose Dad to details of my ‘private life’, but that didn’t make me culpably discreet. Sometime late that year a sexual partner I had mistaken for a lover stuck a wounding letter through the letterbox of the family flat. Seeing me flinch as I opened the envelope, Dad said hoarsely: ‘Is it … blackmail?’ It wasn’t clear in this scenario quite how the extortion was to be managed – was the blackmailer going to threaten to expose my secret life? Who on earth to?
We were basing our assumptions on different historical periods, or perhaps different trends in the theatre. Dad was giving a performance of pained dignity out of Rattigan, while I had overshot even the kitchen sink brigade, ending up on the far fringe, where the Lord Chamberlain hardly dared patrol. For those few hours my personal drama edged into Orton territory, black farce rather than problem play.
In 1983 Dad asked me if I was responsible for The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, which had recently been published under the name of Stephen Coote. I was offended that he could ask such a question. Wasn’t it perfectly obvious that if I took on a project of such a sort I would do it under my own name? If I did decide to use a pseudonym, I would certainly do better than that.
I did on the other hand edit Mae West Is Dead that same year, an anthology of gay fiction published by Faber, providing a mildly militant introduction, though I don’t remember anything being said about that. I imagine Mum kept the peace between us to a considerable extent, and warned Dad off unsafe subjects. It was kid gloves all round, some of them elbow-length, in the debutante or drag-queen manner.