He will need a raincoat

Blake Morrison

  • The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar
    Viking, 276 pp, £14.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 670 92333 5

All fathers are unknowable to their sons but some are more mysterious than others. The Victorian stereotype was a whiskered patriarch behind a study door, the son, barred from entry, tiptoeing past. Now the door is open, and the study has been converted to a playroom, and fathers are expected to be on hand. Even so, inaccessibility remains a dominant motif: the workaholic dad, out early and back late, available only at weekends; the divorced dad, living elsewhere, available only on alternate weekends; the abusive or alcoholic dad, available but not to be trusted; the sperm donor dad, available only since 2005, when a change in the law removed his right to anonymity; the accidental dad, heedless of the consequences of his donation, unacquainted with or unaware of his offspring. Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, the title of Germaine Greer’s memoir about her father, might serve for countless others. Even dads who are seemingly there for their children have been known to turn wilfully vague when interrogated about their past. Most enigmatic of all are the dads who die young, or when their children are young, or both: photographs preserve them, and memories (if they exist) reanimate them, but whatever’s expected of a father usually dies with them, whether it’s discipline, stimulation, wisdom, indulgence or just a palpable presence about the house.

Dad memoirs are more common than mum memoirs, or were until recently. Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself are the progenitors, and, as their titles suggest, the genre requires two protagonists, biographer co-starring with biographee. In the interests of plot and character, it helps to have a dad who was a bit (or more than a bit) of a rogue, as, variously, Greer, Ackerley, David Cornwell (a.k.a. John le Carré) and Tobias Wolff did. Ackerley’s left two letters, ‘to be read only in the case of my death’, in which he revealed his ‘secret orchard’: the mistress and three daughters he’d been hiding for many years. Ackerley’s first reaction to the duplicity was shock: ‘My relationship with my father was in ruins. I had known nothing about him at all.’ Soon enough, though, ‘I perceived that I had a good story to tell.’ He tells it generously, without rancour, and when he reflects, in an appendix, on his own sexual profligacy (‘So many boys had passed through my hands’), he doesn’t blame it on his genes.

A son’s discovery of a father’s secret life is a repeated motif in such memoirs – and often, as with Ackerley, the motive for writing them. Where the father fesses up before he dies, the shock can be mitigated. The music journalist Ted Kessler kicks off his recent anthology of filial tributes with one to his dad, Felix, who revealed his secret – a long-standing girlfriend and an eight-year-old daughter – when Ted was mature enough to take it in: ‘Everyone freaked out for a little while over the news, but in time it all worked out for the best.’[*] Kessler thanks his dad ‘for being such a good sport’ – and for still being around to receive the praise. It isn’t unknown for a son to pay tribute while his father is still alive – Roddy Doyle did it (to both parents) in Rory and Ita (2002) – but it’s usually death that provides the spur. All the things that went unspoken in his lifetime (‘Died before we’d done much talking’ goes the Ian Dury song ‘My Old Man’) can finally get said, now he’s no longer around to inhibit you. Whether there are scores to settle, or tears to shed, you can be candid, knowing he won’t hear. Regrets? There’ll be a few, but – as Kingsley Amis’s elegy for his father suggests – of a complex, even contradictory kind:

I’m sorry you had to die
To make me sorry
You’re not here now.

What to write if your father is neither alive nor dead, though? Hisham Matar’s father, Jaballa, a prominent opponent of the Gaddafi regime, was kidnapped in Cairo in March 1990 and taken to the Abu Salim prison in Libya. Letters smuggled out to his family describing his cell (‘a concrete box … a steel door through which no air passes’) and state of mind (‘I remain stronger than their tactics of oppression … My forehead does not know how to bow’) show that he was alive until at least 1996. Matar has spent many years trying to find out what happened after that.

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[*] My Old Man: Tales of Our Fathers edited by Ted Kessler (Canongate, 244 pp., £14.99, May, 978 1 78211 398 0).

[†] Dadland: A Journey into Uncharted Territory by Keggie Carew (Chatto, 432 pp., £18.99, July, 978 1 78474 076 4).