Paul Carter: Living with the legacy of a bad dad

Paul Carter fled the shadow of his military father for life on oil rigs. Now a parent himself, his greatest fear is becoming like his dad – so why does he want to play him in the film of his memoirs?

Few men will escape the feeling, at some point in their lives, that, for better or worse, they are turning into their fathers. The habits, the turns of phrase, the hairline. For Paul Carter, that transformation will be sudden and extreme when, an audition permitting, he plays his father in a film adaptation of his own, best-selling memoir.

Carter is a dyslexic British former oil rig worker based in Australia, who once got locked in a toilet by his pet monkey. He has also tried to set a land speed record on a motorbike fuelled by used cooking oil, and almost became a presenter of Australia's version of Top Gear, until, he says, he was ditched for being too British.

In 2007, while he was coming to the end of a career as a swashbuckling oilman in war zones and disaster areas, Carter, who has no academic qualifications but could earn an instant PhD in storytelling, achieved unexpected literary success. Don't Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs, his ribald memoir, went on to sell half a million copies worldwide. Three further books and now more than two million total sales later, Carter is looking forward to a film inspired by his life and that first work. A screenplay has already been written, by John Collee, the Scottish writer behind Master and Commander, Happy Feet and an upcoming Tarzan movie.

Paul and his father Paul and his father (Micha Theiner) Carter wants to win the role of his father, Alan Carter, a retired RAF navigator who died 18 months ago, not so that he can honour him, but rather to lay bare the worst parts of his personality and approach to fatherhood – the traits that he is desperate not to inherit.

"My boy, Sid, won't remember meeting his grandfather," Carter says of his three-year-old son, during a visit to London to promote his latest book, Ride Like Hell and You'll Get There, about his land speed record attempt. "Years from now, when he asks what he was like, I'll be able to say, 'have a look at this, son', and hit 'play'.

"At Dad's funeral, all these people described this life and soul of the party, the man who'd tell a story and the whole room listened. 'He was great,' they said, 'I wouldn't be where I am today if it hadn't been for Al'. 'Good old Al!' And I'm thinking, fuck off, no. How about 'high-functioning sociopath Al', or 'terrible father Al'."

Carter is animated and angry, but what really worries him is the extent to which he has to check himself as he feels more like Alan. He is convinced even that young Sid is displaying some of his grandfather's traits. But before he describes that fraught shadow, what is it that made Alan such a bad father?

Alan Carter lived in a large, rundown house with a gravel drive in the Scottish Highlands. He and Paul's German mother had separated when Paul was young. When Paul was 10, his father summoned him to the house. His mother, who was equally scared of Alan, dropped the boy off at the end of the drive.

"The first thing he did was say, 'you're sleeping in the barn at the back of the house, it will harden you up, boy'," Carter recalls. "Inside there was a camp bed, a gas lamp and a loaded rifle. He told me not to touch the gun, and that he was going to teach me to shoot it the next day.

"It snowed that night, and I remember putting on my clothes and walking around the side of the house and looking into this large lounge room. There was a fireplace, a television on a milk crate and old Chesterfield with a table lamp in the corner. That was it. Dad was sitting there with a big glass of whisky, staring at the TV, which wasn't on. I remember staring in, shivering, thinking how lonely he looked."

Carter later returns to bedtime, the manner of which he sees as a measure of good parenting. "For me, it was like a military exercise," he says. "'You, boy! Stand up! Quick march into the bedroom, NOW!' I'd get into bed and hold my breath, he'd flick the light off and slam the door and I'd cry myself to sleep."

Two years before he died, after which father and son had made some sort of peace, Alan visited Paul and his family in Australia. "We were having dinner and it was Sid's bedtime. So I swept him up and gave him kisses and cuddles and went to read him a story. My wife, Clare, told me later that, in the meantime, Dad told her a different account. 'Oh, Paul and I had this wonderful game,' he said. 'I'd be commander and he'd be the soldier...' and he gave her this version of what had made me such a bedwetter."

Carter's mother and her new partner worked in Aberdeen in the oil industry. Had Paul's father won custody after his parents split, he is certain he would have been sent to Sandhurst and into the military, where he says he would have gone mad. Instead, he found male role models on the rigs, embarking on a career of drilling in some of the world's most hostile environments.

"There's no privacy on a nasty offshore rig in the Third World," he says. "The toilet is eight stainless steel bowls facing eight showerheads. You're sitting there while some 6ft 4in monster with tattoos and no neck is getting clean, his genitals bouncing around inches from your nose, and you're all engaging in conversation."

Carter is shorter than the average "rig pig", and was bullied at school. But he thrived on the oilfields, thanks to a gift for telling stories, perfected on helicopter decks and in insalubrious bars. He loved the life for its freedom and escape, but when his wife Clare offered him an ultimatum, he quit when she became pregnant with Lola, their first child, who is now six.

He had already fallen into writing by accident, when a statement he had written as part of a psychological assessment at work – a raw, bracing rant full of stories and humour – ended up in the hands of a publisher. It was packaged as a story for blokes, and new editions were soon required. When he's not writing or embarking on new adventures, Carter has worked as a television presenter for National Geographic, and still keeps a foot in the oil industry. Otherwise, he is devoted to being a good father. But a recent episode made him wonder how far he could escape his own upbringing.

"I'm on the balcony at home, looking inside," he says. "Clare's making bread, Lola's doing a jigsaw. A weekend before, Sid picked up a toy gun another boy had left on our front yard after a party. Clare hasn't let him have any 'boy' toys and he was immediately drawn to it and took it to bed, playschool – everywhere.

"Sid walks into the lounge to get something out of the big chest where we put their stuff at the end of each day. He needs two hands. What does he do? He jams the gun in the back of his pants, puts his jumper over the grip and opens the box. He's never seen that in a movie. Peppa Pig doesn't shove a 9mm in her waistband. Clare freezes and we look at each other. I felt a combination of pride and total fear."

On another occasion, Carter saw Sid reacting violently to bullies twice his size. "I told Clare about it and said, 'we have to get this boy tested, he's not right'. She said, 'don't be ridiculous, you're projecting your paranoia on to your son. It's not genetic, it's not transferred from grandfather to grandson, just like it isn't with you.'"

Carter is quietly confident about his audition later this year, and the prospect of stepping into his father's clothes. "I'd love to do it," he says. "I'd give it all the venom and gusto I remember so well of him. It will be cathartic for me to get that out and revisit it." He adds: "I won't play him out for the sake of it but rather to speak the truth about a guy who wore a very convincing human suit."

'Ride Like Hell and You'll Get There' by Paul Carter (Nicholas Brealey, £9.99) is out now

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