Portrait of a dad about to desert his family - and the son who'd take a lifetime to forgive him

  • Rupert Christiansen's father walked out when he was four
  • On the day he left he commissioned a photographer to take family pictures
  • Rupert never knew him as a child or adult

By Rupert Christiansen

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How does one commemorate a parent one has never known? One weaves fantasies perhaps and, with time, those thoughts and images become entrenched as facts.

But as we know, the past can creep up and surprise us with the revelation that it really wasn’t like that at all. My father has always been a dark room in my inner life — one for which I could never find the light switch.

He left our comfortable suburban home in 1959, when I was four, having peremptorily announced to my mother that he was leaving her, me and my baby sister for his secretary.

Deceit: Four-year-old Rupert, right, and family pose for a photographer on the day father Michael walked out

Deceit: Four-year-old Rupert, right, and family pose for a photographer on the day father Michael walked out

My mother claimed later she had no inkling this was about to happen, and she certainly never altogether recovered from the shock of his betrayal.

 

The strangest detail of this story is that, on the day he left, my father commissioned a photographer to take some pictures he could remember us by. I have a vivid memory of this interesting stranger with a flash camera, clicking away as I was watching the TV over Sunday teatime, eating chocolate cake off the best crockery.

But I have no memory of what followed: of my father’s departure and absence, of the tears, grief, fear and anger that must have accompanied them, I can recover no trace.

All I know of this epoch in my life is what my mother later told me: that for a few months after his bunk, my father, Michael, occasionally came back to see my sister and me at weekends.

But being a busy and ambitious journalist, with a senior position on the Daily Mirror (eventually he became its editor), other things seemed to take priority.


'It wasn't that I hated him: he was merely a void. I don't think I would even have recognised him had I passed him on the street'

One day, he left me waiting outside Sunday school for an hour beyond the appointed time, and my enraged mother told him that if he couldn’t come when he said he would, then he had better not come at all. ‘He scuttled off like a frightened rabbit,’ she added.

He died in 1983, nearly half a century later, but that was the last I saw of him.

Children of the age of four, five, six must have strategies for coping with this sort of trauma that no psychoanalyst can ever excavate. In my case, this involved an oath of blind loyalty to my mother and a total obliteration of my father.

As the song has it, I simply washed that man right out of my hair and forgot about him — at what cost to my emotional development I can never calculate. It was the easy way out, but in the short-term effective.

I was an anxious, timid child, but a reasonably functioning one, with a secure domestic environment, my mother’s love, friends of my own age and a degree of academic success to buttress me.

Sometimes my father sent a birthday or Christmas present; sometimes he didn’t. His final effort came on my 11th birthday in 1965, when he sent me a Gillette Techmatic razor — a gadget I found utterly inexplicable, not least because my pre-pubescent chin was stubble-free.

My mother was furious at my father’s lack of sensitivity and I guess she made her rage known to him. In any case, he never sent anything ever again, either to me or my sister, and that was that.

Throughout my teenage and early adult years, I was repeatedly urged by well-meaning parties, at school and at home, to seek out my father — and my mother nobly made it clear I had her licence to do so — but I never wanted anything to do with him.

Rupert and his sister share a rare moment with their father: He became a stranger to them as they grew up

Rupert and his sister share a rare moment with their father: He became a stranger to them as they grew up

It wasn’t that I hated him: he was merely a void. I don’t think I would even have recognised him had I passed him on the street, except that once, in my mid-20s, I had been flicking idly through a book of David Bailey’s photographs when my eye alighted on a face I felt was vaguely familiar.

Only when I looked down at the caption did I realise it was my father. And I laughed. The news he had died at the wheel of his car after suffering a stroke left me entirely indifferent, except to wonder whether he had left me any money (eventually I received a small yield on a life insurance policy).

I did not go to his funeral: my mother thought it would be more tactful to send flowers, but I was at a loss as to how to sign the card. Daddy, Dad, Pop, Father, Pater, You bastard? I didn’t even have a name for him. To this day I do not know where his grave is or even whether he has one.

The turning point for me came long after his death. When my paternal grandmother died at a venerable age, her house was cleared out and my cousin found a stash of letters my father had written home when he was evacuated to the U.S. during the war.


'Suddenly, I found the switch for the light in that dark inner room, and felt compelled to find out more about this man'

My cousin, with whom I had stayed in distant contact, thoughtfully sent them to me, rather than to the son of my father’s second marriage, and for that gesture I am profoundly indebted to her.

Reading these letters was a revelation. Only 13 when he left England, 15 when he returned, my father emerges from these wafer-thin, impeccably typed sheets as prematurely sophisticated and a precocious master of prose.

Billeted in the suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut, he was sent to a private school, where he had a marvellous time posing as an eccentric Englishman, editing the school magazine and appearing in productions of The Importance Of Being Earnest and Charley’s Aunt, as well as trying to win the affections of the prettiest girls.

But one can also sense his emotional resemblance to his fictional contemporary Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye — someone forced to grow up unnaturally fast, concealing his anxieties behind a mask of wit and nonchalance. The thing that shocked and thrilled me above all, however, was the discovery of a passage that explained why he had sent that razor. It comes in a letter dated February 1941, when my father was still 13.

‘The shaving so far has been moderate,’ he tells his parents. ‘Once every three weeks, I cut off the rapidly stiffening stubble. The razor is a beauty, a Gillette, and there is no shortage of blades.’ It was clearly a sensitive issue.

Then, in April 1942, he reported that for his 15th birthday he had received from his younger sister ‘20 razor blades, as I had used up my first packet of Gillette blades’.

‘My son will never be advised not to shave,’ he continued, ‘providing he has something worth cutting off. I have now been shaving for 16 months, and I still only have to shave every two weeks, whereas one would imagine from the pre-razor period that I would be getting up ten minutes earlier every morning to shave stiff bristles by now.’

Moved on: Only now, decades on and after his father's death, has Rupert forgiven him

Moved on: Only now, decades on and after his father's death, has Rupert forgiven him

So there it was: a gift that had seemed indifferent or callous was intended as a blessing — a clumsy attempt at a father-and-son thing, a remotely controlled push through a rite of passage that finally made sense to me after nearly half a century.

Suddenly, I found the switch for the light in that dark inner room, and felt compelled to find out more about this man who had bequeathed me half my genes.

I found the courage to contact some of his Mirror colleagues, who generously shared their reminiscences. I was fascinated to realise that even people who had worked with him closely for years were entirely unaware of the existence of his first family.

I also tracked down my half–sister, whom I had never met. Life being an ironic business, it transpired she lived near my South London home and we had probably been passing each other in the aisles of Sainsbury’s for years. Did we bond? Not really. But at least our 15-minute cup of coffee cleared the fetid air.

Most tellingly, my father made his first appearance in my dreams. My sister and I were driving a clapped-out Ford Anglia down long country lanes with high hedgerows. At the dead end of the road was a vast spreading oak — a tree of the ages, exuding wisdom and strength and calm.

Under its benign shadow, like Job in Blake’s painting, stood my father, in a suit and tie, smiling and expectant. As I got out of the car and moved to greet him, he fell to his knees and I realised he was barefoot. I don’t know quite how to interpret this strange tableau, but it feels as though something has healed.

Rupert Christiansen’s book I Know You’re Going To Be Happy (Short Books, £12.99). A version of this article appeared in the Guardian.

 

The comments below have not been moderated.

SarahRC, I'm not unsympathetic but I do suspect you let yourself go a bit. I'm afraid we're going to have to have quite a makeover before we find you another man!!

Click to rate     Rating   3

Dbg, pjsny..22.27...Myself & my son have both read your post & would like to thank you for your kind words. We're touched & believe me they've brought tears. It's not been easy but it could have been much worse. We have each other, we're strong & we're happy. But thanks again & take care xxx

Click to rate     Rating   4

To SarahRc - It's no small wonder your son is a terriific young person - he's got you for a Mum. Your quiet acceptance of that man's abandonment of you and your son and your attitude of "getting on with it" are full of remarkable dignity and great wisdom and love . You didn't waste time moaning about "what could have been" but dealt with what was in a mature and loving fashion. You're lucky to have each other and you're absolutely right about "dad's loss" but his loss was not only your son, but the both of you. God bless!

Click to rate     Rating   7

There's two sides to every story, that's all I'm saying.

Click to rate     Rating   14

Dunsmore..London 16.40. Her point would be valid if this article was written by a woman whose husband had left her but it's not. This is about the abandonment of a child. Relationships end all the time but a child shouldn't be a causality of that & it says a lot about a parent, male or female, who walks away from their child, without a fight & without a backward glance! I'm not afraid of any answer but men/women who walk away from their kids should be afraid of the question...y?!

Click to rate     Rating   17

My mother left me when I was two. I am now 46 and I met her when I was 40 - twice. I felt absolutely nothing for her but in order that I can move on with my life, I have forgiven her. Her own upbringing was wretched - she was herself given up for adoption as a baby and her adoptive parents were not very nice. My Aunty told me that she simply did not know how to be a mother. It hurts that I have not had a mother's love - in a way I feel sorry for her that she has not seen me and my brother who was one when she left, grow up into successful adults. You must forgive because the truth is that you will NEVER know what really went on with your parents - your mother will tell you one thing and your father another. My mother and father were forced together at a time when you could not even rent a flat without being married - in today's society they wouldn't have lasted a month!

Click to rate     Rating   25

lindathecat has made a valid point but typically, its dismissed by women who are afraid of the answer, which might be that Rupert's mother became an intollerable so-and-so. Provocation, accountability and responsibility for your own feelings never seems to be an issue with women, unless they're arguing with another woman!

Click to rate     Rating   36

Belle, Liverpool That'll be news to my husband Trevor!!

Click to rate     Rating   7

Lindathecat. Ur so obviously a man lol

Click to rate     Rating   9

Lindathecat. Ur so obviously a man lol

Click to rate     Rating   9

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