Sons of the Fathers: New Zealand men write about their fathers
Bill Sewell (ed)
Tandem Press $29.95
ISBN 1 877178 08 X
Harry’s Absence: Looking for my father on the mountain
Victoria University Press $29.95
ISBN 0 86473 325 9
In Sons of the Fathers Rupert Glover recalls sitting on the bathroom floor while his father shaves. Denis gives him a tube of toothpaste to play with. Being a small child, he eats it instead and is promptly sick. A few years after this incident, Denis left his wife and young Rupert to further his developing drinking and literary career. The incident is an ironic gloss on the Lion Red billboards currently picketing the highways under the slogan What it means to be a man. One of the series features a soft, almost romantic image of a father shaving while his small son mimics him at knee height. The relationship between fatherhood and drinking is conveniently blurred, it was crystal clear to Rupert Glover.
That other great manipulator of our emotions, Telecom, purveys a warmer image of fatherhood. Before Christmas, golden clips of fathers and sons filled our screens as boys and men rang home from beaches and cars, university hostels, grungy flats, suburban garages, farms and forests, desperate to keep in touch, bursting with things to say. If only the pictures were true. Maybe they are for the American shareholders of Telecom but we’re not in Kansas now. The images will do little for the men in Bill Sewell’s book who had a father who “couldn’t face his feelings”; “sought and spent no time alone with his children”; or “developed an uncanny ability to avoid involvement”.
Avoiding involvement seems to be on the rise. Laurie O’Reilly, the former Commissioner for Children, spent years looking for fathers. Winston Peters and Jenny Shipley are doing the same but for very different reasons. While Peters and Shipley want men to become involved by paying for their offspring, O’Reilly believed passionately in the importance of fathers not only as providers but also as role models, companions, supporters and protectors. He noted with distress that in 1996 18% of families had only one parent, the great majority of whom were women. Many more children live in families where fathers are technically present but emotionally absent.
Although it is a recurring theme in Sewell’s book, the absence of fathers is nothing new. Fathers have always disappeared to war, to work, to play, to drink, to avoid their obligations or simply behind a wall of their own thoughts. And until recently, women shrugged, grumbled and carried on; children knew no different. With the emergence of feminism in the 1970s, women began to examine their lives and relationships. They moved assertively into the public arena and began to expect more from their men, not only at work but also at home, seeking more help with the chores, more involvement with the children and, above all, greater intimacy. Their demands haven’t all been met, but they have made men increasingly uncomfortable and less certain about their role. Men have responded to the challenge in every conceivable way from running to writing.
One of the first of the writers was Martin Edmond whose The Autobiography of My Father (Auckland University Press, 1992) was written largely in response to Lauris Edmond’s portrayal of Trevor in her own autobiography. It is a painful book, not so much about Edmond’s father but about his grief at the loss of the father he once knew. Sections describing Edmond’s current experiences and his response to his father’s death alternate with unedited transcripts of interviews made after illness had reduced Trevor’s faculties and the report Trevor wrote to his psychiatrist to gain his release. The disjointed presentation suggests distance and disconnection. Edmond’s absorption in his own story hints at a son whose feelings about himself and his father are still unresolved.
Five years later, Jonathan Scott also went in search of his father who was lost, not to illness, but to an early death in an accident on Mt Cook when Jonathan was only two. Like Edmond, Scott’s search was also prompted by grief, primarily at the loss of a relationship and only indirectly at the absence of his father. Given its provenance, it is no surprise ‘that Harry’s Absence: Looking for my father on the mountain is as much about Jonathan as it is about his father or that it follows the parallel story approach adopted by Edmond. In many ways it is a richer book than its forerunner. Scott has a lively sense of place and paints a warm portrait of his family. He explores his father’s intellectual interests with empathy and insight and describes his own sexual development with enthusiasm. The alternating chapters imply similarities in the lives of father and son – both liked tramping, both had academic careers, both travelled overseas to study, both disapproved of nationalism. But the imbalance in the stories is too great to sustain the link. The son is no match for the father. His disdain for parochialism is not supported by evidence of the same level of scholarship that characterises his father’s work. His preoccupation with his sexual exploits would probably have puzzled and embarrassed Harry.
The imbalance is inevitable. Jonathan clearly wanted to write about his personal life but had no recollections of his father through which to compare their relationships Instead he draws on documents to record his father’s public and intellectual life, with only passing references to the likely effects of Harry’s obsessions with work and climbing on his family. The book exemplifies, but does not really acknowledge the gap between men’s public and private roles. What does it mean to be a man? More importantly, what does it mean to be a father? What is it that Jonathan lost with his father’s death? Not being a father himself, he may not be in the best position to answer these questions.
Almost all the contributors to Sons of the Fathers are fathers themselves and most are writers. The stories are a pleasure to read, conjuring up people and places in glorious detail – studies, kitchens, living rooms and backyards are peopled not only with fathers but with mothers, siblings, grandparents, step-parents, children, neighbours and friends. With one exception, the focus of the stories feels right. The fathers, whether present or absent, have the leading role. Maybe Greg Newbold’s contribution is a bloke’s story for blokes. His hubris was altogether too much for me.
Because these men were born in the forties and fifties, they grew up in the heyday of suburbanism and traditional roles. Women stayed home and had children, men provided for them. The rules for sexual and social behaviour were restrictive, reticence was the norm, particularly for men. The fact that these stories exist at all is evidence of how far the sons have come.
Four themes snake through the book – acceptance and forgiveness, positive support, emotional distance and dominant women. The place of women in these stories interested me. Years ago when I was working on The Smith Women, I came to the conclusion that it was not possible to understand women’s lives without knowing something about the men with whom they are involved. It seems the reverse is also true.
The pressure on men to provide was enormous and was sometimes aggravated by women frustrated in their inability to be active themselves. Tony Simpson’s mother’s angry explosions drove his father away. Bryan Gould’s great-grandmother arranged his father’s job. It wasn’t what he wanted to do but “he never thought of changing it and stayed until he retired at 60”. Murray Ball’s father moved his family to South Africa with the aim of coming back to New Zealand as wealthy as his wife’s family. He never made it. Women’s obsession with sexual propriety could also be devastating. Philip Temple’s mother and her family deprived him of all Contact with his father after his father contracted gonorrhea from a prostitute. If the relationship between fathers and sons is crucial, so is the wider family context in which it takes place.
Many of the relationships were characterised by an emotional distance that was only bridged when the son became an adult, if it was bridged at all. The inability to communicate may have stemmed from years of social conditioning but in the cases of Chris Laidlaw and Peter Russell, it verged on the pathological. While unrecognised post-traumatic stress disorder may have contributed to Bryan Gould’s father’s status as a stranger within the family, John Ricketts was simply acting in the way that was expected of a British Army officer. At the pathological end of the scale, change may be difficult, but when patterns of behaviour are simply a product of social norms, the outlook is far more optimistic. Several of the sons who spoke wistfully about the emotional crevasse between themselves and their fathers, clearly stood ‘on firm ground with their own children.
If there was emotional distance, there was also great warmth. Some of the book’s happiest moments describe domestic events – Nelson Ball rescuing Murray from the man next door (who was busy defending his own daughter); Owen Marshall’s father reading Conan Doyle aloud, Harry Ricketts playing cricket. Fathers were remembered for their presence. Nicholas Reid’s father often worked at home with “the typewriter clacking away as the background to our playing board games, chatting or watching television”. If John Reid’s comments flew across the partition so did the sound of his farts. Contact doesn’t come much closer than that. Greg Newbold’s father stuck by him through adolescent rebellion, court cases and prison sentences and beyond. A saint, I thought. Even the errant Denis Glover provided a springboard to forgiveness and acceptance for his son. Rupert describes how Denis, who provided no other practical or financial support, printed his first work: “One day a large brown paper package addressed to me arrived in the post. Inside I found a hundred or so copies of my masterwork, The Starry Void, cleverly type-set and designed, with a note saying ‘Well done’.” It was enough.
The degree to which sons came to terms with their relationship with their father was encouraging. In many cases, acceptance arose from their own experience as parents. As Nicholas Reid put it, “I have children of my own and I would hate them to judge me by what is worst in me.” The book has a generous spirit. While the men’s journeys towards understanding parallel those described by the women in Mothers and Daughters, most have had to travel considerably further, and their stories are all the more moving for that.
Laurie O’Reilly died while I was writing this piece. Tributes to him pour from the radio and papers, many referring to his passion for improving the quality of fathering in this country. This thoughtful, compassionate book could not have been published at a better time. It is social history at its best – history that reflects the real world, rather than that on the advertising billboards.
Alison Gray is a Wellington researcher and writer, and author of The Smith Women, The Jones Men and Mothers and Daughters, among other books.