Books: Disentangling the tethers of a formidable father
Memoir: Kids Gloves - A Voyage Round My Father, Adam Mars-Jones, Particular Book, hdbk, 288 pages, €12.99
Every man, they say, spends a portion of his life in the shadow of his father. For Adam Mars-Jones, the man he called "dad" was less the caster of shade than the source of a translucent fog that only in death could the British writer properly navigate through.
Kid Gloves is a special way to be introduced to William Mars-Jones, who came from humble beginnings in the Welsh valleys to rise up through the legal profession and eventually become a High Court judge. This is not a paean to the fallen patriarch, nor is it a naval-gazing mope around the aftermath of a man who was as formidable a presence in the lives of his three sons as he was in the court room.
Mars-Jones here keeps the tremble of life going in his father, as if trying to make him last a little longer to allow time to make sense of a nebulous but fundamental presence in his life.
Chapterless and with only a handful of paragraph breaks, this fleet-footed and bright memoir ranges freely over the geography of the father-son relationship, and moves into more and more gravid territories as it concludes. Despite an insistence that he is not "going for a big finish, more a syncopated-coda effect", the fact of the matter is that a momentum does build towards both the writer's coming out to this furiously prudish and old-fashioned man as well as the revelation of why he came to refer to his mother only by her Christian name. By painting himself starkly into the foreground of his father's portrait, Mars-Jones strikes gold.
Set mostly in Gray's Inn, the London law society and family home to which Mars-Jones returned to help tend to William when he began to deteriorate mentally, Kid Gloves is a witty and gently poignant memoir that meanders effortlessly through the gestalt of a complicated individual with zest and insight. Time might be spent on his father's fragrance regime, his charmingly outdated attitudes to blue humour and soft pornography, or the myriad dinner-table contradictions and idiosyncrasies that make him no different to any of our dads.
At times it is almost like the judiciary system is being used as a prism, and it could well be that the language of what William Mars-Jones was can best explain who he was. In this sense, the judgments he passed down and the cases he presided over provide a series of character references (not all glowing, his son reflects).
Waterford singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan, for example, has WMJ to thank for a £7m settlement with his former record label in the early 80s. Meanwhile, Nezar Hindawi - who was tried for smuggling a bomb aboard an Israeli aeroplane in his pregnant Irish fiancée's bag - must have spent many nights scorning the name of the judge who handed him an unprecedented 45-year sentence. For those (like me) for whom the cogs of law are a maze, Mars-Jones distils these trials into buoyant and illuminating reading.
A novelist, essayist and journalist of renown, Mars-Jones comes across liberated and untethered as he disentangles the threads of the relationship. His reflective trails are natural, if bemusing. He can glide from indignant school teachers to his father's fame and on to a childhood trip to Ireland and finish somehow at the origins of the F word, all in a few pages. Such cartwheeling is rather bold, and in the hands of a lesser writer, a recipe for disastrous self-indulgence. In the case of Adam Mars-Jones, a self-confessed "subtext hound", relaxing the rules seems the perfect tribute to remembering a High Court judge.