Friday, February 26, 2010

Misplaced childhood

My father told lies all his life and, because
I knew no better, I repeated them.
A lie about my father... A son's version of the truth...

John Burnside's memoir about his father is a brilliant, but brutal account of what it was like for him growing-up in the fifties and sixties in Cowdenbeath and Corby. As well as being a liar, his father is a drunk and a bully who is singularly ill-qualified for fatherhood, even by the standards of 1950s Scotland.

A Lie About My Father covers the time from John's birth to his early twenties when his dad dies. It is tough going – his dad burning his teddy bear at six, his mother bundling him out of the bedroon window late at night to avoid drunken beatings, the broken arm from a holiday in Blackpool that goes undiagnosed for three weeks, the teenage obsession with fire-lighting – but not at all gloomy. He seems to cope remarkably well with his lot and there is a complete lack of self-pity or wallowing in his predicament. Like millions of other teenagers he survives with the help of books, music and a complete rejection of his father's principles.

Of course, however, it all takes its toll and as the book ends he is diagnosed with mental illness, hospitalised and losing himself in serious drug abuse from which it takes him a decade to escape.
When they warn you about all that bohemian stuff, they always talk about the seductive properties of alcohol, or drugs, or loose morals, but they never say how seductive falling is, what a great pleasure it is to be lost. Perhaps they don't know. Perhaps only the lost know. Far from home, far from the known, the imagination starts to play beautiful, terrifying tricks on us. Maybe it is the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom which is just another word for a certain kind of crazy. Being lost, being crazy: while I was falling, I knew I was on to something. I knew I wasn't anywhere near there yet, but I also knew that I couldn't get there from where I was.
His recent memoir Waking up in Toytown covers this lost decade and his escape into suburbia of all places. A Lie About My Father ends positively and, although I don't want to spoil the book for anyone, it is safe to say that he isn't going to repeat the mistakes his father made.

P.S. What is the difference between memoir and autobiography? I couldn't really have told you until recently, but according to Diana Athill (in issue number 7 of the consistently interesting Five Dials) the two have diverged recently and autobiography is the official, public version of events while memoir is the private version. Thus the key to memoir is that its success or otherwise depends on how true the account feels to the reader. A Lie About My Father certainly fits this description.

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