'I wish I'd told you this when you were alive...'

Tomorrow is Fathers' Day, when, traditionally, children fail to express their feelings about one of the most important relationships. Here, five writers send letters to fathers who are no longer around to read them
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The Independent Online

Of course think of you every day. I live in the house you built, sit in the chair you used, write in the garden you conceived. How could I do otherwise?

John Mortimer author, to Clifford Mortimer, barrister

Dear Clifford,

Of course think of you every day. I live in the house you built, sit in the chair you used, write in the garden you conceived. How could I do otherwise?

You were one of the most successful divorce barristers of your day. So that in my childhood I was fed, warmed, clothed and educated entirely on the proceeds of adultery, cruelty and wilful neglect to provide reasonable maintenance. When you went blind, halfway through your legal career you would fix witnesses with your clear blue eyes and you could remember every detail of the most complicated case.

Your blindness, terrible for you, had its advantages for me as I had to read aloud to you and I read a lot of poetry I might not otherwise have met. Two things I didn't have to read because you knew them by heart - the Sherlock Holmes stories and the plays of Shakespeare. I really started to write so that I would have something to read to you.

You loved to quote Shakespeare at inapposite moments. When the cook brought in your breakfast you used to say: "Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered." And she would say: "Here's your bacon." When I was about six, every time you saw me, and you could see then, you used to say: "Is execution done on Cawdor?" That is, when you're six, a pretty tough question to answer.

I was an only child and you never patronised or talked down to me. We used to go, from when I was about eight, to see all the plays of what was then called "The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre". We weren't the most popular members of the audience as you liked a five-course dinner and we would arrive in our seats in the front row of the stalls about 25 minutes after the play had started. But once you had had the set explained to you, you were of enormous assistance to the actors. Because you could say all the lines at least five seconds before they got to them.

I can hear your voice and your laughter echoing in my children's voices.

You would get into great theatrical rages, but you loved my mother and she loved you. Perhaps you never taught me the difference between right and wrong, and I'm very confused about that to this day, but in what I write and what I read it's your standards I still refer to because you really taught me everything.

It's almost 50 years since you died. Of course we never said we loved each other but to be able to say it in a letter now saves us both a great deal of embarrassment.

Ever, John

Toby Young, author, to Michael Young, founder of the Open University

Dear Michael,

I wish you could see your granddaughter, Sasha. You died before she was born, but your genes are very much alive in her. She has your pale, almost translucent skin and clear, unblinking eyes. She also appears to have inherited your extraordinary tenacity. She's only 10 months, yet she won't let anything deflect her from her path once she's embarked upon it. In a one-on-one tug-of-war with another baby for possession of a toy, she's never lost.

I'd love to ask your advice about where to send her to school. Your book The Rise of the Meritocracy had a big impact on post-war education policy and I'd like her to go to the local comprehensive, just as I did. The problem is, the ones in my part of west London are crap. Indeed, there's only one decent state primary school and we don't live close enough to get her in. We could move a few hundred yards up the road, I suppose, but the premium on property that falls within the catchment area is so high we'd be better off educating her privately. I daresay you'd disapprove - in fact, I know you'd disapprove - but given that good state education in London is now only available to the rich, I don't see how it would be all that different.

No doubt if you were still alive you'd apply yourself to this problem and come up with a way to rescue our public education system - and that brings me to another point. I'm a bit of a workaholic, just as you were, and I'm worried that I won't spend as much time with Sasha as I should.

These questions all relate to the larger issue of how I'll make sure that my values are transmitted to her. It's funny, but until quite recently I thought of myself as having rejected your values. I'm not a socialist and I don't share your patrician commitment to public service. But now that I'm a father, I find that the apple hasn't fallen as far from the tree as I'd imagined. I've spent half my life self-consciously rebelling against your world view, but, unconsciously, I appear to have absorbed something like 75 per cent of it. How did you bring that off? And how am I going to pull off the same stunt?

If only you were still alive so I could talk to you about all this. But, then, you are still alive. You're alive in me and, I hope, one day, you'll also be alive in your granddaughter.

Love, Toby

John Walsh journalist, to Martin Walsh, family doctor

Dear Martin,

Sorry I haven't been in touch for a while, but you know how crap I am at writing letters. The last one I wrote you was disastrously mis-timed, in that you disobligingly went and died just as I was putting it into a vellum envelope in London. Reluctant to waste its filial sentiments and laboured jokes, I ended up chucking the bloody missive - correctly, if redundantly, addressed - into your open grave in Athenry churchyard, Co Galway, two days' later. It was an uncharacteristically stiff final communication between us, who were always so fond of each other.

That was 18 years ago. You would not believe what's been happening here since you turned up your tan brogues. The end of Communism (you'd have loved the autumn of 1989). The rise of New Labour (you'd have had a lot of sport with John Prescott). The arrival of Aids, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and necrotising fasciitis would have appalled a good doctor like you, but confirmed your faith in a seriously alarming God.

You would have had mixed feelings about the evolution of your native Ireland from a priest-haunted, culturally moribund, green mausoleum into a razzy, post-colonial, post-Catholic, modern Euro-state. You'd have taken the no-smoking-in-pubs law as a personal affront. You'd have loved the Spice Girls (especially Geri, don't even bother denying it), and hated Big Brother, in all its tacky intrusiveness. You'd have loved mobile phones, especially being able to see who was calling you without having to answer them. Your ringtone would have been the theme to Dr Finlay's Casebook.

The biggest thing you missed, though, were your grandchildren. Honestly, dad. How on earth could you bugger off like that before they were born? You'd be terribly impressed. Look, I've lined them all up over here for your inspection. One sultry catwalk beauty. One Mensa-brained little madam. And one boy who is bewilderingly good at any game with a ball in it. Remember how indifferent I was to any sport other than running up bills? Well, here's proof that the sporting-brilliance gene can skip a generation.

Of course I tell them all about you, how kind and sentimental and eccentric you were. How you'd put bandages on children's cut fingers and pinch the corners to make ears, then draw little faces in between. How, on hearing a patient coming up the front path out of surgery hours, you'd seize a hank of muslin cloth and jam it under the clapper of the doorbell, as if that would make him disappear. How you once tore strips off me for being rude to an over-insistent beggar on the Tube (what were you, his agent?). How you made quintuple-strength gin cocktails. How you fancied Princess Margaret and used to kiss the TV set, your nose a-twitch with static, when her face appeared on it. How you liked "Will Ye No' Come Back Again"...

I tell them how brilliantly you'd all get on together, if only you were here. Which is a bit ridiculous, really, since there is a fair approximation of you stalking the earth. It's me. I lurk in the study late at night blowing smoke rings, just as you did. I'm addicted to gin and strawberry jelly (though not together). I weep like a running tap at any expression of childish pathos. I've picked up your regrettable habit of snapping my fingers, à la Buddy Greco, while dancing.

And at the end of an evening, when the guests are departing, I open my mouth and your voice says, "Don't go home yet. Sure, this night'll never come again...".

The nights never did come again, and nor, I'm afraid, will you. But you still haunt the air, and my house and my life, like the most benign and charming of revenants, trailing nicotine and Brylcreem and endless optimism. I can't buy you a present for Sunday. So I'll sing you something instead, sotto voce and slightly off-key but heartfelt nonetheless:

"Better loved ye canna be.
Will ye no' come back again?"

With love, John

Virginia Ironside agony aunt, to Christopher Ironside, artist

Dear Christopher,

No, I never called you "daddy". There was a fashion, among arty liberals when I was a baby, to encourage children to call their parents by their Christian names. So you've always been Christopher. And perhaps that's one reason why it's always been difficult to think of you as a father. (The fact that you looked like Rudolph Valentino didn't help either.)

When I was young, you were not only my father, but my mother, too. My mother worked and eventually left us two together when I was 14. When there were just the two of us, you became a mixture of husband (without the sex, of course), brother, sister, father and mother and friend. You played every male and female role in my life, all wrapped up in one.

I loved you more than anything - and still do, years after your death. When I was tiny, you used to make me fish skeletons out of ferns; older, we'd play beggar-my-neighbour every night, and later on, L'Attaque. You took me to wonderful military ceremonies - George V's funeral, the Coronation - me on your shoulders or looking through a periscope that we'd make out of cardboard and mirrors at home. We went on holidays together (my mother mostly refused to come). At home we'd play duets, me on the piano and you on the recorder.

I can see you now - head bent as you worked on the designs for the decimal coins - and still hear your voice. When we weren't laughing, we'd be debating, night after night, me in my dressing gown, you puffing thoughtfully on one of your 50 Woodbines a day, about any controversial issue - abortion, hanging, the existence of God - until my mind became trained to think in the same way as yours. Logical, objective, reliant only on facts.

I'll never forget when I once sent you a letter, having overdosed on too many American self-help books about family relationships, saying how much I loved you, and got back a reply, in your beautiful italic hand, thanking me, and explaining that the reason we got on so well together was probably due to our genetic similarities. I had to laugh, because it was so typical of you.

Without you, I have no idea what would have happened to me. My mother, though talented and hugely successful, was not much of a mum. And she was also an alcoholic. You were my everything. Even though I'm sure you could explain that feeling sad about someone's death is just an emotion programmed into their genes, I miss you, terribly, even now, over 10 years on.

Love from Virginia

Raymond Briggs cartoonist, to Ernest Briggs, milkman

Dear dad,

It was very good of you and mum to let me leave school at 15 and go on to art school without making any protest or fuss. Further education, as it's now called, was unknown in our family, so you and mum must have found it bewildering. Four years learning about ART! No job qualifications at the end of it, not even a degree.

You and mum, at that time, probably didn't know what a degree was. Then, it must have been a further blow for you, at the end of the four years, to learn that I was to go on to the Slade School for two more years. Six years learning about ART! All this on top of two years National Service, but at least that meant a sensible haircut.

So, 15 to 19: art school. Nineteen to 21: Army. Twenty-one to 23: another art school. Whenever was this boy going to start earning a living? It must have seemed an unbelievable world to you and mum, who had both left school at 14.

I know you had the offer to stay on at school and you wanted to, but your father forced you to leave and go to work. I would be starting work almost a decade later than you did.

Also, you were quite old to be the parents of a student. By the time I left the Slade you were 57 and mum was 62. This must have made it even more difficult for you to tolerate the idea of a son in his early twenties, still not at work. It must have seemed baffling, as if the world had gone mad.

Luckily, there were grants then, which must have helped, and we did not have to pay them back. Nevertheless, mum went on working longer than she need have done in order to help support me. Neither you nor mum were ever on the dole in the whole of your lives. You would almost have died of shame if that had ever happened. You even went on working part-time, long after retirement, during those grim years when mum was increasingly frail.

You both annoyed me because you would never accept any money from me. When I did leave you cheques after visiting, you would put them in a building society account in my name! Twerp!

You and mum were the best parents anyone could have had. Cheerio, dad.

Love from Raymond