A year or so ago I wrote a column for the Guardian about my father. It expanded on a piece I had written for my first memoir, and after it came out I received a lot of mail about the piece, so it clearly touched a nerve. I’ve not run it here before.
The first time I ever remember touching my father was the day I cut his hair.
Bill sat very still with his back to me, rigid and upright on a stool, a towel tied around his throat, and remained very quiet while I trimmed the white tufts behind his huge ears with kitchen scissors. My fingertips could feel the warmth of his neck. His creased skin was much softer than I had expected it to be. It had always looked like roughly hewn granite. As I finished cutting the last strand, I lowered my hand so that my fingers brushed his wrist. It was the only time in my life that I remember touching him. Two days later, he died.
Children take sides, whether they mean to or not. From an early age I had sided with my mother, who was bookish and lonely. My father was a hard Tory who believed so strongly in being independent that he refused to accept anyone’s help. Even when he was out of work Bill would not go on the dole because he considered it immoral to do so. Only layabouts accepted handouts. His mantra was, ‘When you have family, you don’t need anyone else.’ But we didn’t even have family – we were just people living under the same roof.
It seemed to me that my father was scared of living. Once he gave me a warning. I was holding a torch in place while he attempted to re-thread fuse wire in its ceramic block, and had momentarily lost concentration. ‘One day when you’re grown up,’ he angrily told me, ‘all the lights will go out and you won’t know how to repair a fuse, and the blackness will close in around you and there’ll be nothing you can do about it but sit in total darkness where anything can happen.’ He believed that if you couldn’t do everything by yourself, you were weak and deserved to fail.
Bill’s beliefs weren’t mine, and we fought so much that it seemed likely that he might actually attack me. I was imaginative, creative, impractical – a cuckoo in the nest. How, he wanted to know, would I ever find suitable employment? This was in the nineteen seventies, times that were not suited to imagination. The social framework of the past was being destroyed, and no-one knew what would replace it. Bill was convinced that if we all just kept our heads down and worked harder things would come right. But I knew he had lost his job once before, and things hadn’t come right at all.
As we couldn’t afford to renovate our terraced house, Bill would try to do everything by himself – or worse, would get me to help him, which spelled certain doom. He would tell me to put away my notebooks and force me to hold bits of hardboard covered in Bostik and G-clamps, but my attention always drifted. No job was ever properly finished, and it seemed I was somehow to blame.
I wasn’t frightened of my father; I didn’t understand him. I felt him to be a coward, and he gradually diminished in my eyes. For his part, Bill turned me into The Topic We Never Mention. After the war the English had developed a deep suspicion of anything artistic. Art was feminised as something that would soften and damage masculinity. Books needed to be solid, improving and factual, and I wanted to be a writer. Bill was disappointed in me. A man who always looked immaculate in his grey suit, white shirt, grey silk tie and polished black Oxford toecaps, he did not own jeans or plimsolls, and even wore his suit and tie on the beach.