Thursday, August 10, 2006

Introducing John Burnside -- part 1

Discussed Below:
A Lie About My Father
by John Burnside
published by Jonathan Cape, London, 2006

Note: This is the first of two projected essays on new books by the Scottish writer, John Burnside. The second essay (forthcoming) will discuss his Selected Poems, also published in 2006 by Jonathan Cape.

1. A Lie About My Father

Our parents are cursed or blessed always to be our parents.

As young children, we deify them without knowing it, and we can’t help it: they know the rules crucial to our survival. As we grow older, these gods start to shrink. They had mysterious lives before our arrival. They become old, fallible and old; they become themselves. We conclude they were never gods. But what, at last, should we understand from their foreign and intimately known lives? Such questions John Burnside pokes and prods, wrestles with and thinks hard about in his new memoir, A Lie About My Father. Because his books are not yet published in the U.S., Burnside’s work may not be well known here, which is a shame. Both his memoir and his Selected Poems were published in 2006 by Jonathan Cape. Together, they make for a useful and compelling introduction to a writer already well-established in his native U.K.

Burnside’s memoir focuses on his father, Tommy, because his presence (and occasional absence – he was hospitalized for several weeks once as a result of a bad fall) made such a difference to Burnside’s family life, first in the small, rural Scottish town of Cowdenbeath, later in Corby in Northamptonshire, England. The family included John’s younger sister, Margaret, and two ghost siblings who died at birth. Elizabeth would have been John’s older sister, and Andrew would have been the family’s youngest. But it’s Burnside’s father, Tommy, who commands the family center. He is a man who, Burnside learned only after his father’s death, invented his past out of the truth of being “left on a doorstep in West Fife in the late spring of 1926, by person or persons unknown” (18). As Burnside’s aunt explains, “Those were hard times…From what I heard, he was passed about quite a bit. Of course, there weren’t the social services they have now (20).” Thus, just about as soon as he could know anything at all, Tommy Burnside would have known that he was left by someone, even if he would never know by whom.

In a move this memoir frequently makes, Burnside tries to fill in a picture where none exists:

I can imagine it as I like: as a scene from a fairy tale, perhaps, the unknown baby left at the door of some unsuspecting innocents, who take him in and try, as well as they are able, to bring him up alongside their own children, only to tire of him after a while and pass him on… I could imagine it wet and windy, the blanket sodden, the child crying plaintively, weak with hunger and terrified. (21)

However, Burnside knows that his father “wouldn’t have liked that image.” So Burnside offers this instead:

…what I choose to imagine is a summer’s morning. It would have been sometime in late May or early June, so there is a slim chance it was one of those days when the sun comes up warm and, in a matter of minutes, burns off the dew on the privet hedges and the little drying greens between the houses… I try to imagine a pleasant day because, in this story, the baby on the doorstep of one of those coal town houses is my father. He is about to be discovered by one of the many foster-families he will know during his childhood, people with whom he will dwell for a few years before being passed along, in the years when the General Strike was turning into the Great Depression. (21)

Only having finished A Lie About My Father do readers understand the depth of generosity John Burnside brings to this scene of his father’s earliest childhood. For Tommy Burnside is, for much of this memoir, a cruel and terrifying presence in his son’s early years. Haunted not merely by the uncertainties of his own origins but also by the death of his first child, Tommy is a father who frequently tells his son that “he and my mother had had another child before me, that her name was Elizabeth, that she had died and that he wished she had lived, and I had died instead (32).”

Any child knows considerable firsthand experience of his or her parents. Burnside knew his father as a verbally abusive man quick to anger, a gambler and drinker, a laborer in construction who never managed an income sufficient for both his family and his habits. He was, as his son portrays him, insecure, unpredictable, desperate to hold onto the little social position he had, and resentful of the family his wife brought to their marriage even as he wished for and could not make his own version. He’d had an indifferent education, enlisted in the R.A.F., and returned home to a life of physical labor in construction. At home, his seething unpredictability, his drinking binges and disappearances, made for a level of pretense difficult enough for his wife to manage but worse for his children:

Everything stayed hidden. My father’s late-night parties, his occasional drunken rampages around the house… my mother’s attempts to hold things together, it was all secret – known by anybody who cared to know, but unacknowledged, like a priest’s feverish brightness around adolescent boys, or the beatings Mrs. Wilson endured on those Saturdays when Dunfermline lost at home. (97)

Burnside’s effort in this book is to relieve such pressure – to abandon the need to keep so many secrets of his own childhood; it is an effort to quit pretending, to quit lying.

Even as young as five or six, Burnside learned ways to escape the family tensions. Most often he did so by roaming the nearby woods, finding there a quiet predictability and sympathy with natural landscape. Soon, however, Tommy decided it was time to move. Burnside the memoirist understands this as his father’s way to exercise “the ‘geographical solution’, where a drinker leaves behind the bad memories and debts of a place where he has outlived his slender welcome, and moves on to pastures new” (123). This took them, briefly and abortively, to Birmingham, and later to Corby, a booming steel town whose blast furnaces “befouled the Northamptonshire countryside like some medieval plague town wrapped in a grey-gold cloud of smoke” (126). By this time, Burnside was a teenager who, at 14, saw his father “as just another bully, ready to make me pay for even the smallest mistake,” yet also a puzzle of a man who could “come home from the pub with his pockets full of change and buy every child playing in the square an ice cream from the van” (126). Of course, in a household perpetually on the edge of poverty, this meant that his own children would go without.

As one reads more and more of Burnside’s account, it becomes clear that each member of the family needed to pretend a common life based in small town Scotland’s generally accepted family roles. Burnside’s father needed to believe his drinking, gambling, and general abuse were commonplace, normal for the man of the family. His mother, Tess, needed to ignore her husband’s outrages and focus instead on what could be: tomorrow might be better. Such evasions at the private level were compounded by the prevalence of public falsehoods delivered via the then new medium of television:

A web of untruths about how we lived and what we consumed and what was considered useful knowledge constituted the very fabric of my world. I would sit in front of the TV, watching some politician or company CEO look straight to a camera and tell a barefaced, deliberate untruth, and the thought that almost always struck me was that these men had children of their own, that they were lying to them, as well as to the rest of us. It wasn’t just my father who was lying, it was everybody’s father. 179-80

A. L. Kennedy identifies this book as “a haunting, beautiful read,” and it is at once deeply engaging and frequently painful to note how readily Burnside’s father exercised his own brand of cruelty. Yet, Tom Burnside’s cruelty was also inspiration: “…I had my imagination. He was always saying that to me when I asked him a question he didn’t want to address: What do you think? Use your imagination.” (127-8). Interestingly enough, that is precisely what his son has done.

The latter third of Burnside’s narrative presents Burnside’s teens and twenties as years of avoidance of his father and his own past, years dominated by Burnside’s serious exploration of hallucinogenics and drugs of almost any kind. This time reads as a difficult, entirely interwoven combination of a son’s determination to escape and to explore; it seems at once self-destructive and self-inventive. Eventually, it all led to two hospitalizations, that latter of which was the more curative. All this time, Burnside’s visits to his father were rare; only through his sister’s persistence in her efforts to contact him did he learn of his father’s successive heart attacks, including the last one, which happened in a pub. Long before that, his mother had died.

While it is clear that A Lie About My Father works hard to be accurate to Burnside’s own recollections, it’s also very much John Burnside’s effort reconnect, fill in blank spots, and make meaningful connection with a past that was frequently a source of deep anger (Burnside details one plan he had devised, but did not act on, for killing his father). Though for years Burnside avoided home and his father, the memoirist son wants to experience, at some level, the solitary life his father lived in his later years:

On days off, he would still get up early, wash and shave, put on a blazer, clean trousers, his black polished shoes. Then he would go through the paper, seeing what he liked in that day’s racecard. Not that he put a bet on very often. I suppose he didn’t see much point. At around noon, he would go to the Hazel Tree for a few pints, then he would go home and watch television. He still had his ‘big seat’ where he sat, a foot or two from the screen, with his glasses perched on the end of his nose, the sound turned down as far as it would go without becoming completely inaudible. (227)

In fact, though A Lie About My Father tells a story of survival, what motivates it is John Burnside’s wish to make it something of use, a foundation. Burnside’s telling enacts a generosity and care that make for some of this book’s most arresting moments. Nowhere is this clearer than in Burnside’s consistent effort to make his father’s consciousness clear, so that it becomes something the adult son and the deceased father share. Here is part of Burnside’s effort to imagine his father’s basic grasp of the world:

Everything begins elsewhere, he knows that: dawn, Christmas, love, beauty, terror, the wind, the sky, the horizon, his own soul. It begins far in the woods, or out on some windy field by the sea. He wants to be there, not here: he wants to be where things begin, and he is so close, he is so near. Only – for reasons he cannot explain – something stands in his way, something he didn’t ask for. Reason, terror, unworthiness, he can’t even name it, it takes different guises every time, but it is always there, standing in his way, keeping him from his destiny. I’m sure my father felt these things – but these are my words, and this is the real lie about my father. (231).

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