It wasn’t the Oval
- My Father’s Fortune: A Life by Michael Frayn
Faber, 255 pp, £16.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 27058 3
Why is cricket so appealing to playwrights – English and Irish ones anyway? Samuel Beckett represented his university against Northants. Harold Pinter, who wrote wistfully of seeing Len Hutton in his prime, captained a team called the Gaieties XI. Simon Gray, David Hare and Ronald Harwood are or were known to be keen on the game, too. And Tom Stoppard, another follower, has a striking set-piece in The Real Thing in which a playwright, explaining dramatic technique, says: ‘What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats.’ If Tom Frayn had had his way, his son, Michael, would have joined this company of enthusiasts or, better still, have opened the batting for England at the Oval. Many hours were spent on back-garden coaching but the boy proved a serious disappointment. Looking back, seven decades later, he blames the ‘mangy tennis ball’ they used and the ‘feeble mockery of a bat’, too short and frail even for a five-year-old. But the essential problem seems to have been ineptitude: at school, whatever the sport, Frayn – weedy and bespectacled – was always last but one to be picked. His only success came with rounders, a ‘girlish alternative to the manly carnage’, when he amassed an impressive score once during a school lunch break. But rounders isn’t cricket and his father wasn’t there to see.
Frayn’s memoir is, among other things, a story of the different ways in which a son can fail to live up to a father’s expectations. But cricket has a central place because cricket, after a fashion, let them both down. In November 1945, when Frayn was 12 and his mother Vi 41, she dropped dead while crossing the dining-room for a glass of sherry. A case of a) myocardial degeneration and b) mitral regurgitation was how the coroner recorded it on the death certificate, but he also listed the contribution of c) scarlet fever, an illness which Vi had contracted as a child after being sent to hospital with measles and put in an isolation ward with scarlet fever patients. Why there? ‘Because there were no doctors on duty to examine her. They were all off playing cricket.’
The tragedy was dealt with as most tragedies were dealt with in English middle-class homes at that time: no one talked about it. This memoir is an act of restitution, an attempt to bring his mother into view from where ‘she has been airbrushed out of the historical record, like one of Stalin’s victims.’ But the talking doesn’t come easy, in part because the words to be used are embarrassing (‘I’m not sure I can write it down … Yes. She was Mummy. It was Mummy who had died. There – done. For the first time in 64 years’), and in part because Frayn has forgotten or suppressed the details. A memoir that can’t remember might seem a contradiction in terms but there are worse betrayals of the genre; where other life writers high-handedly fictionalise, Frayn is honest about his struggle to fill the gaps, particularly the gap where his mother used to be. The gap was there even before she died (‘What’s our mother like? Not like anything – she’s just our mother, as taken for granted and uncharacterised as the air we breathe’), but widened afterwards. Certain details have survived: he recalls explaining in a ‘hushed and self-important’ voice to the headteacher, two days after her death, why he hasn’t done his homework. But much from that time remains a mystery, and there are as many questions as answers in the account. For instance, it’s unfathomable to Frayn how his grandmother, old, immobile, fearful, agoraphobic and short of breath, assumed the task of looking after him and his younger sister: even walking a mile to shop in Ewell village would have been beyond her, so how did she do it? And then there’s his father, whose loss and bewilderment Frayn was too self-absorbed to see at the time, but which he now begins to imagine, external description sliding into interior monologue:
He drives on through the grey South London boroughs, alone with the grey samples on the back seat of the car … Switches his hearing aid on to hear the silence of all the colleagues who know what’s happened, but not what to say about it, the joshing of all the customers who don’t know, and who are smiling already at the cracks that old Tom Frayn always comes up with. Then, at the end of the day, back to the shabby house, with the green gates sagging on the rotten gateposts. Back to my sister and me. We’re his biggest worry, of course. We seem quiet enough. What’s going on inside us, though? Should he try to say something to us, or will it just upset us? What could he possibly say? … What on earth is he going to do?
The present tense is often used to add immediacy to childhood memoirs and to dramatise the trials of being young: not ‘I felt bad’ but ‘Woe is me’. Here it’s more inclusive – a stab at empathy and a recognition (available only in retrospect) that adults are human, too. ‘You know who’ll miss her most?’ Frayn’s father howls, between the departure of the GP and the arrival of the undertaker. ‘Me, because I’ve known her longest.’ Far from holding this against his father, Frayn concedes it has a certain justice: ‘He’s never known adult life without her.’
The death of Frayn’s mother comes mid-text, on page 125 of a book of 255 pages: it is the central event of his childhood, splitting it into two parts, Before and After, with seven chapters devoted to each. The neatness is characteristic of Frayn, whose novels and plays are similarly precise – geometric even – in structure. Here there’s more at stake than aesthetic tidy-mindedness: by giving a shape to his family history, he hopes to enlighten his descendants and make sense of what eluded him as a child. In his last novel, Spies (2002), the narrator, Stephen, revisits the London suburban neighbourhood he knew as a boy during the Second World War, peering at the houses and thinking his way back inside them so as ‘to establish some order’. Frayn makes a similar journey in his memoir, to Hillside Road, East Ewell, a cul-de-sac of 17 detached houses (the Close, in Spies, has 14) to which the family moved in 1935, when he was two. It’s the kind of neighbourhood where doors remain closed and voices are kept down, but Frayn takes us inside, backstage, closer to the noises off. He also trawls the North London streets where his parents started out, trying to get a measure of his origins and to work out where to place himself – or his young self – socially.
‘Lower-middle class’, the answer he usually gives when asked, is an over-simplification. The house in Ewell was rented, Tom Frayn being a man who scorned possessions and ‘moved lightly over the earth, scarcely leaving a footprint, scarcely a shadow’; even the cars he drove were owned, not by him, but by the asbestos company for which he was a salesman. Still, the house and car raised Tom several notches in the class system and away from the privations of his childhood, when he’d shared two rooms with his parents and four siblings, all of them deaf. The deafness didn’t go away. Nor did the manner and idiom of a smart lad who’d left school at 14. The relatives on either side weren’t left behind either: on Sunday teatimes they all came over to Ewell, a dozen or more crammed round the dining table. Though unable to hear much, Tom liked a good crowd, so long as it was family. Neighbours were a different matter: Frayn can’t recall any being allowed to cross the threshold. The local population was far from homogeneous, but Tom, despite his amiability, was more idiosyncratic than most. With his suits, polished shoes and black Homburg, he was dapper, even dandyish, or what passed for it in Ewell. He was also anti-Tory and anti-Church, and when he made good money during the war (asbestos being a precious commodity) declined to use it to impress the Joneses. Most of the contents of the household were gifts from customers or picked up on the cheap. Even young Michael’s underpants fell into this category: several sizes too large for him, they were held up by a safety pin, which proved embarrassing when little Daphne from along the street proposed an inspection of each other’s private parts.
The fathers recalled in most memoirs tend to be larger than life, and it’s a test of the life writer to contain that largeness. With Frayn’s father, there’s no spectacularly bad behaviour to report, only a series of mostly endearing eccentricities. He wasn’t a bigamist like J.R. Ackerley’s father, or a conman like Tobias Wolff’s, or a bullying drunk like John Burnside’s, or a cold fish with a secret past like Germaine Greer’s, but a man with a hearing disability who tried to do the best by his family and whose one attempt at corporal punishment – a boot up his son’s backside – didn’t connect. With so few scores to settle there’s a risk of the memoir turning hagiographical. Even Tom’s unkind estimate of his son as ‘slow-witted’ is allowed to be fair enough: however low an opinion of his son Frayn Senior holds, the self-deprecating Frayn Junior can outdo him. The tone of easy affection will disappoint those looking for parricidal rage but doesn’t feel forced or soft-minded. Rather than spilling out grudges, Frayn owns up to guilt: that they didn’t talk more, that he never thought to ask what it was like to be deaf. Late in life, in a letter, his father opened up a little. But the son didn’t reply and the possibility of intimacy was lost.
The experience of war is often cited as a cause of taciturnity or, as some prefer to call it, emotional illiteracy. Neither Frayn nor his father was a combatant but war certainly marked them both. In Spies Stephen and his friend Keith convince themselves that the Close has been infiltrated by German spies. The war, or the Duration, also dominates the memoir, understandably enough (Frayn was nearly 12 when the war ended, and it’s said that everything important in life happens before the age of 12), but there’s none of the fear and paranoia that infect the novel. ‘The war’s wonderful,’ he decides, within weeks of it being declared, and little happens over the next five years to change his mind: war means air-raid sirens, candlelight, emergency snacks and the excitement of sheltering from bombs. It’s a close shave when one of the first doodlebugs lands on a house in the next street, killing the occupants and blowing out all the windows in Hillside Road. But none of Frayn’s immediate or extended family is a war victim. The sense of reprieve lasts for six months after VE Day. Then Vi sets off across the dining-room for a glass of sherry and doesn’t get there.
Frayn calls his memoir My Father’s Fortune, a reference not to wealth accumulated or lost but to (mostly good) luck. Tom was fortunate to be too young for the First World War and too old for the Second, and fortunate to meet Vi when she was 14, before anyone else could snap her up. Being made a widower with two young children wasn’t so fortunate, nor was getting married again, a few years later, to a widow and neighbour called Elsie, who invited him and his children to share her house (‘You’ll have a much broader perspective on life there,’ Michael is told. ‘There’s a television set, for a start’), but who eventually threw Tom out. He was 61 by then but quickly landed on his feet again, with Gladys, whose presence he concealed for a time, perhaps from embarrassment that she was barely older than his son, but who stuck with him and nursed him at the end. He left very little (socks, slippers, hearing aid, watch) and the only legacy to Frayn’s sister was mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. But the effects on his son were kindlier: the inheritance of a work ethic, for instance, and an interest in farcical misunderstandings, the sort that afflict the deaf and their interlocutors. There was his father’s logophilia, too – including the neologism hotcha-machacha, ‘never heard on anyone else’s lips’ – and his talent for storytelling. Even more important was his smile, to which a long paragraph is given and which Frayn has honoured by writing plays and fiction which try to put a smile on the faces of others.
Frayn’s mother affected him, too, not least by dying young, but even that, he says, had its upside. In her absence, there was no longer an excuse for being a mother’s boy or – his worried Uncle Sid’s term for it – a ‘home man’. Toughening up, Frayn joined the Scouts, mocked teachers to amuse his friends and became an academic high-achiever, destined for Cambridge. In collusion with another Michael called Lane (Frayn and Lane: the rhyme added to the collusiveness), he also developed a condescending air, a ‘sense of being among the elect – or even perhaps of entirely constituting it’. Frayn does not approve of the person he was at this stage of life and quotes unforgiving extracts from his diaries, in which he’s either scowling and sneering or transported to ethereal heights of narcissism. But the friendship with Lane changed his life: together they explored music, espoused Communism and sat in the fork of an ancient oak tree on Surbiton golf course reading poems. It was a kind of love affair, though ‘without the ghost of any physical expression’ (a point Frayn is keen to emphasise for Lane’s sake, having upset him by speaking in an interview of homoerotic overtones). There’s little physical expression with girls, either. Frayn’s in his mid-teens before he discovers ‘that the male sexual organ is not, as I’d always supposed, the navel’, and it’s only when Lane acquires a girlfriend that he decides he must do the same. Lanky and diffident, he buys a new suit to go wooing in but mistakes its colour under the shop’s artificial light, so that the girl in question’s parents ‘have to watch their beautiful daughter being called for by a young man who is not only nine feet tall and nine inches wide, with a permanent sneer on his lips, but who is dressed from head to foot in pale apple-green’.
After National Service and Cambridge, Frayn fetched up at the Manchester Guardian, a venue broadly acceptable to his father, even if it wasn’t the Oval. By the time Tom died in 1970, the journalistic career had been superseded by four novels, and though he doesn’t feature in them, the memoir establishes him as an informing – or performing – presence behind the scenes. ‘All my wickets are down,’ he said, towards the end, but at least his son had no hand in taking them. The book is gently mocking of the father but it’s also gently mocking of the son, and that equivalence explains its charm. Instead of an Oedipal battle, there’s banter; instead of a jostle for supremacy, lots of joshing. Frayn worries that he has exposed his father but by the standards of most confessional memoirs the book is both loyal and decorous, and none the worse for that.