Tim Lott: 'Julie has betrayed Jake for her own ambition'

Sunday 08 March 2009 01:00

I have been through something similar to Julie Myerson (who, incidentally, I know and like). When I wrote about intimate details of my divorce in a piece for Granta some years ago, I was attacked in The Guardian. More recently, when I wrote about the murder of my agent Rod Hall for Granta, I was bitterly criticised by some of Rod's friends.

I haven't read Julie's book, but of several things I am sure. It will be extremely well written, and written with love, as Julie says. But I am also sure she should not have published it.

Writing about the intimate lives of friends, colleagues and family is fraught with perils, but it isthe instinct of writers to reveal all in the interests of "truth". They defend themselves with the conviction that they are artists acting in a larger interest. They also believe that so long as they are well intentioned and that the piece is written with literary merit, the work will be judged as valid.

Julie's emotions this morning, as she reaps the whirlwind, will be twofold. Pain. But also a quiet, private satisfaction that her work has been given such prominence. For a writer, after all, exists to be read.

But I repeat: the book, whatever its qualities as a piece of writing, is a moral failure. To write about a child so intimately – and critically – without that child's permission, now that they are old enough to grant or withhold that permission, is an indefensible act.

Every time I have ever written a controversial narrative, I have approached the chief people being written about, shown them the finished article and insisted that they had the right to change anything they felt unfair. I did so with The Scent of Dried Roses to my family. I did so in the memoir about my divorce to my wife. I did so in the case of a piece I wrote about the murder of Rod Hall to his sister, and to his life partner and his business partner.

These steps have not always been sufficient. After a row about something else, my wife withdrew her consent at the last moment. I allowed publication to go ahead. Rod Hall's sister objected to the piece being republished by a national newspaper. I overruled her objections. The writer Jeremy Brock who made a speech at Rod's memorial service reported by me felt betrayed as a result of a mistake in the copy-approval process. I apologised to him, but stood by my piece.

Each one of these reactions upset me, but I had done my best to strike a balance between the writer's desire to reveal the truth and the moral responsibility to protect others' rights to their truth.

In this case Julie has got the balance wrong. To write intimately and critically about your own child requires the absolute maximum of propriety. Julie, by not exercising this caution, has betrayed Jake in order to further her own ambition. She will, no doubt, prosper professionally as a result. But she may pay a high price in damage to the future integrity of her family and in the arena of her own conscience.

She has made her decision, and she must pay the price. But at least she had a choice in the matter. Her son was not given that privilege, and that is a reality which is defensible neither morally nor maternally.

Tim Lott's The Scent of Dried Roses is republished as a Penguin Modern Classic in June

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