Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father, by Adam Mars-Jones - Book review: Verdict on a judge, and dad

Particular Books - £16.99

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The Independent Culture

Family, the adage goes, is not a word, but a sentence. And it is a long one. Having children is a way of putting one’s stamp on the world, of achieving immortality, but with age comes the inevitable irony that those you nursed, fed and cleaned in their youth must return to repay the favour. Such role reversal can prove a taxing experience for both parent and child, but in Kid Gloves we find a chance for something valuable, an attempt to unearth the man that Adam Mars-Jones called Dad.

In 1999, retired High Court Judge, Sir William Mars-Jones, passed away after a long and eventful life. He had prosecuted the Moors Murderers, defeated Ian Fleming and the Bond juggernaut over a case of plagiarism, and presided over countless high-profile cases, but he was also a husband and father of three sons. At the beginning of this unusual book,  Mars-Jones’s declining health, after the death of his wife, calls for a live-in carer, so his son, Adam, already a novelist and critic, steps up to the task. Looking after this figure, still severe and formidable even as he approaches senility, and the experience of returning to the Gray’s Inn flat of his childhood, provides an opportunity not only for Adam to document this once great man’s career, but also to analyse his role as the head of a family.

Mars-Jones considers his father’s profession, with lively accounts of several significant cases using a unique blend of historical fact and personal memory. But it is Sir William the man, not the judge, who is analysed at the greatest length, with his unflinching Welshman’s pride, stubborn approach to family conflicts, and unique quirks analysed through lively and varied anecdotes. There are glimpses of real paternal affection, but also displays of arrogance and bigotry, especially when the writer comes out as gay and his father, an undeniable homophobe, reacts with a corporate coldness, presenting lawyerly examples of how his son is merely going through a phase before assigning a clerk to research medical cures. We also follow Mars-Jones Jnr’s romantic life during the rise of Aids, and witness some truly moving episodes of love affairs that shaped him.

Kid Gloves’ resistance to being defined as either memoir or biography means a great wealth of content, but it suffers somewhat from a slight structural haphazardness. The the effect of this occasional erraticism is minimal: it reads almost as a journal of discovery, an expedition into the writer’s own memory and a journey toward, if not to, catharsis.