Tony Parsons: Punch drunk love

On completing his trilogy about modern masculinity, the novelist and amateur pugilist Tony Parsons opens up about marriage, parenthood and failing to live up to his father
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On holiday in St Lucia with his Japanese wife and their young daughter, Tony Parsons became increasingly frustrated by a loud conversation at the next table. A bunch of lads were describing in explicit detail their latest conquests. It was not the kind of thing that a father wants his child to hear. The outraged Englishman's usual weaponry – glares and outraged silence – proved impotent. So the pugilistic journalist did something he now regrets. He got up, jutted his face into theirs and shouted: "If you don't shut your mouths I will shut them for you." He tells the story omitting the expletives, which, he admits, "were worse than anything they had used". He squirms in his seat, as if trying to twist himself out of sight. "I am no Clint Eastwood. I am too old to go rolling into the seafood buffet."

The 56-year-old, who once thought chopping out lines of speed for a bemused Debbie Harry on a restaurant table the height of sophistication – "I was the David Niven of punk," he quips – looks embarrassed. He looks around for a waiter, avoiding my eye.

A similar scene appears in his latest novel, Men From the Boys, the final installment in the trilogy about single-parent-turned-family-man Harry Silver, which Parson's kicked off with the hugely successful Man and Boy in 1999. In the book, however, instead of violently telling the offending group to shut up, Harry remains silent, impotent with fear and shame.

The story says as much about Parsons the loud-mouthed tabloid commentator as it does about his transformation into a novelist and spokesperson for middle-aged masculinity. It also reflects the contrast between image and reality, remarked upon by all who meet him. Whereas Parsons in newsprint – the notorious attack dog who rails against everyone from drunken women to David Cameron – might pick a fight, it is hard to imagine that the man who greets me at Hampstead Station, nattily dressed in Prada flat cap and Pretty Green black polo shirt, would. "People are always surprised at what a nice guy I am," he answers when I tell him I was nervous about the meeting.

Parsons' obsession with "real masculinity" (his hobby is boxing, and he spars every week with a professional) stems from a childhood in the shadow of a father who was "hard as nails [but] never raised his voice or hand". "I can never be like him," becomes a repeated regret during our time together. It is also repeated in Parsons' novels, as his literary alter ego, Harry, works through what it means to be a man, a father, son and partner.

According to Parsons, his father Victor was a reticent and gentle man. A former commando, he was scarred by active service in some of the Second World War's bloodiest battles and received the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. The picture painted is vivid and romantic. The writer admits to being sentimental about his upbringing, but Victor was "a massive presence": tough, but kind; gentle but not a weakling. The eulogies do not stop. He had integrity, bravery and exhibited the kind of quiet machismo that commands respect without needing to assert itself.

"I have found him a useful tool for dealing with challenges in my personal life and getting the career I wanted," he says. "I have found having my dad as my North Star has worked well for me." But, I can't help wondering, with so much to live up to, how could any son feel adequate? No wonder Parsons has spent three novels apologising for not being good enough, whatever "good enough" means.

Central to the books – and, one suspects, their author – is the belief that, by getting divorced, Harry robbed his child of the security that only a united family can bring. Somehow, in failing to be like his father, Harry has failed to be a "real" man. In Men From the Boys, Harry is confronted about this belief by Ken, a comrade of his father, who challenges the idealised image of the family.

Parsons seems to be in the same place, finally admitting that Victor may not have been as perfect as his image. When his first wife, Julie Burchill, abandoned him in 1984, Parsons was left to bring up Robert, their four-year-old son, alone. At the same time, his career as the "hip young gunslinger", who eight years earlier had answered an ad in the NME before going on to create the template for English gonzo journalism, collapsed.

"My dad couldn't have adjusted his idea of masculinity to look after me alone," he reflects of his 10 years as a single parent. "I am a sweet old softy, but it took toughness to get through what I went through." He adds: "I had one conversation with my dad about it. I was 29 and a couple of years from hanging out with Iggy Pop and taking drugs with Debbie Harry, and I said to my dad, 'I don't know that I can do this.' He replied, 'You have to.' That was the only conversation we had about it."

Such a taciturn response in the face of a child struggling to cope feels to me less like stoicism and more like neglect, and I find myself thinking that the reason Parsons eulogises Victor is because the man was a blank slate. Sure the facts of his life are heroic, but all that reticence? For a child looking for a role model, he comes across, to me at least, as an emotionally distant tease. No wonder Parsons turned to fiction to find him.

It is reasonable that Parsons would have needed paternal support during the wilderness years. The split with Burchill became a bitter feud – one that raises its head at regular intervals. He made, he says, a "conscious decision" to withdraw from the battle a long time ago. But this surrender has not made his ex any less combative. Two days before we meet, she wrote a review of Men From the Boys that ridiculed his writing and claimed that the trilogy is Parsons' revenge on her.

"If Man and Boy and [follow up] Man and Wife were based on some petty media feud," he punches back, "they wouldn't have sold millions of books in 40 countries." As he speaks, his head bobs up and down, like a boxer avoiding blows. For the past 18 years, he has been married to Yuriko, with whom he has seven-year-old Jasmine, and he looks irritated at having to answer more questions about a relationship that died more than 25 years ago: "There is no character based on Julie in this book." He spits out the words. The characters of Harry's wife, Cyd, and Harry's ex, Gina, are based on real women, he concedes, "but neither are based on Julie".

He hasn't read the review but it rankles, and though he claims to be keen to draw a line under it, he raises the subject several times later, including on the walk to his house for the photoshoot. His voice, east London-lite, is friendly and his tone even, but the words are angry, aggressive. The literary editor who commissioned [Burchill's piece] is "inadequate", he claims. And "I am not up for being part of some Punch and Judy show to amuse a few wankers."

Though he claims to have left behind the bitterness of that first marriage, he does regret how the feud affected his son, although he also adds: "I am kind of over regretting it, as it is so long ago." That is about as open as he will be on the subject of a break-up that rivalled Charles and Diana's in terms of public recrimination.

It may be past history, but Parsons was responsible for his share of viciousness. A notorious article in which he compared "exotic" women with "big brood mares with saggy breasts" has come back to haunt him time and again – he was roasted for it in a Q&A with users on Mumsnet. It was "about Julie", he insists. "It's like David Cameron calling Nick Clegg his favourite political joke," he adds defensively.

But it is hard to believe that such public hostility left his son unscathed. When I ask about Harry's observation in Men From the Boys that "divorce is always a tragedy for the children", he bats it away from any personal implication with oblique generalisations. But he does admit that he was "too laissez-faire" with Robert. "When he got to 13 and started staying out all night, I thought it would probably make a man out of him and toughen him up." It could be his father speaking, but Parsons adds: "When I learnt about some of the scrapes he got into, I think I was too lenient."

On the way back to his house, we swap our experiences of raising bilingual children. Jasmine is being privately educated, a luxury he could not afford to give Robert. He is bitter about it – though not with the boy's mother, who could have afforded the fees. No, this time Tony and Cherie Blair get it in the neck. Robert attended the notorious Islington Green. "It's almost next door to where the Blairs used to live, and [Robert] went there while they shuttled their kids across London to a private school," seethes the grammar-school boy.

The failure of Labour's education policy has given him something to fight for. "The reason I feel such contempt for people like the Blairs is that the comprehensive system could have worked if we were all in it." In the present system, he tells me, a young Burchill and Parsons, both of whom left school at 16, would not have the opportunities afforded them in the 1970s.

On the day of the election, Parsons wrote a scathing attack on David Cameron in the Daily Mirror pointing out that the problem with him was not his class, but that he illustrated how social mobility had seized up in the past 13 years. He was proof, so Parsons claimed, that thick kids from public schools do far better than bright kids from comps. In writing it, he dripped righteous anger on everyone, the Tory elite and Labour.

I find myself thinking about the article when, back at his house, Parsons eagerly dons boxing gear and throws play punches for the photographer. His dad tried to teach him to box when he was a kid, but he was "too soft", he told me earlier. But as I watch him in a headguard that gives him a Travis Bickle mohican, I realise why Parsons doesn't need gloves to fight: he has words. Punchy, angry, raging words that hurt like hell when they hit their target. His dad would be proud.

The extract: Men From the Boys, by Tony Parsons (HarperCollins £14.99)

'... I have this theory about divorce. I have this theory that it is never a tragedy for adults and always a tragedy for children. Adults can lose weight, find someone nicer, get their life back. Divorce gives grown-ups a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is the children who pay the price, and pay it for the rest of their lives.

But we can't admit that, all us scarred veterans of the divorce court, because it would mean admitting that we have inflicted wounds on our children that they will carry for the rest of their lives'