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Four Fathers

12 January 07 words: James Walker
Four authors write about their relationships with their papas and consider their own roles as father figures

Four Fathers was originally published in 2005 as part of a byteback series by Route, the northern publishing equivalent of Granta. Bytebacks are free downloadable ebooks from the Route website, and are one of the many new hybrid mediums emerging at the moment.

The Four Fathers byteback grew in popularity largely thanks to a very successful national tour which saw the authors give readings at prisons, libraries and literary festivals.

In 2006, the four fathers in question - Ray French, James Nash, Tom Palmer and John Siddique have written an extended book which has now been published in paperback. The book is split into two sections. The first deals with the authors’ relationships with their fathers, the second turns the tables and considers their own roles as fathers and father figures, thereby giving the project a more rounded symmetry.

James Nash grew up with a regimented father from the forces, a physically violent man whose own father was a bare knuckle fighter during the last years of the nineteenth century. Given the turbulent relationship they shared, James could have written about numerous beatings and verbal exchanges and gone for the sympathetic vote which is in abundance in ‘literature’ these days. But he didn’t. Instead he recollected the time, back in 1966, when his father’s mental strength matched that of his physical strength when he recognized his son’s sexuality. As he explains ‘my father had medals for gallantry. But for him this was courage of a different order…no training had prepared him for this.’ To his pleasant surprise his father’s eyes ‘were full of a shocking kindness and understanding’ which, particularly given that sexual acts between two adult males was not legalized until a year later, gave him an insight into his father he had not recognized before. ‘I understood how he had been able to lead men. I had thought it must have been entirely by fear. Fear of his anger. His unquestionable authority. But he had also possessed this terrifying human understanding. Understanding without criticism.’

What gives this story greater resonance is the fact that James was fifty-five when he wrote it, which was the exact age of his father in the story. Age, the great leveler, perhaps gave him the necessary insight and compassion to take the positive from an otherwise negative relationship. Indeed, when I spoke to James he had only just discovered that his father's army division was the first of the Allies into the Belsen concentration camp, ‘and therefore the first to see the dead, and the dying, and evidence of the living hell the imprisoned had gone through. My brothers and I all looked at each other at this, and our eyes said, 'Oh, that was why?’

Ray French writes about being the son of an Irish immigrant who never managed to settle in his adopted country. His father, like Nash Snr, was prone to bouts of violence but it was his erratic eccentric behaviour which troubled him the most – such as parading around the house naked. Typically, Ray found his unpredictability a great source of embarrassment whilst amusement to others. The story deals with the difficulties of integrating into an alien culture and the effect this has upon their relationship. French Snr was born in Ireland ‘in a cottage on top of a cliff overlooking the sea – and he has remained a man on the edge ever since.’ In Ireland ‘he could walk out of the front door, stride along the cliffs and roam for hours without seeing another soul’ something which was no longer possible in England or Wales.

When the roles are reversed in ‘Letting Go’ and Ray is placed in an awkward social situation requiring action he recognises something ‘heroic and liberating’ in his father’s ‘ignorance of what constituted acceptable social behaviour’ wishing he had that now. However, he also has the foresight to recognise that he is a rational educated man rather than a ‘poor, downtrodden Irish migrant’ who knew no different.

John Siddique is a poet whose work generally deals with themes of communication and the human condition. It is of no surprise then that he takes fatherhood into the realms of philosophy by asking the reader how do you define what a father is? This is based on his own experience of being a step-father and consequently losing his step-children when a relationship ended. He argues that although blood is an undeniable concrete fact, the soul is solid as well but ‘the law likes blood. It makes things easier. Soul complicates matters. There is no proof except the spirit’s own movement.’ His argument is given weight by the fact that he barely knew his own blood father, something he alludes to in his opening story ‘A photo of my father on Ilkley Moor with his head missing’, which reads like a potential Smiths lyric. Forced to search through old photographs to piece together his father’s life he is forced to use his imagination when picturing him, thanks to his mother’s shaky grip of the camera lens.

Tom Palmer, who was largely responsible for editing the collection, takes the complexities of fatherhood to another level. Having been adopted he effectively grew up with three father figures and so the project must have been particularly cathartic. Selecting which father to write about in the beginning after such a fragmented upbringing must have been incredibly difficult, but like the other authors he does this in a positive fashion, illustrating how simple pursuits such as fishing or modelling can allow bonds to form – a knowledge which is arguably learnt only in retrospect. The fact that he and his partner had to undergo IVF to have their own daughter, the theme of his second story, introduces a biological and technological element to the discourse of fatherhood – reminding us that fatherhood is not a given.

Four Fathers is a well balanced account of relationships which touches the whole gamut of human emotions; provoking, dissecting, dispelling and inventing how we understand fatherhood. Its strength lies in the ability of the authors to find positives out of potentially negative circumstances, thereby making the magical transgressions which literature, and occasionally life, sometimes affords.

Route website

Vital Statistics

ISBN 1 901927 27 X
Price UK - £8.99

Two of the Four Fathers, John Siddique and James Nash, will be visiting Nottingham on 24 January 2007 at the Lakeside Arts Centre, University Campus as part of their ‘Universally Personal’ talk. (0115 846 7777)

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