He who must be pleased, loved, and obeyed: But what's he like? For Father's Day, four grown-up children describe their dads to Linda Grant

Linda Grant
Saturday 19 June 1993 23:02


Have fathers ever been more unpopular? Read the headlines, or ask teenagers to free-associate some paternal adjectives, and you end up with straight As - Absent, Abusing, Angry, Authoritarian: every one a negative. Even the positive qualities that used to be associated with fathers don't seem quite so valuable any more, or quite so exclusively their property. The breadwinner? But mothers do that too. The strong-armed protector? Yes, but we don't want to be protected, we want to try things for ourselves.

To a new generation of eager-to-please Eighties or Nineties fathers, all this can seem ungrateful. We've come out from behind the study door into the kitchen; we no longer pace the hospital corridors during labour but are in there, supporting, at the birth; we change nappies, wheel buggies, wash sheets and perform all the other tasks our own fathers wouldn't have been caught dead doing. And still we're found wanting - what's a Dad to do?

Perhaps nothing can be done, and the essence of child- parent relationships is mutual disappointment. As small children, we feel ourselves failing to live up to our fathers' expectations; as older children, we feel our fathers failing to live up to ours. And whatever age we are, we act like babies in their presence, and talk at them, or about them, with the sort of petulant neediness we felt when we were three.

Yet our feelings about our fathers, or memories of them, can be extremely tender, as the testimonies on this page reveal. Certain common themes emerge: all fathers, it seems, are larger than life, noisy, opinionated, proud, exasperating, handsome; most are emotionally repressed (it was our mothers' shoulders we cried on); and whether cruel or kind, always about the place or scarcely to be seen, they inscribe themselves deeply on our being. We grow up in their shadows and never really grow out of them.

Blake Morrison's book And When Did You Last See Your Father? has recently been published by Granta Books

JOHN SIMPSON's parents divorced when he was seven and he chose to stay with his father.

My mother left because she couldn't take him any more. She was going to take me with her, but my father said - with his instinctive anarchistic leanings - 'We ought to give the boy a chance to say who he wants to go with'. As my mother had two children by an earlier marriage and my father had none, I chose to stay with him. I think if I'd seen the

look on his face I would have realised I wasn't doing him very much of a favour. But he then

felt that because I'd made that commitment to him, he had to make a commitment to me and he did, he really did. I didn't see much of my mother after that. I

don't know what people get from their mothers.

He was a quite extraordinary character. His main characteristic was his dislike of conventional people. He was a Christian Scientist for a long time. He liked isms for a bit but then they became the orthodoxy. We once went to a Marx Brothers film together and Groucho Marx came in singing a song called 'Whatever it is, I'm against it' and my father nudged me in the darkness and said, 'That's what I think'. Nowadays I feel exactly the same.

Oh yes, I did love him. But I had terrible rows with him. He was a terribly difficult person to live with. I couldn't confide in him because he had such powerful views that he couldn't avoid making fierce judgements. He wasn't good at saying, I understand, I'm on your side even though I don't agree. So I did what kids do and clammed up. I used to feel overshadowed by him at parties. I was quite quiet, I'm not now. Being noisy was his speciality. His rather glamorous friends, actresses and actors, used to say, 'Ronnie's so funny and John is . . . well, John is very intelligent.'

Later, he became incredibly proud of me. By the time I was a BBC Foreign Correspondent he was no longer saying to me 'Don't hold your knife like that, old boy.' He got very much milder. He died much too young at 65 and I wish he'd seen what happened to me after that. I was absolutely poleaxed by his death. I don't think there's a day that I don't miss him and regret that he's not there to tell stories to. There are a lot of stories I'd love to tell him and I can't. Somehow there's nobody else quite that fits that particular bill.

LYDIA is 40, her father, who lives in Germany, is 73. She speaks to him on the phone every few weeks.

Four weeks after my birth my mother became ill and lost all sense of responsibility and my father couldn't handle her depression. They were divorced when I was four, she spent the rest of her life in and out of institutions and he remarried when I was seven. He's very authoritarian and believes in duty, which I think comes from his upbringing and the way he'd built his life up from scratch after the war. He's a doctor and he treats his patients like peasants, but he loves being with people who are important, the mayor, politicians.

I wanted to study art but he would never have given me the money, so I had to go to teacher training school which is what he wanted. I wanted to get away from Germany and from him. It was only when I came here, in 1975, that I had the chance to do what I really wanted to do. And so for years, although he knew where I was, he didn't know what I was doing. I only went back for visits because I was sorry for my stepmother.

I think I became very secretive: I never told him anything because he thought he knew best. A closeness could never develop because I felt he was guilty in the way he treated my mother. Not receiving proper care in childhood and not having a mother has made me insecure, definitely. I don't know how to behave towards him. I said that once to him, that he was a stranger to me.

I don't love him, I feel sorry for him. He's never come to see me here. But since he was 70, he's started to ring, he wants contact. For the first time he's started to ask if I'm well; last time I saw him we talked about the recession and he's worried about the effect it's having on me. Never before has he asked me about myself. He wants to know why my sister and I moved in the directions we have, why arewe not ordinary normal citizens like he is? He can't understand us. He's always telling us about his friends' children and how happy they are. He can't face his own failure.

He says to me constantly that I look exactly like my mother. He says, now you know why I was attracted to her. Recently, my stepmother sent me some photos of my father, my sister and me sitting on the beach before he remarried, looking happy. I can't remember that time at all. I remember going on holiday but I don't remember those happy, laughing occasions.

NOAH is 26. His father is 64. They both live in London and speak on the phone several times a week.

We are still affectionate. Whenever I meet him I kiss him on the cheek which feels totally natural. I love my father but not in a way I could actually pin down. I think the obvious family bond is between child and mother, and father is just around to maintain the economic unit - although he was around a lot more than most people's fathers.

When I was 12 or 13 I resented the fact that I never got to kick a ball around with him, that was the one bit we missed out on. He wasn't a sporty type. I can't recall a single occasion of flying a kite or other things that lads did with their fathers. I was also the difficult child so we had a slightly strained time during my adolescence. He didn't understand what I was about, the dope-head son who kept getting thrown out of school. He didn't drink or smoke, he couldn't stand being out of control. It took me a long time to get

his respect.

I don't think I ever did confide in him. I can't imagine any crisis of an emotional kind where I would talk to my father rather than my mother. I assume that if I tell my mother anything, my father will know. She will tell him. I'm just passing on the information through the easiest set of ears. Usually when I call I will dial my mother's number. I'll dial my father's number if it's some detail of working life that he'll know something about. That sounds cold, but he likes the idea that he's the person who knows about that sort of thing. Being the oracle.

He's never been very good at having friends outside the marriage. That bothers me. It's a model I will not base myself on. But he has a sense of style I will never have. He dresses better than any man of his age, and he's better looking than I will ever be, with his tight-cropped beard and pony tail and his sartorial elegance, which to me is destroying. I'm not even his size so I can't borrow the stuff. I couldn't model myself on him even if I wanted to.

I think I'd have to say no to the whole idea of an elderly parent coming to live with me. It seems to cause such huge stress. I believe you owe your parents nothing, anything you want to do for them has to be based on love. If it came to the point where he had to come and live with me and my wife, there would have been such a collapse in his ability to take responsibility for himself that I couldn't respect him for it. In that case, the relationship would be flawed anyway. And why should my wife have to put up with it?

RACHEL is 38. She lives in London, her father, 72, lives in Birmingham. They speak on the phone every week.

One of my friends said he looked like an emigre features director in Hollywood. He has that sort of charisma. My friends like him very much, particularly my female friends. He definitely prefers women. He's very charming but he's also very powerful. He knows how to make it happen. He sold a car for pounds 300 and built it up to a public company. He's the classic self-made man and to some extent he has been a role model for me. I have been looking for someone to match him. He was a very significant influence on my thoughts about men.

Oh yes, I love him. I adore him. He would get terribly embarrassed if I told him but I think he knows I do and it's completely mutual. The classic statement 'he would do anything for me' probably applies. I used to think that as far as my father was concerned, no man was good enough for me, but I've re- evaluated that. I think I've made him the excuse for my rejecting people by thinking, what would my Dad think of this person? He's pretty critical. He judges people by what they wear. The main objection to one boyfriend was that he wore an earring. In fact he just wasn't his kind of man.

I know he would really like me to get married but he doesn't put on any pressure. He wants me to be happy. He wasn't at all strict when I was growing up. He and I used to go to the cinema together often, I never felt I needed to rebel against him. When I was a student I smoked a joint in the car when he was driving me back to Birmingham and I don't know anyone else who could do that. Though my mother and I didn't tell him I'd gone on the Pill. But he once said something that really hurt me, that I wasn't wearing the right kind of clothes, I didn't present myself properly, and there was probably a grain of truth in that. It's not all sweetness and light.

There are huge areas of him that are a mystery to me and always will be. At the moment, because I'm not in a relationship, he does bear the brunt of some of my needs. I talk to him about money, which is his expertise. He often rings me up and says, this would be a good day to sell these shares, why don't you? He didn't really teach me to do it myself. He's not really a talker, my mother was the big talker. It's just a physical thing of being together.

I don't even want to think about him dying. It's the most awful question you could ask me. I sometimes think that one of the reasons I don't go to my mother's grave is that I don't want to see the plot he has bought for himself next to her.

Rachel, Noah and Lydia are pseudonyms

(Photographs omitted)

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