The lie is told to a man he meets on the road; it is America, fall, the mid-1990s, when he stops to pick up a hitch-hiker in Upper New York State. It is almost the day of the dead, and he is tired, tired of himself and his history, wishing on himself a sort of disembodiment, or perhaps the kind of paper mask that, as he mentions in one of his poems, he used to make at Halloween as a child in school.
His passenger – Mike, as he calls him – begins to talk about his father, a man who had run a building supplies store, and who now, a widower, a retired man, lives in a small house in the woods. Mike speaks in the dogged clichés of the age: his father ‘never disrespected me . . . was always there for me’. Sometimes it is the inarticulacy of others that opens the gap to an uprush of feeling. The writer’s wishful thoughts, his own dream-father, are only waiting for a gap they can fill. He pictures Mike’s father standing at break of day on his porch, coffee cradled in his hand, watching the birds and animals before beginning his chores. This is how a father should be, self-possessed, reserved, with ‘nothing to say, nothing to show, nothing to prove’.
When Mike asks about his own father, he says: ‘He’s dead’ – knowing that he has given a far from complete account of his condition. When a man becomes a father he becomes part of a narrative told by his son, and that story does not end with physical death. There is a story, he knows, to be ‘worked out in the saying’ – but not here, not now, before this stranger with his simple scripts. There is no easy way to say what he knows to be true about his father, for ‘his mind wasn’t his own, his history was mostly fake.’ So he settles for a lie. For the moment – in his own damaged and shamed condition – that is the best he can do.
Seven years after his father’s death, the poet and novelist John Burnside stumbled almost incidentally on the facts of his early life. Talking to his mother’s sister, he learned that the elder Burnside – ‘Tommy Dick, or George McGhee, or whatever his name was’ – had been an abandoned child, found, by whom is not known, on a doorstep in West Fife in the year of the General Strike. Not even to know the name of your finder – that is abandonment of a rare order. And whoever found him didn’t keep him; times were hard in 1926 and in the Depression years which followed, and he was passed from family to family, an unchosen obligation. This is not a fairytale; there were no wolves to suckle him, no elementals or earth spirits, good or bad, to look in at the windows of the houses, ‘dimly lit and almost bare’, where he would always be a stranger. He grew up around Cowdenbeath, a mining town, which he left to join the RAF. He was in uniform when he married, at the age of 26. Surely, on that day at least, he felt chosen?
If so, it was not enough. He was compelled all his life to invent stories – not always consistent – about his early life. He admitted to adoption, but invented adoptive parents. Perhaps, Burnside thinks, people helped him out with these inventions, out of kindness, sensing his need for a history. It is only recently that we have started to believe that his family’s past does not predict the future for any individual. If you knew a man’s background, you knew what to expect of him; if you did not, he might be anything, he might be dangerous. If you yourself knew your family, you would know what to expect of yourself; if you did not, you were dark water from which monsters might emerge.
Burnside’s memories begin in his parents’ first home, a condemned house running with rats and mice. Later the family moved to the edge of Cowdenbeath, to a prefab settlement which ran out into woods and open fields. His father was a casual labourer. In this small town his drinking habits were well known and shut him out from more permanent work.
He was a square-built man of around 5’11’’, strong, physically ruthless, very quick. Quick with his hands, was the phrase people used when they wanted a euphemism for domestic violence, but my father was almost never actually violent. At some instinctual level he understood that a threat is much more potent than an actual blow . . . My father was one of those men who sit in a room, and you can feel it: the simmer, the sense of some unpredictable force that might, at any moment, break loose and do something terrible.
There was an elder sister who died before the writer was born. His father, both drunk and sober, would talk to him about Elizabeth, always adding that she should have lived and he, the boy, should have died; he was ‘questioning my right even to occupy space in his world’. John had a younger sister too, called Margaret. They were haunted children, he suggests. Margaret had ‘ghostly visions of men in long white robes standing over her in the dark, or she would be on her way home from Brownies, and she would suddenly realise she was being followed by some spirit, some not-human presence.’ He himself would go out into the woods to look for angels. And
There were times when I was sitting up at night . . . when the door of the press would open slowly and something appeared: not spirit, not flesh, but something between the two, like the faded stain of blood and salt on the sleeve of a fishmonger’s coat, a creature that seemed less other than it ought to have done, a presence that I could barely distinguish from myself.
The child’s boundaries were permeable – open to the night, the wind, the sounds of animals and vegetation. His father, volatile, capricious, chronically dissatisfied, picked and picked at the ethereal sensibilities of the child, as if trying to locate and test the boundaries that were proper to a man.
For my father, and for whole generations of working-class men, cruelty was an ideology. It was important, for the boy’s sake, to bring a son up tough: men had to be hard to get through life, there was no room for weakness or sentiment . . . What he wanted was to warn me against hope, against any expectation of someone from my background being treated as a human being in the big hard world. He wanted to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. Art. Music. Books. Imagination. Signs of weakness, all. A man was defined, in my father’s circles, by what he could bear, the pain he could shrug off, the warmth or comfort he could deny himself.
It may be the stuff of a thousand blighted lives and of dozens of novels, but the hurt and amazement come fresh off the page. You may despise the lesson, but you had better learn it; of his adult self, John Burnside tells us, ‘in the normal course of affairs, I could take just about any insult or injury.’
Growing up a Catholic in a sectarian community, he attended a school where ‘to turn up at all and stay awake till the end of the day was an achievement’. He was ahead of his classmates, but no bookish wimp; he was adventurous, quick and good at defending himself. His boy’s secret life absorbed him: Wordsworthian close-to-nature pursuits such as birds-nesting and climbing trees, and other pursuits that Wordsworth would not have recognised, such as sliding down slag heaps on scraps of linoleum. Another child, a boy, was stillborn, adding to the ghost population. Later, and through his life, he regards this brother as someone for whom he should make space in the world; he has twinned with him, just as in his poem ‘Vanishing Twin’ he paired himself with an unknown womb-sister who ‘bled away’, and whose dreams were contiguous with his. But the male twin would not always be a friendly companion; later he would trail the writer through the streets of Cambridge, fuelling his psychotic terror. ‘To protect myself against this imp, I collected bottles, which I then filled with river water, rain water, urine, milk tainted with drops of blue-black ink. It was a fortnight before they found me, but when they did, it was too late for even the most well-meaning intercession.’
Though his father often disowned John – claiming that he was, like himself, a foundling – he felt sorry for himself after the stillbirth. Nights out ended in his coming home drunk and bringing in drunken friends, and calling the child out of bed to answer general knowledge questions, fetch in coal, and mop up vomit. John did not understand what was happening in the house, or how the silent negotiations between his parents were sustained. Later he would realise that ‘the limits of any marriage are set by the one who has the least to give’ but his mother never understood that, and probably many women don’t. Of his mother, he says: ‘All she wanted was a little common decency in her life. She was one of those people who dream of a bookcase full of leather-bound classics and a vase of freshly cut flowers on the hall table. Of course, there was no hall table, because there was no hall. Obviously, there were no leather-bound classics.’
Burnside’s mother never emerges from shadow or claims other traits than those of a woman who is intimidated and used by a man less intelligent than herself. Her small aspirations are constantly thwarted. She clears the ornaments away so the drunks won’t break them. She is often ill. Her chief aim is putting food on the table and protecting her children, but she doesn’t manage this very well; after a fall, John goes three weeks with a broken arm before taking himself to the doctor and presenting the blackened and swollen limb for attention.
Then, after a bad accident of his own, in which he nearly died, his father decided to uproot the family. Burnside tells us that this is what alcohol counsellors call ‘the geographical solution’. The family moved first to Birmingham, where they occupied one room in a district full of transients and refugees. For a drunk, city life is easier, Burnside says; his father could go from pub to pub, freshening up his versions of himself, spinning lies about lives he had never led and the kind of man he wasn’t. The move was a failure and they were soon back in Cowdenbeath, after a grim ‘holiday’ in Blackpool when his father stayed in the pub for ten days. There was talk of going to Canada, and John got his hopes up. Instead, in the mid-1960s, they moved to Corby, the Midlands steel town:
He’d gone on letting me dream of Canada till the very last minute, and I knew that I would always long for a homeland that would correspond to the snowy woods and little outlying villages of wooden houses and picket-fences of my imagination. I had bought into a wide, still darkness, lit here and there by a farmhouse window, or a late tractor working some huge grain field in Manitoba, dirt roads whitening in the moonlight, overgrown tracks leading to blizzards and nothingness. I had bought into that world, and I knew I would always miss it. Decades later, there are times – travelling home from work on a winter’s night, or waiting for a train in a country station – when I realise I am still waiting to complete the journey I began in my ten-year-old mind all those years ago.
It is not the events of this book which matter, so much as the sensibility through which they are experienced, and the way they are illuminated by penetrating and careful prose. The life not lived, the turnings not taken, are as vivid, as important in the inner economy, as the ‘real’ events, with their paper trail of rail tickets and rent books. The stillborn child has its own vitality; the imagination has power to define, and illusion flourishes, brightening the drained tints of a hungover morning. What were his father’s lies, his father’s claims? He had a daft but harmless idea that he looked like Robert Mitchum; no one else could see any resemblance. But then gradually, he prevailed on other people, so that when, after his death, Burnside met his drinking mates, they were amazed that the boy had never spotted the likeness. They talked, these bar-room companions, about his father’s days as a professional footballer; in the face of his incredulity they even produced evidence, a tiny blurred photograph of someone – it could have been anyone – in a Raith Rovers strip.
And of course he had told other, opportunistic, quite usual lies, about the career he could have had in the RAF if his wife hadn’t been such a stay-at-home, and about the academic success of the children he had so constantly belittled and reduced. ‘He lied all the time,’ his son tells us, ‘even when there was no need to lie,’ and these lies were born out of a fluid sense of self. In an attempt to define himself within safe parameters, he had boxed himself around with received ideas: ‘Dogs were smart and loyal; women were moody; children were a burden; management was corrupt; union reps were self-serving; clever people were all very well, but you were better off with a bit of common sense.’ It’s Everyman speaking to us, from the mid-20th century; in the end the effect of his congruence with the wider culture is not to define a man, but to blur him and smear out his individuality, like margarine on cheap white sliced.
Corby – the big chance in life – was a New Town, full of incomers. It had houses and jobs, and it was his father’s undoing. Extra money meant more drink; and his mother had been pulled away from the network of family and friends that had helped support her. Asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the writer said: ‘An Italian.’ He had seen Italian men who seemed to enjoy life, men of a different stripe from the ones his father met at the Hazel Tree and the Silver Band Club. Did education offer a way out? He did well at secondary school, till he became disaffected. Disaffection took the forms of the era – a tab of acid, a packet of Durex, a copy of the Communist Manifesto. When he was 15 his father would take him to the pub. He would push him around; one day the boy picked up a kitchen knife. The incident ended without bloodshed, but afterwards he would fantasise about killing his father, just as his father fantasised about his career as one of the hard men of Corby.
When we see what our parents do, and we don’t like it, why don’t we do something different? It would be logical, but damaged families are not great on logic. In his epigraph, Burnside quotes St Augustine: ‘Where, during all these years, was my free will?’ His own slide to near oblivion has an air of inevitability – binge-drinking and drugs, with barbiturates a particularly obliterating favourite: ecstasies of self-hatred and self-neglect; lost weekends, lost months and years. The road of excess leads not to the palace of wisdom, but to the psychiatric ward. His mother dies of ovarian cancer, a secret ailment her mysterious female body has concealed till she is past help. Father blames not cancer, but the children. His own last years are predictable: whisky, heart pills, a bare house with burn-marks on the furniture. His daughter feeds him and does his washing – not so much forgiving him, perhaps, as overlooking what he is. What a long time the slide to oblivion takes, both for the writer and his father! It is a comforting lie, he says, that an addict hits the bottom and then bounces back. You can bump along the bottom for years. This is what he does, the process overseen by ‘the little father in my own head’. In time Burnside will realise ‘we are not so very different, he and I . . . a lie is a lie is a lie and I am just as much an invention, just as much a pretence, just as much a lie as he ever was.’
Is autobiography necessarily a lie? Some people who read memoirs are quick to claim it is. ‘It’s just your version,’ they say, accusingly – as if it should be someone else’s, as if that would automatically be better. We are not born into truth. A child is unwittingly netted in the lies told by his wider family, and may unwittingly spread them; if one day the lies are picked apart, revulsion sometimes breeds the need to speak for oneself. Critics praise memoirs for being ‘honest’, though it does not seem much for them to be. In this case it seems beside the point. When Burnside says that ‘this book is best treated as a work of fiction,’ it is more than a defensive twitch, or a swerve from responsibility. It reflects the reality of a life in which nothing is what it seems: that is to say, a poet’s life. This superbly challenging and troubling book contains not only a father’s lies but the writer’s own myths. Personal myths are not necessarily self-aggrandising, or even self-protective. They are very often inimical to the welfare of the person who generates them; they may trap the mythologiser in dazed and helpless cycles of self-destruction. Deliverance comes slowly if at all, after the self-abnegation, the self-erasure of drink, drugs and madness have done their work; and this ‘work’ – as one calls it for want of a better word – is not exclusive to the gifted, the beautiful and the gleefully damned.
Burnside says: ‘We are, all of us, walking libraries of the unspeakable.’ That is true, and just a few manage to speak. Most people leave the books of their life in the reserve stacks, where the paper yellows and crumbles, and the narrative glue hardens and the pages fall out of their proper order. Artists, by contrast, leave the books of themselves on the library counter, bright pages flicking over for anyone to read; casual readers are surprised, and often revolted, by what they find there. It is a truism among readers and writers that ‘we all tell stories about ourselves,’ but it is a truth less universally acknowledged that some of them have bad endings. The storytelling process is embraced when it is seen as therapeutic. Any indecency can be tolerated if it is on the way to decency in the end. You have written this, readers say, to do yourself good. So, are you better now?
It is not enough to say that perhaps you are a better writer. Are you sane, is the real question, sane and safe to be with; is your experience contaminating? Nothing in John Burnside’s book is reassuring, or remotely safe, and one hopes his readers will not be looking for comfort, however obscure, or be among those who distrust and fear the process of memory. Towards the end of the book he says: ‘There are psychologists who believe that we record every word we ever read, every picture we see, every event, however small, every window in every house on every street we ever walk in a lifetime of books and streets and pictures. We record it all and file it away, waiting to be recollected . . . The idea makes sense.’
It makes sense especially to writers; your retrievable experience – as it is processed or held in suspension, as it is accepted and assimilated, or alienated and made strange – is almost all you have to work with. But what about those lost weekends, the periods of unconsciousness or delirium, what use are they? What use are sleep and dreams?
Growing up, I was always anxious about memory . . . When somebody said to me that they could see some incident happening in their mind’s eye, I had no idea what they meant. Was it like a film, running on some screen behind the eyes? Was it only a figure of speech? Why did one thing – a smell, a taste – suggest something else – a moment, a girl’s face – when there was no obvious connection between the two? Was I defective in some way?
He was a child then; he will be aware now that the allusive and the acausal are just the artist’s stock-in-trade. What is the creative work we do in the world, but the habit and mental trick of listening to one thing and hearing another, of looking at an object and seeing its nimbus or else its crystalline form? Or the habit of ensouling shadows, endowing something glimpsed with a history and a name?
The book ends as it begins, with Halloween, or rather in the light of the day following, as the writer leads his small son along the quay of a small Scottish fishing town on the east coast. We see that this is the child for whom the phantom of fatherhood must be raised. The writer leaves us with a final sharp picture of the man of lies whom the book has transfigured into truth. He sees him, on a distant night, standing on the edge of woodland; white shirt visible against the dark, a cigarette in his hand, he is captured in a moment which holds, on an indrawn breath, all the events and non-events of his life, all that happened and all that ever could. He did not want to die in public, but that was his unheroic fate: collapsing at the Silver Band Club, on his way to the cigarette machine. An ordinary man with an ordinary death, a nameless man with thoughts that few would care to name, he is now one of the ‘spirits’ who ‘feed our imaginations’. To move from the interiority of this memoir back to what passes for ordinary life is like surfacing from under the sea, reshaped by its strong and unforgiving currents. It is a book by a master of language, pushing language to do what it can. Fastidious, supple and unsparing, it is a book about lies that is more true than you can say.