Books: You killed the man I loved

Richard Gott is moved by a son's attempt to understand the father he never knew

My Father's House

by Matthew Carr

Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99

Bill Carr, the anti-hero of this filial true story, arrived in Jamaica from Cambridge in 1960 and later moved on to Guyana, where he remained until his death in 1992. He had set off, like so many graduates of the Suez generation, to spread post-colonial enlightenment and English literature in the universities of the Third World. These eager neophytes were even less prepared for the realities of the countries they parachuted into than the characters of Conrad or Maugham. Soon they found themselves caught up in problems that should have been all too familiar: dissent and rebellion, race and class, and, of course, sun, sex, and drink. I should know. I had similar experiences later, though in a fortunately tranquil African ex-colony far removed from the dramatic maelstrom of the West Indies.

A talented teacher, Bill Carr in the home was a violent alcoholic. He beat his wife and drank himself stupid. In 1967, having moved to Guyana, he packed off his English wife and four children to England and remarried, to a black Guyanese woman. He joined Cheddi Jagan's People's Progressive Party, wrote about Che Guevara, became involved in the radical politics of the Black Power era and finally drank himself to death. In the colonial shorthand, he had "gone native".

As his alcoholic illness grew worse, he expressed a desire to return to England. Matthew Carr, one of his neglected children, wrote to him firmly, and also cruelly, that he would not be welcome. Carr senior promptly died, his widow letting it be known that his son's letter had led to his untimely death.

An everyday story of post-colonial folk, except that Matthew Carr has managed to turn it into an unusual, moving and skilful enquiry into the relationship that he never had with the father he never really knew. This genre, already exploited by Germaine Greer and Blake Morrison, has been in danger of becoming a cliche in the 1990s. Yet it has proved to be a rich vein. "The personal is the political" was the 1970 slogan of both Maoists and feminists. Now it has been turned against the previous generation by the children of famous progressives such as Ruth First and Joe Slovo, or Berthold Lubetkin. A parental diet of socialism and anti-imperialism, it seems, wasn't too brilliant for the family.

Matthew Carr embarks, literally, on a journey in search of his father. His book combines the skills of a gifted travel writer, a novelist and a biographer. The result is a high-class creation that unfolds with the excitement of a detective story. He makes a pilgrimage to Guyana, and its depressed state - turned by the British government and the CIA, with a little help from the locals, into a post-imperial slum - provides the backdrop.

Three years after his father's death, he is still in a state of rage. Yet he has heard stories of this "charming" and "amusing" man that do not chime with his memory of a domestic bully. Meeting his father's widow, she tells him, "You killed the man I loved."

Matthew Carr encounters many people, including the late Cheddi Jagan and his wife Janet, now the President, who all bear testimony to the talents of his father. As he reveals this strange, personal story, he also tells us something useful about Guyana. There were moments when I felt that a son's tale of a ne'er-do-well father he hated was too self-indulgent, but I was always sufficiently intrigued to continue reading. How he resolves the contradictions can be discovered as the book ends. It turns out to have been a labour of love after all. For the reader, too, the journey is well worth making.

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