Magnificent Father mine, that pony does not come
Sons & Mothers edited by Matthew and Victoria Glendinning, Virago, pounds 16.99 Fathers: An Anthology edited by Louise Guinness, Chatto, pounds 16 .99
Saturday 23 November 1996
Bywater is one of the few sons to face up to the pitfalls of the whole endeavour. Men, he says, mine motherhood as the fount and origin of life and its troubles. His essay struggles to correct the balance, unlike the nasty little cameo by Jon Snow, who seems to have preferred his nanny. His notorious revelation that his mother wore a wig is little to be ashamed of, in the context of his other remarks.
The mother-contributors, on the other hand, write with careful rapture and a vivid awareness that their sons could hold it all against them if there is any suggestion of complaint. They can't help it. As Kate Saunders explains: "Anyone who doubts the effects of having a male child on the mother's lobes has only to look at Mrs T. Her one vulnerable place is her boy. When the idiotic Mark got lost in the desert we were treated to the sight of our First Citizen as a weeping old Mum".
This book contains some good, brisk writing - by Saunders and Bywater and also by Adam Mars-Jones and Jan Dalley; it offers some bizarrely fascinating experiences recounted by Michael Seed and Phineas Foster, and some excruciating poetry by Spike Milligan and Jill Dawson. There is also a fair amount of self-indulgent claptrap. "It has been incredibly worthwhile", Ms Glendinning enthuses. For her, maybe.
Infinitely better value, in every sense, is Louise Guinness's anthology of fathers. This is a glorious book, every page offering new delights. It ranges in time from Homer to Heaney, in expression from doting rapture to murderous fury, in scope from Rabelais to Peter Rabbit, in emotion from ecstasy to howling grief - and a good deal of it is very funny. Take Angela Carter, remembering her father coming into a room announcing "Enter the fairy singing and dancing and waving her wooden leg". Take Maurice Baring's version of Goneril's letter to Regan complaining about their old Dad, who insists on tiresomely quoting Cordelia: "and you well remember, darling, that when Cordelia was here Papa could not endure the sight of her". Or take Piero de'Medici wheedling a present out of his heroic sire Lorenzo: "Magnificent Father mine, that pony does not come."
Traditionally, reviewers of anthologies hunt out those entries we think should be there and grumble if they are not. I looked for one that I thought only I had discovered: the section of his diary that lovingly records the astonishing intellectual achievements of John Evelyn's little son, who had just died. It's there. I stopped searching for lacunae and simply revelled.
The book is divided loosely into 11 sections, and some parents crop up in several. Thackeray boasts about his little fat Annie and, later, Annie returns the compliment. Hazlitt appears both as precocious son and anxious father. Darwin is a particular favourite, at first making detailed notes on his baby's progress, observing the first evidence of reflexes and emotions - and then finding, as Guinness remarks, that his scientific brain is fractionally disabled by helpless tenderness. When, in a later chapter, we discover that the child has died, we appreciate that the Darwins "have lost the joy of the household and the solace of our old age".
One of the most pleasing aspects of the book is this new light that it sheds on men who are famous for achievements other than fatherhood. There is Cato making sure he is with his children at bath-time; Henry Miller walking six miles to a hot spring to wash his babies' nappies; Roosevelt having trouble with his daughter ("I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."); Kipling despairingly searching for comfort after his only son was killed in the trenches; William Temple noting glumly in his diary: "Holidays too long."
Louise Guinness's own father died when she was 12. In her introduction she writes movingly of her memories of him. A gentle, scholarly, humorous man, he was the only Oxford undergraduate both to have taken ballet lessons and played rugby for his college. She finds it impossible even to imagine any faults in him, and she has never stopped missing him. She could scarcely have paid him a handsomer tribute than this book.
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