In the Critics this week

Neil Morrisey's childhood, 20th century folk music, and civil war reprobates.

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, Rob Young traces the utopian visions conjured by folk music in the 20th century; Felicity Cloake discovers that English winemakers are "making great strides"; Helen Lewis-Hasteley wonders whether there's such a thing as "English cuisine", and concludes that though our dishes are prone to absorbing foreign influences, "when you can walk along a high street in even a smallish English town and a small peri-peri, cinnamon and garlic alongside the salty tang of fish and chips, who would have it any other way?"

In Film, Ryan Gilbey watches Duncan Jones' Source Code, and appreciates its sense of "underlying futility": "the visions of violence and destruction can't help but seem definitive". However, "few films" have "generated so little excitement from that old stand-by, the ticking bomb". Rachel Cooke watches celebrity documentary Neil Morrissey: Care Home Kid on BBC2, confessing from the off her "allergy" to the sub-genre ("the narcissism and self-pity is enough to make the skin itch"). This particular one, though, is "extremely moving". On the radio, Antonia Quirke listens to the various on-air tributes to Elizabeth Taylor, and finds the BBC's coverage strangely rife with mentions of "tributes that we never quite got to hear". Heat FM, conversely, had captured "Elton John" and "similar exotica" paying their respects. American radio was "headier", and World Service oddly reserved.

In Books, Leo Robson considers Philip Hensher's King of the Badgers, and Monica Ali's Untold Story as two examples of "condition of England" novels. Hensher is praised for "his steady head" ("his greatest attribute after his energy and fluency"), whilst Ali's mishandling of the "relationship between recorded fact, outright fabrication and plausible invention" has consequences for this novel's "identity and scrutability". David Crystal admires Melvyn Bragg's taking of opportunity to fruitfully display his "breadth of encounter" in a review of Bragg's The Books of Books: the Radical Impact of the King James Bible (1611-2011). Amanda Craig notes the charm of Katherine Swift's writing in her homage to gardening, "the most emotionally involving of all the arts". The Morville Year combines "observation of nature, creative day-dreaming and scholarly musing". Jonathan Beckman thinks John Stubbs' Reprobates: the Cavaliers of the English Civil War an "outstanding achievement". His success "lies not simply in working these dramatic life stories into the larger political and religious conflicts in England" but in "show[ing] that the circumstances of poetic production are an indispensable adjunct to appreciation". "Stubbs", writes Beckman, "has rescued the Cavalier's literary reputation and tempered the most scornful excoriations of their moral character".

Vernon Bogdanor wonders why there is no definitive biography of Churchill ("that may seem like an odd question to ask"), whilst Alexandra Harris, this week's Critic at large, examines the writers' trend of attempting to narrate the story of England by exploring the histories of particular, and personal, slices of land.

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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