AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER?
Review by Rosie Worsley
At a recent meeting with the academic staff for creative writing at Nottingham Trent University specifically about life writing, my speciality and area of interest, I was advised to read a book by Blake Morrison, entitled ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’.
It was recommended as a truthful and heart wrenching account of this man’s father, Arthur Morrison, a retired GP from Yorkshire, and his diagnosis and death from stomach cancer.
Having never heard of Blake Morrison, and being mistrustful of some academics in equal parts, I persuaded myself not to give this recommendation another thought. I was also suspicious of a book which had used the name of a famous painting as it’s title; it seemed wrong, somehow, that this guy couldn’t even be bothered to think of an original title for his memoir. I decided that all the evidence pointed to something not worth pursuing, and it was confined to that wasteland for all unwanted ‘stuff’, the ‘back burner’.
However, some weeks later, finding my book shelves devoid of memoir or autobiography, having had my fill of crime fiction (a big fan of Patricia Cornwell but having had just finished her latest novel ‘The Bone Bed’) and wanting some inspiration on how to approach my own memoir, I allowed curiosity to get the better of me and ordered myself a used copy for a few pounds off Amazon.
What a good job I did! It was immediately obvious that one of the great ‘selling points’ for this book is that it’s beautifully crafted and is eminently easy to read. The book tells the reader that the author studied English at The University of Nottingham and this grounding in literature really shines through; the memoir flows well and the story his father’s diagnosis of stomach cancer and death, only four weeks afterwards, is told with an ease and simplicity which is both endearing and painful.
The first thing which jumps out at you is the brutal honesty with which Morrison tackles the taboo subject of cancer. He tells the reader about his father’s ‘foecal vomiting’ (his mother, also a GP, describes it as “basically sicking up your own excrement. It’s usually a terminal sign.”) and portrays the moments leading up to his death: “I point to his frail flapping efforts to get upright; it seems cruel not to help him, but it would be crueller to sit him up when he’s so weak and out-of-it.”. These parts of the book, which make up exactly one half of it, give you a real sense of the desperation of the situation from the child’s perspective, and you get an honest insight into the gritty horror of the existence of a cancer sufferer and the effect it has on that person’s family.
He also tackles with stark truthfulness some basic human emotions and frailties; he describes one scene where he is at his parents’ house, awaiting ‘the end’, and takes a bath: “The hot water laps over my stomach and thighs. I think of the behind-locked-doors furtiveness of adolescence, and the thought, or the soapy water, arouses me, and I’m hard now, and start to masturbate…….”. This part of the book, along with the other chapters which deal with the feelings of the son, is very candid and I caught myself many times during my reading of it thinking ‘Blimey, I’ve done that.’ and ‘Goodness, I did that and felt guilty about it too.’.
The book is very cleverly constructed; the chapters alternate between the present day and how the family, including Arthur himself, deal with the distressing elements of living and coping with cancer. The chapters which reveal the life of the family when Blake and his sister Gill were growing up are all done using ‘flashback’ and we learn of a larger than life figure in the shape of Arthur, a true patriarch, who was an inventor, an amateur engineer, a natural leader of people and something of a mystery, as well as a family GP; we learn of a ‘relationship’ with another woman, known to the family as Auntie Beaty, who’s actual connection to Arthur is never truly understood, by Blake, his sister, his mother, or the reader.
Arthur’s true nature is summed up in a phrase which he clearly used a lot in his life and which Blake Morrison uses as a kind of ‘leitmotif’ running throughout the book; “I may not be right, but I am never wrong.”
The whole book gets under the skin of many issues; guilt, grief, hopelessness, frustration, stoicism and anger, and throughout it wreaks of real people and the many quirks and facets of human nature.
I was initially suspicious of a book which tells of such a dark time in someone’s life but my fears were groundless; the book was a real page turner and was littered with self deprecating humour. I found myself smiling continually as tale after tale of his father’s antics (jumping long car jams by saying he was doctor and not qualifying why this meant he could queue jump, Blake falling in love aged seventeen with a holiday rep on a ski-ing holiday in Austria who, it turns out, only has eyes for his father, and a disastrous camping trip to Lake Windermere) are regaled with expertise and sensitivity.
The title itself, it turns out, is very clever: regarding it, Blake Morrison asks “When did you? Was it last weekend or was it last Christmas? Was it before or after he exhaled his last breath? Think: when was the last time?”.
It does indeed make you think. My father sadly died five years ago but I cannot remember the last time I saw him before I learnt of his death from my middle sister by phone, in the early hours of Bonfire Night 2011.
Can you remember the last time you saw yours?
“And When Did You Last See Your Father?” by Blake Morrison is published by Granta Books, 2/3 Hanover Yard, Noel Road, Islington, London N1 8BE.
This book has also been made into a great film starring Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent. Take a look here.