Fa­ther’s pride and prej­u­dice a life sen­tence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jim David­son’s

There are not many books in which fa­thers air their griev­ances about sons. There wouldn’t be much of a mar­ket: for many of us, the sub­ject mat­ter has al­ready been de­liv­ered by in­stal­ments, in a steady drip. But books by sons about op­pres­sive fa­thers aren’t that com­mon ei­ther.

Re­cently, Scot­tish ac­tor Alan Cum­ming wrote Not My Fa­ther’s Son, an ac­count of a tor­tured re­la­tion­ship be­tween a fa­ther and his fam­ily, in par­tic­u­lar his gay son. Now Bri­tish au­thor Adam Mars-Jones brings us Kid Gloves: A Voy­age Round My Fa­ther. The sub­ti­tle is taken from John Mor­timer’s play about his re­la­tion­ship with a larger-than-life bar­ris­ter par­ent. Mor­timer was straight, Mars-Jones is gay. But his fa­ther too was a le­gal em­i­nence, and much of the book is taken up with giv­ing us a full por­trait of him.

Bill Mars-Jones was born in the Welsh coun­try­side and spoke the lan­guage well. (His son notes that he seemed more re­laxed when speak­ing it.) He went to univer­sity, had a spell in the navy and was an un­suc­cess­ful Labour can­di­date for par­lia­ment af­ter the war. But his inclination was in­creas­ingly to­wards con­ser­va­tivism. He had wanted to go into theatre, but had been put off that by his fa­ther.

The law seemed to unite th­ese two per­sonal vec­tors, so Mars-Jones se­nior be­came a bar­ris­ter, then a judge. ‘‘He knew the mar­tial arts of ar­gu­ment supremely well,’’ writes his son, ‘‘and could turn al­most any throw against an op­po­nent.’’ Do­mes­ti­cally this proved to be a dis­as­ter, but com­bined with his grav­i­tas and tal­ent for the un­ex­pected, it made for a suc­cess­ful court­room ca­reer. Some said he liked the sound of his own voice: in a case against writer Ian Flem­ing, he spoke for 28 hours.

Adam Mars-Jones casts a know­ing eye over le­gal cul­ture, since — as a res­i­dent of Gray’s Inn — it cra­dled him. Many im­por­tant cases are dis- cussed. He notes his fa­ther could be fierce about pornog­ra­phy, but was also con­cerned about po­lice cor­rup­tion, once award­ing a Ja­maican cou­ple enor­mous dam­ages for as­sault, wrong­ful ar­rest and ma­li­cious pros­e­cu­tion.

This arena taken away, de­cline was swift. The judge had al­ways over­es­ti­mated his other tal­ents — as a gui­tarist, as a writer — and had al­ways as­sumed that once he turned to th­ese ar­eas undis­tracted, his abil­i­ties would take him straight to the top. But this was not so. He drifted around in the glumps, ex­ac­er­bated by a taste for Rach­mani­nov symphonies. Once, when ac­cused of be­ing lazy, the bold sharp­ness re­turned. Lazy peo­ple, he said, have some­thing to do — and are not do­ing it. Idle peo­ple have noth­ing to do — and are do­ing it. Case closed.

Grad­u­ally he be­came vaguer, more con­fused. Adam Mars-Jones re­lates that a splen­did African carer — a man ca­pa­ble of real ten­der­ness — used to call him Dad. Once or twice this had Mars-Jones se­nior look­ing puz­zled. Had he for­got­ten some­thing?

The sec­ond theme of the book con­cerns Adam’s ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. His fa­ther was com­pletely dom­i­nant at home, and his dis­ap­proval of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was to­tal (he was a ‘‘ho­mo­phobe’s ho­mo­phobe’’). So Adam was not only slow to reach that clas­sic gay rit­ual, the comin­gout speech, but hes­i­tant in ac­cept­ing his sex­u­al­ity him­self.

This is an il­lu­mi­nat­ing story, but it is not helped by the way it is pre­sented: as one long, un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated splurge, with no chap­ters and not even sec­tion breaks. It’s like some­thing on the in­ter­net that’s too long to be read on screen. But the writ­ing, while dis­cur­sive, is of a high or­der. Since we know lit­tle of the pri­vate lives of judges, and are rarely given such an hon­est ac­count of a dif­fi­cult com­ing-out, this book is of un­usual in­ter­est.

When grow­ing up, he tended to avoid th­ese mat­ters, build­ing on his role as the mid­dle son to act as peace­maker. He would sur­ren­der things to his brothers in the hope of se­cur­ing greater har­mony. More­over, when deny­ing the clar­ity of sex­u­al­ity, he found it dif­fi­cult to re­late to peo­ple of his own age, of both gen­ders. Per­haps, his par­ents thought, he would end up as some kind of ec­cen­tric aca­demic in Cam­bridge.

Even­tu­ally his fa­ther came to ac­cept Adam’s sex­u­al­ity, but only up to a point. At the end he never asked af­ter his long­stand­ing boyfriend, never recog­nised the im­por­tance of an ear­lier one lost to AIDS. Things im­proved a lit­tle once Adam be­gan to pub­lish, and had a daugh­ter with a friend. ‘‘How’s the lit­tle fam­ily?’’ his fa­ther would ask — when it wasn’t one. And then, with a char­ac­ter­is­tic lunge, the fa­ther sud­denly adopted the cause of gay rights. Given the ab­sence of per­sonal recog­ni­tion, his son found this in­sult­ing. Dis­mis­sively he writes, ‘‘Dad was be­ing dis­loyal to his per­ver­sion.’’ next book is Mo­ments in Time: A Book of Aus­tralian Postcards.

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