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Uncomfortable to read, uncomfortable to review
on 22 January 2013
Unlike most reviews I write in which I more or less say whether or not I like the book, this review proved extraordinarily difficult to write. It's a Life Memoir, a biography/autobiography of a man, Blake Morrison and his father Arthur. In criticising a life memoir you are essentially criticising the author themselves, I suppose.
Before I read it I felt like I had some idea of what to expect, a story of how difficult it is to live up to your father's expectations, how awful life with a difficult father who is somehow abusive can be. I was attracted to this book for personal reasons.
When the story begins at Oulton Park as Blake and his sister hide with embarrassment as their father bluffs and bullies his way into the best enclosure without queuing appropriately or paying appropriately, I thought this was very much the story I would read.
As it goes on, Arthur Morrison is revealed to be bluff, bombastic, something of a philanderer, and unable to stop interfering in his adult children's lives, but these really are his only crimes. He is very much a man of his time, a 1970's Yorkshireman, and nothing more despicable or insidious than that.
In the great scheme of things when they handed out fathers, Blake Morrison seems quite lucky comparatively, it seems that the worst thing his father ever did was embarrass him in front of Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie. There are a great many people who would yearn to swap their patriarchal recollections for such a first world, privileged accusation to launch against their father. Middle class naval gazing and whinging spring to mind.
It is also clear from the prose that Blake, though often embarrassed and exasperated loved his father and his father loved him, which makes some authorial decision making all the more baffling.
Blake Morrison uses his memoir to launch what seems like a vengeful attack on the man's memory. An intensely private individual, Arthur Morrison clearly relished that he was a local GP and pillar of the community. He was memorialised posthumously with first a sundial and then a bench.
He desperately hid both his pacemaker and then his cancer from his friends and acquaintances wanting to preserve public opinion of him at all costs, refusing at one point to even allow his son in law to visit.
In this book, Blake Morrison takes his fathers dignity and not just strips it away but destroys it. He speaks of his "shrivelled penis" and changing his dirty nappy. He tells the world of his long standing affair with his mother's friend and the fact that he believes her daughter is his half sister. Whatever reputation Dr Morrison had, it was I am certain in tatters amongst those of his community who read it and a source of great gossip and scandal.
More telling than that, despite proudly displaying all his books in her home, his mother hides this one in her wardrobe, doubtless knowing how heartbroken and devastated her husband would have been by it. His mistress is more plucky and politely but firmly tells Blake that the particulars of their lengthy relationship are none of his damn business actually.
Blake speaks of how he wrote this piece in blind grief following his fathers death, and perhaps he would have done well to put it away and come back to it when he had calmed down emotionally. Writing something based on heightened emotional feeling and living to regret it is a sin, many, including myself are guilty of but most cannot boast of doing it so very publicly, and it is extremely hard to see precisely what Arthur did to Blake to warrant what actively feels like a vindictive and spiteful revenge.