At the end of Prick Up Your Ears, the movie about the successful playwright Joe Orton, his lover and murderer, the failed writer Kenneth Halliwell, stands in front of a mirror and says that he, Halliwell, had everything an artist could possibly have hoped for. He was gay. He was bald. And he had impossibly difficult parents. In the first two months of 2002, hardly a week has passed without the appearance of a book or newspaper account about a difficult father, written or informed by one of their disgruntled children. Among these disgraced fathers are George Carman, Ronnie Cornwall (father of the novelist John le Carré), Roderick Shand (the former chairman of Boodle’s, the London club, who wasted his family’s fortune), and Sir Duncan Campbell, the speed ace, who died in the Lake District attempting to break a world water speed record in 1967. Even Sally Vincent’s article about the Duke of Edinburgh published by The Guardian is mostly about the paternal failings of the Queen’s consort, although we’ve known about Prince Philip’s shortcomings as a father for some time.
Two of these stories say as much about the children’s failings as about their fathers’, however. In last Friday’s Daily Mail, Campbell’s 52-year-old daughter Gina told a reporter how her father had beaten her and made her eat dog food. “It’s impossible that a childhood like mine doesn’t leave you with some lasting impression—not a chip on your shoulder, but a question: ‘Did my parents ever really love me?’ To this day I’m still doings things to gain my father’s approval.” At 52, surely a daughter should know better than to expect a long-dead father’s approval. And can she believe that Sir Donald would approve of an interview that ran under the headline “My Father the Monster”? Gina told of her relief at the discovery of her father’s body. “I think he wanted to be found. The time was right. It was time to let him rest.” According to whom was the “time right”, and could anything be more restful than a watery grave in the Lake District? Moreover, wouldn’t a monster like Campbell prefer a deep-water resting place?
Like Gina Campbell, Dominic Carman, son of George, the immensely gifted barrister, also seeks his father’s approval from this side of the grave. “The encouragement I craved was never forthcoming,” he writes in his biography of his father published last month. “Praise was something he could not give, yet constantly demanded for himself: a common paradox of the high achiever.” Dominic adds that his father had hoped he would write his biography because only a son could write his true story. Now, thanks to Dominic’s compliance with his father’s wishes, we know of George’s wife-beating, his drunkenness, his bisexuality, his sexual impotence, and his hostility towards his children and grandchildren. The many sordid tales contained in Dominic’s biography, while not furthering his father’s fame, assures his notoriety. Children have perverse ways of trying to please their fathers.