Wednesday 20 September 2017

Review: Memoir: My Dad Was Nearly James Bond by Des Bishop

Penguin, €16.99

Rebels: Des Bishop
with his father Mike
at Croke Park after
a Cork All-Ireland
hurling victory
Rebels: Des Bishop with his father Mike at Croke Park after a Cork All-Ireland hurling victory

This book opens with the diagnosis of Mike Bishop's terminal cancer and ends with his death, but in between comedian Des Bishop brings his father movingly to life.

Bishop Senior really was nearly James Bond -- as a successful male model and bit-part actor in sixties London, he auditioned for the part in On Her Majesty's Secret Service only to lose out to George Lazenby in one of those personal might-have-beens that haunted him for much of his life.

A move to New York, marriage and a trio of sons put paid to movie star aspirations and Mike Bishop settled -- albeit not without regrets -- for a life of suburban graft, living in Queens and working as a manager in a swanky Manhattan department store, but warning his children "never go into retail".

He remained ever the showman, starting each day with a complex grooming ritual that included bronzing his face to look good on the shop floor; and with performer's nerves so strong that he was tormented by even a few minutes' delay in the daily commute.

Mike Bishop retained hopes of the big time, recording music and plugging away for years on an unsung opera about Irish emigration. But to his surprise and delight, during his battle with lung cancer he ended up as the star of his son's critically acclaimed comedy show about him.

Des Bishop writes about the unwished for, but emotionally rewarding role he took up in becoming a parent to his ailing father in the last 18 months of his life; washing him, shaving him and coaxing him to eat as he struggled with the ravages of disease and chemotherapy until his death in February this year.

But he also digs deeper than the comedy show could allow in delving into the dark family history that made Mike Bishop's success in raising a loving family all the more striking.

Des Bishop sometimes wondered why his English-raised father retained such a strong allegiance to Ireland where he had only spent a few wartime years as a teenager -- but for Mike this turned out to have been a warmly-remembered respite from the savage violence of his own schizophrenic mother Anne.

After a particularly vicious knife attack on her son, she was eventually prosecuted for cruelty and committed to a mental hospital, after which Mike ended up in a foster home and the army before drifting into a drink-fuelled London life which he ultimately lifted himself out of by getting sober and putting his family first.

Des Bishop's biggest outburst of anger in the book is reserved for Irish relatives who at the funeral of this violent woman downplayed and denied the scale of suffering she had meted out.

"I felt an acute awareness of the dark side of Ireland and the stories that remained hidden and suppressed," he said.

Despite spending 20 years in Ireland, Des Bishop's perspective remains that of the informed outsider -- helped by hours of therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings -- which helped him to see the damage wrought by emotional repression in Irish families and society.

Long before his father got sick in 2009, therefore, he had overcome adolescent resentments to rebuild a close relationship with him -- meaning that physical help, laughter and shared episodes of The Wire were as important as big conversations throughout the months of gruelling chemotherapy and illness.

But working on the comedy show together also helped them get the applause they both craved, a trait that Des Bishop noted, though not always positive, was "part of who we are".

When Mike Bishop eventually died in February this year, he was surrounded by a loving family which, after all the regrets, he finally appreciated was the ultimate reward for a life well lived, as summed up by the words his son recounts.

"When your children come into the world I learned that it's no longer my life, it's their life . . . If you go through life that way with your children you've got a shot.

"You have to totally turn it over to them. If you don't they pick up on it, and they never forget it," Mike said.

Des Bishop has done his father proud with this direct and moving memoir.

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