Welcome to another part of my occasional series on writing about fathers.
It’s odd, isn’t it, that it is a literary trope to write about ones father but writing about fatherhood is rare? Maybe I’m wrong on this, but I don’t think I am.
Writing about fathers – as the selection in this 2008 issue of the British “new writing magazine” Granta shows again – is almost always about difference, and distance. I’m not just saying this because it chimes with the central themes of my forthcoming chapbook, My Father, From A Distance, but because it’s true.
Like Father and Son and My Father and Myself, what so often characterises the way that men and women write about the men who raised them (or, often, failed [in various ways] to raise them) is the wish for communication. Far more than mere acceptance, what people want is for their father to like them, to respect them. If you don’t accept your children you are inherently a bad father, but there’s a big gap between that and all the many ways that children (of all ages) fantasise about their ideal fathers.
To be a “bad” father requires a choice, requires a “bad” action. You can be absent and still be loved, in fact a distant father who offers occasional praise or attention can be a treasured father with the child not even realising he is a bad father until much later. Like in that Ann Quin short story I forget the name of.
Anyway, this magazine from 2008 feels surprisingly dated in some ways. I was a Granta subscriber for a two or three year period roughly equidistant between now (Spring 2019) and when this issue was published (Winter 2008). The reason why I stopped was because I began to find a certain sameness within the magazine. I don’t mean in terms of content or even necessarily of style, but of what and how it judged “good writing”. Granta – I found – contained various writing that was good in the same way. Though there has always been a good international focus, it – at least historically – was a certain kind of international writer. And back in 2008 those class distinctions (which I’m obviously referring to) were more pronounced than I like to think the magazine would now aspire to. The writing here is almost entirely about middle class fathers, which certainly limits the issue’s value.
Lots of the writers’ father’s were also writers, lots of them were important cultural figures and though a couple are drinkers, there’s no real tension in any of the pieces, as there is in – for example – the Lily Dunn piece about her alcoholic father published by Granta a few years later.
I’m being, as I often am, needlessly critical. Aside from an eye wateringly dull column from Will Self (it sometimes baffles me that he’s a prominent cultural figure) and another Daily Mail-lite essay, there is some excellent writing here, particularly in the shorter pieces where many writers describe a single, printed, picture of their dad. There are happy fathers and sad fathers, healthy fathers and ill fathers, and the pieces that engaged me the most were the ones that slipped outside of their focus on a father to wider sociocultural description.
There is a cracking piece by Francesca Segal called ‘In My Father’s Footsteps’ about a youngish writer visiting Bedford-Stuyvesant, the part of Brooklyn where her father grew up before moving to London. This piece explores the changing demographics of cities and the way environments affect and alter their architecture. It questions where character comes from, why certain religions evangelise, and what it feels like to, as a white person, enter a distinctly non-white environment for the first time. This essay questions presumptions of what we need and what we want from a father, before exploring the chronological dispersion of degenerative disease. An illness travels backwards as well as forwards through time, particularly when it is terminal.
Another piece that stuck with me is ‘Man and Boy’ by Emma Donoghue, about an elephant in London Zoo in the 19th century that is bought by that man Hugh Jackman played in that truly unwatchable1 musical about a circus from a couple of years ago. This is a touching story of affection and dependence between a zookeeper and trainer who is like a father to an elephant. It’s nice. I liked it.
It’s good to see that other middle class people the world over have frustrations and complications in their relationships with their fathers, just like I have done and continue to do. My dad has recently grown a beard for the first time in my life. It makes him look younger and healthier.
Anyway, my tram is nearing its stop so I’m gonna go.
I’m still very cold. Please order my chapbook from Selcouth Station Press when it’s available.
1. I worked in a cinema for about two years and that film was the worst thing I saw there the entire time. I love musicals and I love Wolverine and I don’t have an anti-circus prejudice. But that film is appalling and if you disagree you’re wrong. Then again, the only film I’ve watched the entirety of since I moved to Canada is Hemingway and Gellhorn, which really disproves my claims to competent critical faculties. ↩
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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