Saturday 22 July 2017

A tale of two fathers and a family's silence

Memoir: Fathers, Sam Miller, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 256 pages, €20.99

Family secret: Sam found out Spectator editor Karl Miller was not his real dad in 1979
Family secret: Sam found out Spectator editor Karl Miller was not his real dad in 1979
Fathers by Sam Miller

Gaby Wood

For 35 years, the literary editor Karl Miller and his family avoided one topic - whether his son was really his son.

Sam Miller's memoir Fathers is ostensibly about a family secret. But its true subject is a family silence. Keeping something a secret from the outside world is one thing; not to speak about it among yourselves for 35 years is quite another. Miller's parents lived in a world of words. His father, Karl Miller, was the founder of the London Review of Books; his mother, Jane Miller, is a writer and editor.

"No child of mine is going to a shrink," Karl once said when his son was in trouble.

"I had a tendency to avoid self-analysis," that son writes now. Perhaps that was it; or perhaps what took place in those three-and-a-half decades of silence went beyond words altogether.

Sam Miller was born in 1962. For 15 years he thought Karl was his father; then his mother told him it was in fact Tony White, the Millers' "Christ-like" best friend. White moved to a cottage in Connemara in his later years. He died suddenly, at the age of 45, 18 months before Sam found out he was his father. They told no one else, and Sam, who would always think of Karl as his father, never spoke to him about it until Karl was 80.

In 2014, Karl died. That provided the impetus for this book, a way of writing about the father he knew, and the father he never had a chance to know as such. Miller approaches his subject forensically - a method that largely eliminates the views of others (his two siblings in particular) - and seeks answers where there are mostly mysteries. But it does offer a very moving portrait of a startlingly charismatic figure, who was described by his friend, the poet Thom Gunn, as a "fantastical duke of dark corners", and who referred to himself as "barren and destructive". Everyone was in love with him. "His very breathing made the foul air pure," wrote another poet friend.

What must it be like to be the son, and not the son, of such a man? White's friend Richard Murphy was stunned to see Sam as a teenager. "How strong is the resemblance of Sam Miller to Tony," he wrote, not knowing the reason. Because he'd thought of Tony White as a sort of messiah, he concluded that Sam must be his "reincarnation".

The book is about ways to be a father, but also, more generally, about ways to be a man, from the 1950s to now. Should you be an intellectual, and write letters full of irony and wit? How camp are you allowed to be, or how fearful of homoeroticism? Must you be good at manual labour? Where do you stand in relation to class or entitlement? Should you be more interested in football than you are?

Miller refers several times to the heroic physical build he shared with his biological father, and to the literary universe he shared with the one who raised him. You might also say that these two men were united by the acts of gentlemen: Karl accepted Tony's son as his own; Tony never made any claim on the boy, and had no other children.

Yet in the background is a barely visible hero, about whom an entirely different story might be told: Miller's mother. Some of the reminiscences and letters Miller quotes portray Jane as a sort of boarding-house hostess: making beds, overseeing home improvements, throwing parties, raising three children, feeding armies of men and sometimes getting them jobs in publishing. As Miller notes, it was not an emancipated set-up, and his mother appears to have seen herself as the foundation on which a man's family could be built. Her husband was an orphan brought up by his working-class grandmother and aunts; as she wrote in an unpublished autobiographical fragment, he "wanted a marriage and children and rooms and chairs". Her lover, by contrast, "had been born with possessions and needed to lose them". Her duty was clear.

How she felt about these men is, perhaps, not for Fathers to say. (Her son evokes both the blessing she has given to his book, and her inevitable discomfort.) We are told in passing about Karl's many extramarital affairs, but because the author was not the product of one, they are extraneous to his story, and the question of whether his mother spent the rest of her married life being punished is left unexplored. It's almost painfully poignant to discover that she and Tony White each kept, for decades, a hidden copy of the same photograph of themselves together.

The most striking line in the book comes from a psychiatrist Jane was made to visit when both the putative fathers of her unborn child suggested she have an abortion. In the early 1960s in Britain, a doctor needed to prove that having the child would be a severe risk to the mother's health, and the reports of two psychiatrists were required to prove that it would compromise her sanity.

Jane explained the situation to the first shrink. The men were friends, she said, they ran a football team together. He said: "I think you're the football here." And so she decided to keep the child - because it was what she wanted.

Later in the book, when describing how little freedom women of his mother's generation had, Sam points out that "her first real decision was me". What he doesn't say - perhaps doesn't feel - is that for all the confusion and intoxication of having two fathers, and for all the stigma attached to an unfaithful woman, the most binding, most intended relationship was between a mother and her son.

What did Karl make of all this? Sam relates that the very few people he's ever told about his parentage have responded as if Karl were a saint to have accepted him. But he manages to avoid hagiography; Karl appears to have valued football over fidelity - and it was football that killed Tony, who died of a blood clot induced by a broken leg.

When Sam and Karl finally spoke about Tony, Karl said: "I thought you handled it well. I was braced for trouble, but I was very moved that you treated me as your father."

After the long silence, it's a stunning reversal. The most noble gesture, this father implied, was the author's own.

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