Sunday 11 December 2016

In the name of the son and the father

Published 13/04/2015 | 02:30

Like father, like son: Brian Clayton, father of Adam and Bob Hewson, father of Bono.
Like father, like son: Brian Clayton, father of Adam and Bob Hewson, father of Bono.
Sean McCann
Colum McCann
Adam Clayton
Paul Hewson (Bono)
Roddy Doyle
Rory Doyle, father of Roddy
Sons + Fathers cover

Sons + Fathers is an anthology of entertaining essays which celebrates the special relationships between sons and fathers. The book, in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation, features affectionate and witty musings from writers, actors, musicians, politicians and entrepreneurs. Here, we reproduce those of Bono, Adam Clayton, Roddy Doyle and Colum McCann

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Bono & his father Bob Hewson

Bono is the lead singer in U2, the band of which he was a founder member in 1976.

'Your problem, son, is you're a baritone who thinks he's a tenor.' With this impeccable one-liner my father, Brendan Robert Hewson, or Bob as he was universally known, nailed me.

He was great with a hammer. Our house was, on the inside, a do-it-yourself dream. My mother was pretty good with an electric drill - practical, open-faced and a sense of humour as dark as her curls.

'Iris!' screamed my father from the top of the stairs one afternoon, having let the drill bit slip from the dowel between his knees into his groin, 'Iris! I've castrated myself!' She rushed out of the kitchen, I rushed after her, but on witnessing his DIY emasculation, she dissolved into uncontrollable laughter, to the point where she could hardly stand.

When she was gone, taken by a blood clot that turned like a switch in her head, 10 Cedarwood Road was no longer a home. It was a house of three males: my brother Norman (Nobby), me, and my grief-stricken father, who had now, to our sulking teenage eyes, become an unwanted figure of authority - a sergeant major, dishing out to my brother and me the tasks that my mother used to perform.

My brother did good. I did bad. I was unaware of the hormonal drag that was going to pit me against this great man and turn me into a little bollix. We danced until his death, the ancient ritual of son versus father. His last words were absolutely fitting. I was lying on a mattress in Beaumont Hospital beside his bed, having flown home after a U2 show in London. My father woke up in the middle of the night, anxious and whispering. His Parkinson's disease had taken some of his beautiful tenor away. The whispers were percussive, animated. I called the nurse and we both leaned in to try and make out what he was saying. Through the strained rasping, loud and clear, burst 'Fuck off!' Then, 'I want to go home. I need to go home.' And he did. I'm looking forward to seeing him there. I doubt if Heaven will be as tidy as he battled for 10 Cedarwood Road to be, but this time round, that won't be my argument.

God, how we loved to argue in our family. And he was the best at it. Christmas morning was always the argument of the year. Religion. I didn't realise then that he was teaching me a great lesson: question everything. While he didn't like me to question his authority, he encouraged us to question every other authority.

Here in the 1960s was a Catholic, who drove his Protestant wife and two kids to a little Church of Ireland chapel in Finglas every Sunday, attended mass in the Catholic church, then returned to pick them up. He understood that God and religion were two separate concepts, and that one could keep you away from the other.

Wise is another word for his no-nonsense-Dub view of the world. My father had spent his last few weeks conserving energy for his next adventure, largely by sleeping, where the grace of the angels, aka the nursing staff, made the incomprehensible (for any of us) as bearable as it could ever be. I had taken to drawing him as he slept; to try and stay awake, but also to meditate on what a special, talented man I had been given for a father. All my creativity comes from him.

He read Shakespeare, he painted, he sang, he danced. And when he wasn't arguing with men, he made women laugh. I have no scientific evidence to back up the claim that sometimes a close relation, in passing, bequeaths us a gift. Something to get us through. I can't explain this, but I do know that ever since my father died, my voice changed. I can sing those B's and A's with an ease I never had before. I am now a tenor pretending to be a baritone.

One Sunday morning, in an empty medieval hilltop chapel in the South of France, I knelt in an ancient wooden pew and asked my father on earth for forgiveness. I don't know if that had anything to do with it.

ADAM CLAYTON & HIS FATHER BRIAN CLAYTON

Adam Clayton was born in 1960 in Oxfordshire, England. His father was an RAF pilot and then worked in civil aviation. In 1965 the family moved to Ireland, where he met Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen Junior at Mount Temple Comprehensive School and together they founded U2 in 1976. He is married to Marianna Teixeira de Carvalho.

When I think back over the interactions between my father and me there are very few moments to which I return and say, 'That was pivotal to how things turned out.' My father is a practical man; he is not naturally affected by music or art and I think believes that getting in touch with his feminine side was listening to my mother.

In 1974, I had persuaded my mother to buy me a budget bass guitar, which she did with the proviso that I had to learn to play it - by 1976 I hadn't mastered it, but had identified that I needed a better instrument in order to learn and my father was essential to this plan. He flew regularly to New York and second-hand instruments were much cheaper at Manny's of 48th Street.

This was a long time before the internet and required my father to walk into the inhospitable domain of a music shop in New York filled with hipsters and hippies making as much noise as possible to attract attention. I had given him the arguments that a used bass would cost 125 dollars in the US, half of what it would cost at home, and I could probably sell my old bass for sixty pounds so I would be ahead with the new investment.

He agreed and I gave him the money and the magic words 'Fender Precision bass' - and waited. The day came when the bass arrived with him from New York. It was a Sunburst finish and smelt and handled differently than anything else I had experienced. I felt like a Beatle, a Rolling Stone, a Strangler, a Clash man.

I often have this same feeling when touching an instrument for the first time - a recollection that goes back to the moment I first opened that case from New York. I doubt my father has a similar recall but I often think of what it was like for him to enter that music shop, and armed with only a little information, engage with a salesman and hope to be treated fairly and respectfully.

I wonder how it was for him to carry it back to Dublin explaining to work colleagues that it was an electric bass for his son Adam, 'who couldn't really play it'.

RODDY DOYLE & HIS FATHER RORY DOYLE

Roddy Doyle was born in 1958. He has written ten novels, including The Commitments (1987), Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Booker Prize 1993), A Star Called Henry (1999), and, most recently, The Guts (2013). The Second Half, which he wrote with Roy Keane, was published in October 2014. He lives and works in Dublin.

My father lost his teeth in Ballybunion. This happened in August 1966, when I was eight, and - I just worked it out now - my father was forty-two. I sat on the beach for hours and watched him and my sister diving into the water, and coming back up, and diving in and coming back up. This was the Atlantic Ocean they were diving into, so the chances of finding his teeth, or anyone else's, were slim. But, eventually - and inevitably - I heard a roar: he'd found his teeth, or my sister had. He came out of the water a bit like Ursula Andress in Dr No, if Ursula had been male and she'd just found the false teeth she'd lost hours earlier.

I don't think my father did it - lost his teeth - deliberately. I forget what exactly happened, or I never knew. A wave smacked the back of his head and the teeth jumped out. He opened his mouth to speak and a wave lifted him high. When he came back down, the teeth were still up there - then gone - a splash. Something like that. He didn't wade into the Atlantic with the intention of losing his teeth, then finding them. Or, he didn't hide them in his armpit - hiding places were limited - and then pretend to find them. Their loss had been an accident, their recovery a bigger accident.

But sometimes I wondered. All through his life, right up to the day before he died, my father planted stories. He left a trail of events behind him, things he'd said or done that still made people grin when they told me about them decades later.

'He was a character.'

'He was hilarious.'

'He was a bit mad, your dad.'

'He was a gentleman.'

He was drunk when he met my mother. He made a bad impression, before he came back the next week and made a much better one. It was a better story. When he was serving his time as a printing apprentice, he won a prize for excellence - cash. He went up to Fox's with it, and bought a pipe and plug tobacco, filled the pipe, took his first puff, got sick, and continued smoking. It was as if he'd done it so he could tell us about it forty years later. It was a great story - the tall, skinny boy smoking himself into adulthood. About the same time - 1940 or 1941 - he was standing on Dame Street in thick fog. He had his bike with him but he couldn't cycle home because he couldn't see a thing. He started to walk, and literally bumped into one of his cousins. The cousin brought him slowly up the street to Burdock's and bought him a bag of chips - his first. How long would the rest of us have to stand in fog before a cousin bumped into us?

Every time I buy chips I think of my father. That's the point. My mother told me about the time they were at a party to celebrate a missionary priest's fifty years in the priesthood. A bishop had just been praising the priest -what a wonderful man he was and an example to everyone. My father stood up and walked across the room and, a minute later, she heard the burst of laughter. He'd gone straight up to the bishop and, pointing at the priest, he'd said, 'If he's so wonderful, how come you're the bishop?' The roomful of people went home with that one.

He had a triple bypass in 1992, and was delighted to wake up alive. He chatted away, his head a mix of what he heard on the radio and the hallucinations that kept visiting him for weeks after the surgery. He was asking me about the football scores he'd missed while he was 'under the knife', when he looked out at the hospital corridor, and said, 'That black man's very skinny for a chicken.' There was no black chicken man but, nevertheless, he became part of the family. He still delivers the eggs.

The evening before he died last March, he'd been moved to a different ward. He was disorientated; he wasn't sure where he was. He didn't seem able to see. He could make out light - the last of the day's sunlight - but he couldn't understand why it was in that particular position. It didn't upset him. He knew my mother was there. There was one other bed in the room, about to be occupied by an elderly man who sat in the chair beside it. He was being asked a series of questions by a nurse, a routine he'd obviously been through already.

'Are you a married man, Michael?'

'My wife is dead.'

We sat listening. My father seemed to be sleeping; his eyes were closed.

'Do you have any children?'

'I have three sons.'

'What is the name of the eldest son?'

'I said it already. Michael. Same as myself.'

'So he is your next of kin.'

'Yes.'

'What is the name of your second-eldest son?'

The man hesitated.

'Kevin,' said my father.

'Kevin,' said the man.

My father died the next day. He was ninety. I haven't met a Kevin since. When I do, I'll grin. I might cry too.

COLUM McCANN & HIS FATHER SEAN McCANN

Colum McCann was born in Dublin in 1965. He is the author of six novels and two collections of stories. He has won many international literary awards including the 2009 National Book Award and the 2010 Dublin Impac Prize. He lives in New York where he teaches at Hunter College.

My father was a rosarian. For decades he has raised and bred roses in the back garden of our suburban home on Clonkeen Road in Dublin. He spent much of his time in a small greenhouse, puttering about with seedlings and soil and secateurs. It was, for him, a laboratory for joy.

In the winter he dragged a kerosene heater to the greenhouse. In summer he opened the glass panels wide and let the breeze in. Every day he walked down the lawn, in his flat hat and gloves and his Garden News jacket, absorbed and intent.

The jacket was ripped asunder by thorns so that the inner lining hung out. Sometimes he looked to me like the first man ever to whistle. We had about seven hundred roses in our small garden. Miniatures, hybrid teas, floribundas, climbers. My father talked to his roses - actually talked to them. He was adamant that the ones he talked to grew better, with strong colour, good foliage, hardiness.

If they took, he would name them. So many things in this world refuse naming, but not my father's roses: Sally Mac (named for my mother), Bloomsday (for James Joyce), Isabella (for my daughter), Loretta's Rose (for Loretta Brennan Glucksman), Kiss 'n' Tell (for life itself), and Brightness (for a novel I wrote).

In summertime the garden blazed with colour. In winter he went out and pruned the roses back so the garden was kept young and fit and stark.

I have always admired my father immensely, but I disliked working with the roses. I didn't mix the potting soil. I never learned how to breed the seeds. Occasionally I ran the lawnmower, but that was about it.

Twice a year, huge piles of manure arrived from the local farms for my brothers to fertilise the ground. Once my pitchfork revealed a tiny baby calf. The contours of the world were complicated: even the garden was brought to life by death.

My father was at ease in his garden. The work was in compliance with beauty.

The rest of the world - his job in a national newspaper, the pressures of raising a large family, the economics of the times - seemed to disappear, and often when I looked out the kitchen window to search for him I could not see him.

He was most likely bent down to one of his seedlings, or dumping the new-mown grass at the bottom of the hedges, or in the rear shed preparing the spray for the greenfly - there were so many tasks to a simple hobby - but in later years it struck me that really he had become part of the landscape, of it and in it.

Once, in the early 1970s, when my sister answered the door, there was a man on our doorstep asking for our father. She said he was busy. The man insisted. He was there to collect a payment, or make a demand of some sort. Where was my father? he asked again. My sister, before gently closing the door, said again that he was busy. But busy where? said the man with his foot in the door. He was, said my sister, down in the back garden, 'playing God'.

Although in his later years he couldn't work the garden any more, my father, in his mid eighties, was still sharp and incisive. Most of the roses are gone, ploughed up, replaced by lawn and patio tiles, but there are still a few bushes around, in pots at the back of the house, in flowerbeds, and every now and then he liked to take his wheelchair into the back garden and wander down amongst them, taking joy in their presence.

I can still picture him talking to them, but I have no idea what it is that he said as he leaned over. Nor, frankly, do I want to know. Sometimes, I suppose, we have to allow a little mystery to grow around our fathers.

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