Tuesday 22 October 2019

Father Figure

First, Edmund Gosse's wonderful Father and Son; then J.R. Ackerley's wince-inducing My Father and Myself; and now, to complete a trilogy of filial autobiographies, something very different – Beverley Nichols's Father Figure, which I have just finished reading.
  I've written about dear Beverley before, and have long felt a faint urge to read his shocking account of life with his hopelessly alcoholic, sadistic father and – what made the book so sensational when it was published in 1972 – his three attempts to murder the brute. Father Figure begins strikingly enough: 'The first time I remember my father he was lying dead drunk on the dining-room floor.' Not only dead drunk but surrounded by broken glass, spilled wine, fruit and silver from the dining table, and bleeding copiously from a wound inflicted by a broken port decanter that he'd taken down with him. 'Lying there on the floor, with groans coming from his open lips, with his moustache dyed dark from the wine into which he had plunged his face, with his glazed eyes rolling to and fro, my father looked like a great animal that had been wounded in the chase. A dangerous animal too, who might get up, who might stagger about again, and bite and claw and kill...' Beverley was six, he tells us, when he witnessed this distressing scene.
  As this passage suggests, Nichols is not one to underwrite a scene. His tone all too often teeters on the edge of melodrama, or mawkish sentimentality, or hysteria – and all too often falls over the edge. At the end of some of his more overheated passages, you have a sense of Beverley reaching for the smelling salts. But he has a powerful tale to tell – of a monstrous father brutally tyrannising his unfailingly docile wife and subjecting his family to endless sufferings and sordid accommodations – and he tells it slickly enough to keep the reader turning the pages, eager to discover what fresh hell lies in store. And, especially, to find out about young Beverley's three self-confessed attempts at patricide (all of which fail, leaving him convinced that his father is indestructible, as well as possessed by the devil).
 The problem with all this (apart from the style) is that we have no way of knowing how much of it is actually true, and how much is the product of Beverley's imagination. Nichols subtitled the book 'an uncensored autobiography', but is it really that? Was his father quite as appalling as this, did he really treat his wife (or Beverley) quite so badly, did he really deserve quite such obsessive, all-consuming hatred as he inspired in Beverley, or did Nichols's devoted, almost desperate love for his mother distort his perception of his father. Above all, did young Beverley really try to kill his father, or are those accounts of attempted murder essentially wish fulfilment, worked up from a rather less (melo)dramatic reality? Nichols's biographer, Bryan Connon, certainly had his doubts, and exposed various holes in Beverley's version of events. (He also came up with an intriguing, if wholly speculative, theory that might explain at least some of the Nichols family psychodrama: that Beverley was not his father's son but the son of his mother and his father's brother.) Some doubts about the factual reliability of Father Figure were expressed at the time of its publication – along with calls for Nichols to be prosecuted for attempted murder – but the book was presented as a straight factual memoir, and the author undoubtedly intended it to be taken as just that. 
  This intriguing penumbra of doubt – and the curious febrile tone of the writing – make Father Figure a fascinating document, if not a very good book.


  1. I can forgive Nichols anything because he wrote The Tree that Sat Down and The Stream that Stood Still. The opening passage that you quote is so vivid that I have difficulty believing that it isn't true, but I am very gullible.

  2. Ah yes, the children's books – I haven't read them, and it's a bit late now... I'll always have a soft spot for him because he was a fixture in my mother's Woman's Own magazine. He was certainly a fascinating figure – so much charm, so many gifts, so successful, so prolific, but nothing he did was quite good enough to last. Except perhaps those children's books?