I would say my father did not prepare me well for patriarchy; himself confronted, on his marriage with my mother, with a mother-in-law who was the living embodiment of peasant matriarchy, he had no choice but to capitulate, and did so. Further, I was the child of his mid-forties, when he was just the age to be knocked sideways by the arrival of a baby daughter. He was putty in my hands throughout my childhood and still claims to be so, although now I am middle-aged myself while he, not though you’d notice, is somewhat older than the present century.
I was born in 1940, the week that Dunkirk fell. I think neither of my parents was immune to the symbolism of this, of bringing a little girl-child into the world at a time when the Nazi invasion of England seemed imminent, into the midst of death and approaching dark. Perhaps I seemed particularly vulnerable and precious and that helps to explain the over-protectiveness they felt about me, later on. Be that as it may, no child, however inauspicious the circumstances, could have been made more welcome. I did not get a birthday card from him a couple of years ago; when I querulously rang him up about it, he said: ‘I’d never forget the day you came ashore.’ (The card came in the second post.) His turn of phrase went straight to my heart, an organ which has inherited much of his Highland sentimentality.
He is a Highland man, the perhaps atypical product of an underdeveloped, colonialized country in the last years of Queen Victoria, of oatcakes, tatties and the Church of Scotland, of four years’ active service in World War One, of the hurly burly of Fleet Street in the twenties. His siblings, who never left the native village, were weird beyond belief. To that native village he competently removed himself ten years ago.
He has done, I realize, what every Sicilian in New York, what every Cypriot in Camden Town wants to do, to complete the immigrant’s journey, to accomplish the perfect symmetry, from A to B and back again. Just his luck, when he returned, that all was as it had been before and he could, in a manner of speaking, take up his life where it left off when he moved south seventy years ago. He went south; and made a career; and married an Englishwoman; and lived in London; and fathered children, in an enormous parenthesis of which he retains only sunny memories. He has ‘gone home’, as immigrants do; he established, in his seventh decade, that ‘home’ has an existential significance for him which is not part of the story of his children’s independent lives. My father lives now in his granite house filled with the souvenirs of a long and, I think, happy life. (Some of them bizarre; that framed certificate from an American tramp, naming my father a ‘Knight of the Road’, for example.)
He has a curious, quite unEnglish, ability to live life in, as it were, the third person, to see his life objectively, as a not unfortunate one, and to live up to that notion. Those granite townships on the edge of the steel-grey North Sea forge a flinty sense of self. Don’t think, from all this, he isn’t a volatile man. He laughs easily, cries easily, and to his example I attribute my conviction that tears, in a man, are a sign of inner strength.
He is still capable of surprising me. He recently prepared an electric bed for my boyfriend, which is the sort of thing a doting father in a Scots ballad might have done had the technology been available at the time. We knew he’d put us in separate rooms – my father is a Victorian, by birth – but not that he’d plug the metal base of Mark’s bed into the electric-light fitment. Mark noticed how the bed throbbed when he put his hand on it and disconnected every plug in sight. We ate breakfast, next morning, as if nothing untoward had happened, and I should say, in the context of my father’s house, it had not. He is an enthusiastic handyman, with a special fascination for electricity, whose work my mother once described as combining the theory of Heath Robinson with the practice of Mr Pooter.
All the same, the Freudian overtones are inescapable. However unconsciously, as if that were an excuse, he’d prepared a potentially lethal bed for his daughter’s lover. But let me not dot the i’s and cross the t’s. His final act of low, emotional cunning (another Highland characteristic) is to have lived so long that everything is forgiven, even his habit of referring to the present incumbent by my first husband’s name, enough to give anybody a temporary feeling.
He is a man of immense, nay, imposing physical presence, yet I tend to remember him in undignified circumstances.
One of my first memories is how I bust his nose. (I was, perhaps, three years old. Maybe four.) It was on a set of swings in a public park. He’d climbed up Pooterishly to adjust the chains from which the swings hung. I thought he was taking too long and set the swing on which I sat in motion. He wasn’t badly hurt but there was a lot of blood. I was not punished for my part in this accident. They were a bit put out because I wanted to stay and play when they went home to wash off the blood.
They. That is, my father and my mother. Impossible for me to summon one up out of the past without the other.
Shortly after this, he nearly drowned me, or so my mother claimed. He took me for a walk one autumn afternoon and stopped by the pond in Wandsworth Common and I played a game of throwing leaves into the water until I forgot to let go of one. He was in after me in a flash, in spite of the peril to his gents’ natty suiting (ever the dandy, my old man) and wheeled me dripping in my pushchair home to the terrible but short-lived recriminations of my mother. Short-lived because both guilt and remorse are emotions alien to my father. Therefore the just apportioning of blame is not one of his specialities, and though my mother tried it on from time to time, he always thought he could buy us off with treats and so he could and that is why my brother and I don’t sulk, much. Whereas she –
She has been dead for more than a decade, now, and I’ve had ample time to appreciate my father’s individual flavour, which is a fine and gamey one, but, as parents, they were far more than the sum of their individual parts. I’m not sure they understood their instinctive solidarity against us, because my mother often tried to make us take sides. Us. As their child, the product of their parenting, I cannot dissociate myself from my brother, although we did not share a childhood for he is twelve years older than I and was sent off, with his gas mask, his packed lunch and his name tag, as an evacuee, a little hostage to fortune, at about the time they must have realized another one was on the way.
I can only think of my parents as a peculiarly complex unit in which neither bulks larger than the other, although they were very different kinds of people and I often used to wonder how they got on, since they seemed to have so little in common, until I realized that was why they got on, that not having much in common means you’ve always got something interesting to talk about. And their children, far from being the raison d’être of their marriage, of their ongoing argument, of that endless, quietly murmuring conversation I used to hear, at night, softly, dreamily, the other side of the bedroom wall, were, in some sense, a sideshow. Source of pleasure, source of grief; not the glue that held them together. And neither of us more important than the other, either.
Not that I suspected this when I was growing up. My transition from little girl to ravaged anorexic took them by surprise and I thought they wanted my blood. I didn’t know what they wanted of me, nor did I know what I wanted for myself. In those years of ludicrously overprotected adolescence, I often had the feeling of being ‘pawns in their game’ . . . in their game, note . . . and perhaps I indeed served an instrumental function, at that time, rather than being loved for myself.
All this is so much water under the bridge. Yet those were the only years I can remember when my mother would try to invoke my father’s wrath against me, threaten me with his fury for coming home late and so on. Though, as far as the ‘and so on’ was concerned, chance would have been a fine thing. My adolescent rebellion was considerably hampered by the fact that I could find nobody to rebel with. I now recall this period with intense embarrassment, because my parents’ concern to protect me from predatory boys was only equalled by the enthusiasm with which the boys I did indeed occasionally meet protected themselves against me.
It was a difficult time, terminated, inevitably, by my early marriage as soon as I finally bumped into somebody who would go to Godard movies with me and on CND marches and even have sexual intercourse with me, although he insisted we should be engaged first. Neither of my parents were exactly overjoyed when I got married, although they grudgingly did all the necessary. My father was particularly pissed off because he’d marked me out for a career on Fleet Street. It took me twenty years more of living, and an involvement with the women’s movement, to appreciate he was unusual in wanting this for his baby girl. Although he was a journalist himself, I don’t think he was projecting his own ambitions on me, either, even if to be a child is to be, to some degree, the projective fantasy of its parents. No. I suspect that, if he ever had any projective fantasies about me, I sufficiently fulfilled them by being born. All he’d wanted for me was a steady, enjoyable job that, perhaps, guaranteed me sufficient income to insure I wouldn’t too hastily marry some nitwit (a favourite word of his) who would displace him altogether from my affections. So, since from a child I’d been good with words, he apprenticed me to a suburban weekly newspaper when I was eighteen, intending me to make my traditional way up from there. From all this, given my natural perversity, it must be obvious why I was so hell-bent on getting married – not, and both my parents were utterly adamant about this, that getting married meant I’d give up my job.
In fact, it did mean that because soon my new husband moved away from London. ‘I suppose you’ll have to go with him,’ said my mother doubtfully. Anxious to end my status as their child, there was no other option and so I changed direction although, as it turns out, I am a journalist, at least some of the time.
As far as projective fantasies go, sometimes it seems the old man is only concerned that I don’t end up in the workhouse. Apart from that, anything goes. My brother and I remain, I think, his most constant source of pleasure – always, perhaps, a more positive joy to our father than to our mother, who, a more introspective person, got less pure entertainment value from us, partly, like all mothers, for reasons within her own not untroubled soul. As for my father, few souls are less troubled. He can be simply pleased with us, pleased that we exist, and, from the vantage point of his wondrously serene and hale old age, he contemplates our lives almost as if they were books he can dip into whenever he wants.
As for the books I write myself, my ‘dirty books’, he said the other day: ‘I was a wee bitty shocked, at first, but I soon got used to it.’ He introduces me in the third person: ‘This young woman . . .’ In his culture, it is, of course, a matter of principle to express pride in one’s children. It occurs to me that this, too, is not a particularly English sentiment.
Himself, he is a rich source of anecdote. He has partitioned off a little room in the attic of his house, constructed the walls out of cardboard boxes, and there he lies, on a camp bed, listening to the World Service on a portable radio with his cap on. When he lived in London, he used to wear a trilby to bed but, a formal man, he exchanged it for a cap as soon as he moved. There are two perfectly good bedrooms in his house, with electric blankets and everything, as I well know, but these bedrooms always used to belong to his siblings, now deceased. He moves downstairs into one of these when the temperature in the attic drops too low for even his iron constitution, but he always shifts back up again, to his own place, when the ice melts. He has a ferocious enthusiasm for his own private space. My mother attributed this to a youth spent in the trenches, where no privacy was to be had. His war was the War to end Wars. He was too old for conscription in the one after that.
When he leaves this house for any length of time, he fixes up a whole lot of burglar traps, basins of water balanced on the tops of doors, tripwires, bags of flour suspended by strings, so that we worry in case he forgets where he’s left what and ends up hoist with his own petard.
He has a special relationship with cats. He talks to them in a soft, chirrupping language they find irresistible. When we all lived in London and he worked on the night news desk of a press agency, he would come home on the last tube and walk, chirrupping, down the street, accompanied by an ever-increasing procession of cats, to whom he would say goodnight at the front door. On those rare occasions, in my late teens, when I’d managed to persuade a man to walk me home, the arrival of my father and his cats always caused consternation, not least because my father was immensely tall and strong.
He is the stuff of which sit-coms are made.
His everyday discourse, which is conducted in the stately prose of a thirties Times leader, is enlivened with a number of stock phrases of a slightly eccentric, period quality. For example. On a wild night: ‘Pity the troops on a night like this.’ On a cold day:
Cold, bleak, gloomy and glum,
Cold as the hairs on a polar bear’s –
The last word of the couplet is supposed to be drowned by cries of outrage. My mother always turned up trumps on this one, interposing: ‘Father!’ on an ascending scale.
At random: ‘Thank God for the navy, who guard our shores.’
On entering a room: ‘Enter the fairy, singing and dancing.’ Sometimes, in a particularly cheerful mood, he’ll add to this formula: ‘Enter the fairy, singing and dancing and waving her wooden leg.’
Infinitely endearing, infinitely irritating, irascible, comic, tough, sentimental, ribald old man, with his face of a borderline eagle and his bearing of a Scots guard, who, in my imagination as when I was a child, drips chocolates from his pockets as, a cat dancing in front of him, he strides down the road bowed down with gifts, crying: ‘Here comes the Marquis of Carrabas!’ The very words, ‘my father’, always make me smile.
But why, when he was so devilish handsome – oh, that photograph in battledress! – did he never marry until his middle thirties? Until he saw my mother, playing tennis with a girlfriend on Clapham Common, and that was it. The die was cast. He gave her his card, proof of his honourable intentions. She took him home to meet her mother. Then he must have felt as though he were going over the top, again.
In 1967 or 1968, forty years on, my mother wrote me: ‘He really loves me (I think).’ At that time, she was a semi-invalid and he tended her, with more dash than efficiency, and yet remorselessly, cooking, washing up, washing her smalls, hoovering, as if that is just what he’d retired from work to do, up to his elbows in soapsuds after a lifetime of telephones and anxiety. He’d bring her dinner on a tray with always a slightly soiled traycloth. She thought the dirty cloth spoiled the entire gesture. And yet, and yet . . . was she, after all those years, still keeping him on the hook? For herself, she always applauded his ability to spirit taxis up as from the air at crowded railway stations and also the dexterous way he’d kick his own backside, a feat he continued to perform until he was well into his eighties.
Now, very little of all this has to do with the stern, fearful face of the Father in patriarchy, although the Calvinist north is virtually synonymous with that ideology. Indeed, a short-tempered man, his rages were phenomenal; but they were over in the lightning flash they resembled, and then we all had ice cream. And there was no fear. So that, now, for me, when fear steps in the door, then love and respect fly out the window.
I do not think my father has ever asked awkward questions about life, or the world, or anything much, except when he was a boy reporter and asking awkward questions was part of the job. He would regard himself as a law-and-order man, a law-abiding man, a man with a due sense of respect for authority. So far, so in tune with his background and his sense of decorum. And yet somewhere behind all this lurks a strangely free, anarchic spirit. Doorknobs fall from doors the minute he puts his hand on them. Things fall apart. There is a sense that anything might happen. He is a law-and-order man helplessly tuned in to misrule.
And somewhere in all this must lie an ambivalent attitude to the authority to which he claims to defer. Now, my father is not, I repeat, an introspective man. Nor one prone to intellectual analysis; he’s always got by on his wits so never felt the need of the latter. But he has his version of the famous story, about one of the Christmas truces during World War One, which was his war, although, when he talks about it, I do not recognize Vera Brittain’s war, or Siegfried Sassoon’s war, or anything but a nightmarish adventure, for, as I say, he feels no fear. The soldiers, bored with fighting, remembering happier times, put up white flags, moved slowly forward, showed photographs, exchanged gifts – a packet of cigarettes for a little brown loaf . . . and then, he says, ‘Some fool of a First Lieutenant fired a shot.’
When he tells this story, he doesn’t know what it means, he doesn’t know what the story shows he really felt about the bloody officers, nor why I’m proud of him for feeling that; nor why I’m proud of him for giving the German private his cigarettes and remembering so warmly the little loaf of bread, and proud of him for his still undiminished anger at the nitwit of a boy whom they were all forced to obey just when the ranks were in a mood to pack it in and go home.
Of course, the old man thinks that, if the rank and file had packed it in and gone home in 1915, the Tsar would still rule Russia and the Kaiser Germany, and the sun would never have set on the British Empire. He is a man of grand simplicities. He still grieves over my mother’s ‘leftish’ views; indeed, he grieves over mine, though not enough to spoil his dinner. He seems, rather, to regard them as, in some way, genetically linked. I have inherited his nose, after all; so why not my mother’s voting patterns?
She never forgave him for believing Chamberlain. She’d often bring it up, at moments of stress, as proof of his gullibility. ‘And, what’s more, you came home from the office and said: “There ain’t gonna be a war.”’
See how she has crept into the narrative, again. He wrote to me last year: ‘Your mammy was not only very beautiful but also very clever.’ (Always in dialect, always ‘mammy’.) Not that she did anything with it. Another husband might have encouraged her to work, or study, although, in the 1930s, that would have been exceptional enough in this first generation middle-class family to have projected us into another dimension of existence altogether. As it was, he, born a Victorian and a sentimentalist, was content to adore, and that, in itself, is sufficiently exceptional, dammit, although it was not good for her moral fibre. She, similarly trapped by historic circumstance, did not even know, I think, that her own vague discontent, manifested by sick headaches and complicated later on by genuine ill-health, might have had something to do with being a ‘wife’, a role for which she was in some respects ill-suited, as my father’s tribute ought to indicate, since beauty and cleverness are usually more valued in mistresses than they are in wives. For her sixtieth birthday, he gave her a huge bottle of Chanel No. 5.
For what it’s worth, I’ve never been in the least attracted to older men – nor they to me, for that matter. Why is that? Possibly something in my manner hints I will expect, nay, demand, behaviour I deem appropriate to a father figure, that is, that he kicks his own backside from time to time, and brings me tea in bed, and weeps at the inevitability of loss; and these are usually young men’s talents.
Don’t think, from all this, it’s been all roses. We’ve had our ups and downs, the old man and I, for he was born a Victorian. Though it occurs to me his unstated but self-evident idea I should earn my own living, have a career, in fact, may have originated in his experience of the first wave of feminism, that hit in his teens and twenties, with some of whose products he worked, by one of whose products we were doctored. (Our family doctor, Helen Gray, was eighty when she retired twenty years ago, and must have been one of the first women doctors.)
Nevertheless, his Victorianness, for want of a better word, means he feels duty bound to come the heavy father, from time to time, always with a histrionic overemphasis: ‘You just watch out for yourself, that’s all.’ ‘Watching out for yourself has some obscure kind of sexual meaning, which he hesitates to spell out. If advice he gave me when I was a girl (I could paraphrase this advice as ‘Kneecap them’), if this advice would be more or less what I’d arm my own daughters with now, it ill accorded with the mood of the sixties. Nor was it much help in those days when almost the entire male sex seemed in a conspiracy to deprive me of the opportunity to get within sufficient distance. The old man dowered me with too much self-esteem.
But how can a girl have too much self-esteem?
Nevertheless, not all roses. He is, you see, a foreigner; what is more, a Highland man, who struck further into the heartland of England than Charles Edward Stewart’s army ever did, and then buggered off, leaving his children behind to carve niches in the alien soil. Oh, he’d hotly deny this version of his life; it is my own romantic interpretation of his life, obviously. He’s all for the Act of Union. He sees no difference at all between the English and the Scots, except, once my mother was gone, he saw no reason to remain among the English. And his always unacknowledged foreignness, the extraversion of his manners, the stateliness of his demeanour, his fearlessness, guiltlessness, his inability to feel embarrassment, the formality of his discourse, above all, his utter ignorance of and complete estrangement from the English system of social class, make him a being I puzzle over and wonder at.
It is that last thing – for, in England, he seemed genuinely classless – that may have helped me always feel a stranger, here, myself. He is of perfectly good petty bourgeois stock; my grandfather owned a shoe shop although, in those days, that meant being able to make the things as well as sell them, and repair them, too, so my grandfather was either a shopkeeper or a cobbler, depending on how you looked at it. The distinction between entrepreneur and skilled artisan may have appeared less fine, in those days, in that town beside the North Sea which still looks as if it could provide a good turnout for a witchburning.
T here are all manner of stories about my paternal grandfather, whom I never met; he was the village atheist, who left a fiver in his will to every minister in the place, just in case. I never metmy Gaelic-speaking grandmother, either. (She died, as it happens of toothache, shortly before I was born.) From all the stories I know they both possessed in full measure that peculiar Highland ability, much perplexing to early tourists, which means that the meanest, grubbing crofter can, if necessary, draw himself up to his full height and welcome a visitor into his stinking hovel as if its miserable tenant were a prince inviting a foreign potentate into a palace. This is the courtly grace of the authentic savage. The women do it with an especially sly elegance. Lowering a steaming bowl on to a filthy tablecloth, my father’s sister used to say: ‘Now, take some delicious kale soup.’ And it was the water in which the cabbage had been boiled.
It’s possible to suspect they’re having you on, and so they may be; yet this formality always puts the visitor, no matter what his or her status, in the role of supplicant. Your humiliation is what spares you. When a Highlander grovels, then, oh, then, is the time to keep your hand on your wallet. One learns to fear an apology most.
These are the strategies of underdevelopment and they are worlds away from those which my mother’s family learned to use to contend with the savage urban class struggle in Battersea, in the nineteen hundreds. Some of my mother’s family learned to manipulate cynically the English class system and helped me and my brother out. All of them knew, how can I put it, that a good table with clean linen meant self-respect and to love Shakespeare was a kind of class revenge. (Perhaps that is why those soiled traycloths upset my mother so; she had no quarrel with his taste in literature.) For my father, the grand gesture was the thing. He entered Harrods like the Jacobite army invading Manchester. He would arrive at my school to ‘sort things out’ like the wrath of god.
This effortless sense of natural dignity, of his own unquestioned worth, is of his essence; there are noble savages in his heredity and I look at him, sometimes, to quote Mayakovsky, ‘like an Eskimo looking at a train’.
For I know so little about him, although I know so much. Much of his life was conducted in my absence, on terms of which I am necessarily ignorant, for he was older than I am now when I was born, although his life has shaped my life. This is the curious abyss that divides the closest kin, that the tender curiosity appropriate to lovers is inappropriate, here, where the bond is involuntary, so that the most important things stay undiscovered. If I am short-tempered, volatile as he is, there is enough of my mother’s troubled soul in me to render his very transparency, his psychic good health, endlessly mysterious. He is my father and I love him as Cordelia did, ‘according to my natural bond’. What the nature of that ‘natural bond’ might be, I do not know, and, besides, I have a theoretical objection to the notion of a ‘natural bond’.
But, at the end of King Lear, one has a very fair notion of the strength of that bond, whatever it is, whether it is the construct of culture rather than nature, even if we might all be better off without it. And I do think my father gives me far more joy than Cordelia ever got from Lear.
Image © William Heath Robinson