My father, the invisible man
After 20 years, Paul Morley, critic and pop Svengali, has faced up to his father’s suicide. In his new book, he finds a parent —
When Paul Morley was a very young man, just beyond his teens, his father killed himself. Leaving the family home in Stockport, he drove all the way to Gloucestershire, and two days later, overlooking a green English landscape, he threaded a hose pipe in through the window and lay back to die. To leave a life that had become intolerable.
When Paul Morley was told about it, he remembers that a neighbour —
In the book that Paul Morley has written two decades later about and for him, the father is an absence to the son, who doesn’t really know what he does for a living, who can’t really say what he looked like. He even seems to lack a name. The book is called Nothing . It is exhilarated with words and their many meanings, hooked on repetition and pun and nuance —
When he died, Paul Morley didn’t see his body. A few years later, he saw another body, of the singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. He stared and stared at it, but still didn’t think of his father, who seemed to have slipped out of his life, leaving no trace behind him, like a ghost. For his son, the father was mute, colourless and invisible. He was a depressive and he died at the age his son has now reached, more or less.
He stares across the coffee cups on the table. Paul Morley —
And the book —
And it’s about him, an awkward and solitary boy, growing up in Stockport, miserable at school, living in a house where love could not flourish in the presence of his father’s despair, disconnected from himself, drifting slackly through teenage years with greasy hair and spotty cheeks, masturbating and falling in love with Marc Bolan’s songs, waiting for the first kiss that would turn him from toad to prince. He doesn’t really call himself unhappy: ‘Or maybe I was unhappy without knowing it. Certainly, I was extremely unhappy at school. A lot of the time, I was scared. I was scared of my dad, of what he might do next. I remember looking at him, but hoping he wouldn’t see me looking at him. I do have a few memories of happiness; I was happy when I bought a record. That made me happy.’
Music, and writing about music, was where he lost and found himself and his book remains obsessed with the sense that words are both a place to discover things and a place to hide; both treacherous and true. The father he creates is made up by him, self-consciously his fiction.
Very soon after his father died, Paul Morley left home. ‘I fled. I became someone else. I disappeared from my old life. I disappeared into the New Musical Express and all the pop culture which I found mesmerising at the time. Maybe the reason I wrote the way I did was that I was always looking for clues and meanings, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I would write 4-5,000 words every week. I felt I was invisible, too, like my dad. I felt I kind of flamed through life and no one really noticed me. I became addicted to my byline, even more than lots of journalists do. If my name was there, that was instant reality. I must exist.’
So he didn’t think about his father at all. He went through his twenties, became famous, infamous, developed a reputation for a kind of journalistic cruelty (this seems to hurt him). Rock idols died young. But his father wasn’t there, not even as a memory, a distant ache. He married, had a daughter, divorced. He started Art of Noise. His two younger sisters grew up, with some difficulty and pain (the youngest, Carol Morley, has just made a film about her promiscuous and boozy adolescent teens, The Alcohol Years), but the siblings never discussed their father’s death. His mother emerged as someone loving, soft and eccentric (‘almost hippyish’), but neither did she talk to her son about what had happened.
There was no guilt, rejection, anger, not even any conscious sense of loss. He was gone, nothing. He had died miles from home, in an unknown place. There was no grave to visit. Paul Morley couldn’t even remember the date of his death, not the day, or month, or even year. He thought that he had died at the age of 43 and this made him ner vous; 43 was approaching, it would hit in 2000. Perhaps, he thought, there would be ‘a switch’. Perhaps he would turn into his father. Continue »
He always wanted to write a book but never had a subject (of course, he always had a subject; for the whole of his adult life this has been his hidden subject). Then an editor, hearing from a friend of a friend that his father had been a suicide, took him to the Savoy for tea and asked him to write an article about it.
’I started, but I couldn’t do it. Not in a piece like that. But I had a beginning. I put it in a shoe box. I kept thinking about doing it, and gradually I knew it was my subject. But I still felt I couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t think I could remember anything. There were only these little whirlpools of memory around darkness.’
But at about the same time his daughter, who was born in 1992, started to ask questions about her dead grandfather —
So he wrote Nothing, and it was in the writing that he began to recover the father he never had. Most people gradually diminish after death, smaller and smaller figures on the horizon. The opposite happens for Paul Morley, whose father, having been reduced to an invisible point, gradually becomes larger for him.
’It was an act of recovery. I had a few hard and fast facts —
At the end of Nothing he invites his two sisters and his mother to speak their (contradictory) memories into a recorder. This is the first time the family has sat down together to speak about the past; to make a book, they can remember things that are too painful recalled in the raw. ‘And for them, I think the book is good. For my mother, I think she is glad that I have made him exist again, in a way. That I’ve made him real for me. There are private things I have gone into that are difficult, of course. But she knew I had lost my father and she is pleased I have got him back, that he exists. There is somebody now. When we talked together, we found things about each other that we had never known. If there’s only an audience of three for this book, that’s a good audience.’
He used not to feel very lovable. ‘I struggled to find out what love was. Maybe I didn’t have a good model in place. I was always making my decisions based on “love” but I think really I was looking for stability and security and felt I could contrive it. Maybe love is finding meaning in a cold universe; a father is supposed to protect a child from the cold universe, isn’t he? Maybe in my twenties and thirties I was trying to find that. For a bit, pop music was my meaning.’
Perhaps, he says, he is finally growing up now (in ‘a tentative kind of way’). Continue »
At the end of Nothing , Paul Morley drives out to the place where his father took his life. He stares out across the green land. He finds the grave, has the plaque reinstated. It reads: ‘At Peace’. He, at last, gives his father his name. Leslie Ronald Morley. Paul Morley’s dad.