My dad the hero

Despite only being nine, murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence's son has to be very publicly `brave' in the face of tragedy. Jack O'Sullivan considers the problems faced by boys who walk in the shadow of their fathers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The image is poignant of Lucien Lawrence honouring his dead father. "Now I unveil the memorial to my daddy," declared the nine-year-old on Sunday, in front of the Home Secretary and in full gaze of a national television audience. Just yards away, his father, headmaster Philip Lawrence, had been stabbed a year before.

Lucien's three older sisters mourned with him, as did his mother, Frances Lawrence, but, as on previous occasions, the spotlight was placed firmly on this little boy, perhaps the most vulnerable of all those bereaved. Newspapers had already published his letter to Santa last Christmas. And at Philip Lawrence's funeral, it was Lucien, his shock of red hair poking above the lectern in Ealing Abbey, who read a personal tribute. "They are all especially brave," said Harry Greenway, the family's local MP, "especially little Lucien".

There seems to be little opportunity here simply for tears, or just the distracted inattention with which small children tackle unfathomable loss. Even in an era when adult men are encouraged to cry and show their feelings, Lucien's role is cast in the media as being to behave with dignity, courage and charm, while his sisters and mother do the weeping.

We've seen these images before of a small boy, stepping into the huge void left when daddy died a hero, trying, as he will for the rest of his life, to make sense of it all. Remember John F Kennedy Jnr, in a baby- blue coat, saluting solemnly as the remains of his assassinated father passed by in a bronze casket. It was his third birthday. This boy was, and continues to be, today at the age of 36, a focus for the fantasies not only of a family but of a nation that longs to see its mythical, great president recreated.

In ordinary families, boys whose fathers have died can also find themselves taking on tasks beyond their years. An NHS psychiatrist, who prefers not to be named, recalls events following his own father's death, when he was 13. "I had four older sisters, but I remember people saying at the funeral, `Well, you're the man of the house now.' It fell to me to put out the bins. I started walking my mother to Mass on Sundays. Suddenly my views on politics were asked for. I was expected to do the manly things, having inherited the crown. I had become my father's successor. The result was that my adolescence was essentially delayed until I went to university, because I was expected to behave like an adult. While I was at school, I never went to a party or a dance. My role was essentially domestic. Eventually, I only felt released when one of my sisters married and brought an older man into the house." The lifelong strain such roles can cause were demonstrated yesterday with news of another close shave for the explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who was rescued after becoming ill on an Antarctic expedition. Sir Ranulph would understand the difficult future Lucien faces. His father, who bore the same name, died a war hero in Italy in 1943, four months before the son was born. Like Lucien, Ranulph had three older sisters. But it fell to him to carry his father's flame, to honour his memory.

Following a father elevated to mythical status, a soldier who was badly wounded on five different occasions before he finally succumbed, has not been easy for him. First Sir Ranulph tried unsuccessfully to rise to his father's rank as commanding officer of the Royal Scots Greys ("I tried very hard and I made Captain.")

As an alternative activity, Sir Ranulph's gruelling polar expeditions suggest a search for intimacy through physical endurance with a father he never met. "When I get up in the morning to face another Arctic or jungle unpleasantness," he says, "I am not going to face another 12 hours of hell by myself: I have got my father and grandfather on my sides. It is the three of us attacking whatever lies ahead together, and that makes it much easier."

Damon Hill also seems to have felt an imperative to pursue the dreams of his father, Graham Hill, the world Formula One Grand Prix champion, who died in an air crash when his son was just a teenager. Yet, in his case, rather than being helped by his memory, he seems to have found himself struggling in a hostile world, as though abandoned by a man who might have guided him.

"I was 15 when he was killed and my whole life was turned upside down," Hill says. "I have had to work for everything I have, and it has been hard. Nobody has given me anything. I've not pulled out a lucky lottery number. Far from being a help, my name has too often been a hindrance because people sometimes have expected too much and, anyway, I'm nothing like my father."

So how will Lucien Lawrence fair? One danger is that he could become obsessed with his father's death. This happened to Roger Waters of the rock band, Pink Floyd, whose father also died a hero in Italy during the Second World War. His sense of alienation was expressed on The Wall album, released in 1979. "Daddy's flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory/ The snapshot in the family album/ Daddy, what else did you leave for me?" Waters sings as a child in the first part of "Another Brick in the Wall". In the second part, as a schoolboy, he sings: "We don't need no education." And finally, as a psychotic, he declares: "I can't feel anything at all." Waters also wrote the 1983 album, The Final Cut, an anti-war album which was dedicated to the memory of his father.

Lucien Lawrence may indeed face an even more daunting task than Damon Hill, whose father's reputation was established during his life. Philip Lawrence's great heroic act was in his death, in trying to save another boy in a fight. How do you follow that?

The NHS psychiatrist offers a personal insight. "My own father's greatest moments were also in his death. He knew he was dying. He wrote us letters about it. As a result, I was obsessed with death for years. As a teenager, I'd read Camus' A Happy Death, Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death, Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. My favourite poem was by Emily Dickinson: `I've heard a funeral in my brain ....' It was only when I went into analysis that I was able to sort out my father."

The reality is that, after the mourning, after the idealisation, after the glowing epitaphs for Philip Lawrence, Lucien will need encouragement to do what every growing boy must do to achieve healthy adulthood. He may need to find some fault with his father, remember the imperfections, perhaps the bad moods, the ways Philip Lawrence may have failed him. This is the route by which the son stakes out his own personality, distinguishes himself from the father and so becomes his true self, no longer haunted by the parents' imposed image.

For Lucien Lawrence, and for his family, such criticism may prove terribly hard. Physically, he is, after all, the spitting image of his dead father. Dare he, one day, speak ill of the dead? He should, however, remember that his dad, being the fine father which he undoubtedly was, would surely have wished him to do so

Additional research by Ben Westwood

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