Father’s pride and prejudice a life sentence
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.