Making peace with the past: Reading Alan Cumming’s memoir ‘Not my Father’s Son’

I have enjoyed Alan Cumming’s acting for years, most notably the pushy campaign manager Eli Gold he played to perfection in the television drama ‘The Good Wife‘ and his small, yet memorable role in the James Bond hit Goldeneye, where he portrayed geeky Russian computer progammer Boris Grishenko.

Also a Thespian with a huge range, Cummings has appeared in major dramas and musicals including a one-man adaption of Macbeth on Broadway and as the master of ceremonies in Sam Mendes’s West End adaptation of Cabaret. His trophy cabinet includes two Tony Awards, theatre’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Against this backdrop, I decided to listen to his interview on Desert Island Discs, the legendary radio show and now podcast where guests talk about their lives and musical tastes via the selection of seven favourite recordings, a book and a luxury item that they would take with them if they were marooned on a fabled desert island.

It was only while listening to the podcast that I learnt about Cumming’s tragic childhood, where he felt the almost daily wrath of his abusive and vindictive father, Alex at their home on a 14,000 acre forestry estate near Carnoustie on the Scottish north east coast in the 1970s.

 β€œI could tell by the clack of his boots, I could tell by the way he opened the door… often it would be to do with my appearance or my hair,” Cumming told Desert Island Discs’ host Laura Laverne of the impending humiliation or beating to come.

Cumming talked a lot about the book he had written about his childhood ‘Not my Father’s Son’ and when I saw it in the local library, felt compelled to read it.

The title refers to his father’s long-held belief that his wife and Cumming’s mother, Mary Darling, had had a brief affair whilst the couple were on holiday and that Alan was not in fact his child, but a product of this betrayal. Choosing to believe this, Alex Cumming used it to justify his abhorrent behaviour (though he was equally cruel to his older brother Tom whose fathering he did not dispute).

So it’s not that every second of my childhood was filled with doom. But every second was filled with the possibility that in an instant my father’s mood would plunge into irrationality, rage and ultimately violence.

Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son

Divided into short, snappy chapters, Cummings’ carefully observed memoir moves back and forth between tales of his abusive and fearful childhood in Scotland in the 1970s and a tumultuous time 40 years later when was the subject of the BBC documentary series “Who Do You Think You are?” whilst also filming a movie in Cape Town.

The documentary series sought to solve a great family mystery: what happened to Cumming’s grandfather Tommy Darling, a decorated war hero, who survived the brutal 1944 battle of Kohima in northern India against the invading Japanese, but who later died in strange and sad circumstances in a village in Malaysia aged just 35 where he was serving after the Second World War.

There’s also another personal mystery to be solved: was Cumming’s really his father’s son?

Alan Cumming’s parents on their wedding day

This waiting for the results of a DNA test is played out with great tension and emotion, as Cumming deals with the possibility that he may have entirely different father and a family he has never met.

A major celebrity figure, Cummings’ memoir is remarkable for being refreshingly devoid of ego. It is a book about survival, love (especially for his mother and brother), forgiveness and finding a way to move on.

It’s also part travel journal as Cumming and the BBC crew filming the documentary head off to different parts of England as well as Malaysia to talk to war veterans and historians in an attempt to unravel the mystery around his grandfather’s “shooting accident”.

Cumming is heartbreakingly honest throughout the book, happy to confide in his reader when making many startling discoveries about his grandfather and his family. His successful acting career helped him escape his father’s wrath, but money and fame cannot solve childhood torment.

Like the podcast interview on Desert Island Discs, the memoir exudes warmth and it is not surprising that so many people have praised it.

I finished reading it with a great deal more affection for Cumming. Despite being obscenely multi-talented (who else can act, sing, dance and write?) he remains a down-to-earth person and most importantly values his family, friends, partner and fans above all us.

(You can watch excerpts of the Who do you think you are? episode featuring Alan Cumming on YouTube, though I advice to finish the book first, to avoid “spoilers”.)

Child abduction and obsession: reviewing Ian McEwan’s “The Child in Time”

the child in timeIan McEwan’s 1987 novel “The Child in Time” has as its central theme, the abduction of a three-year old child in broad daylight in a supermarket in suburban London in the 1980s.

Having a small child of my own, I picked up the book, read the back cover, and bought it, intrigued.

I think the premise in my mind was similar to what makes people slow down past traffic accidents – a glimpse of something horrifying and the reassurance that, it’s OK, it’s not happening to me. It’s why sadistic horror movies like Saw and Wolf Creek are so successful.

Quickly on in McEwan’s novel, we meet the central character, Steven Lewis, a successful children’s novelist living in a flat with his wife Julie, and their daughter Kate. One morning Steven lets Julie sleep in, while he and Kate dress warmly and walk to the supermarket to pick up groceries.

At the checkout, there is this ominous forbearer of disaster:

Stephen lifted the first items onto the belt. When he straightened he might have been conscious of a figure in a dark coat behind Kate.

And then, a little later:

The man with the dogfood was leaving. The checkout girl was already at work, the fingers of one hand flickering over the keypad while the other drew Stephen’s items towards her. As he took the salmon from his cart he looked down and winked at Kate. She copied him, but clumsily, wrinkling her nose and closing both eyes. He set the fish down and asked the girl for a shopping bag. She reached under a shelf and pulled one out. He took it and turned. Kate was gone.

Then follows the frantic searching down aisles. Calling out his daughter’s name. The police arrive. Stephen returns to his flat, alone, without his daughter, to tell his wife the terrible news.

At first it seemed a little far-fetched

Was is possible for a child to be abducted in such a manner, so swiftly, in a busy supermarket?

I had plans to write to Ian McEwan (or his publisher at least) to ask if this aspect of the novel was based in any way on real events.

But then, serendipitously, I came across a story about an experiment in London, where, under controlled circumstances, parents turn their attention away from their children in park for a just a few seconds, only for them to fall prey to a would-be paedophile.

There were nine children aged between five and 11 who were approached by a “stranger” who asked them to help him find his dog.

Seven, without hesitation and despite being warned about strangers, agreed to go with him, disappearing while their mothers’ attention was diverted by a telephone call.

Certainly the everyday, banal menace created in those supermarket scenes by McEwan – something he does so brilliantly – sends a cold shiver down your spine.

I expected the rest of the novel to be about a father trying to come to terms with the loss of his daughter and subsequent breakdown of his marriage. This is part of it, but McEwan turns the novel into a meditation on the idea of childhood, memory and parenthood.

Steven Lewis spends his days in stifling government-sponsored committees who are tasked with compiling a report on childcare and child-rearing. In the evenings, he sits alone in his flat drinking Scotch, thinking about Kate or his estranged wife, now living alone somewhere in the countryside.

There are strange dream-like sequences in a country pub, where he becomes the lost child looking in on his parents, many years in the past, as they come to terms with his own unplanned for conception.

His friend, Charles Darke, a junior minister in Thatcher’s government and the man who made him into a successful children’s author, gives up his plush home in London, the minor celebrity of political life and moves with his wife Thelma to a country estate, where he retreats into a child-like state, building a tree-house and making the woods his home.

There are the elements you expect in such a novel, such as Stephen going to a toy shop to buy a birthday present for his daughter, while he tries to convince himself that this is a healthy act. There is his constant fear of being away from his flat should Kate return and a disturbing episode where he decides that a child he sees in a school playground is his daughter, now much older.

Overall, I found it a strange, disjointed, stumbling and yet also bewitching novel, delving in and out of other people’s lives before returning to the story of Stephen Lewis and his quest to rejoin the world of the consciously living.

Christopher Hitchens, a close friend of Ian McEwan, called this book his “masterpiece”. I am not sure I agree.

I found I plodded along at times, not quite sure of the direction and the need for some of the diversions. But reflecting back, perhaps it deserves a second reading.

As with all McEwan’s books there are little gems here and there that touch on universal truths:

These lines struck me particularly poignantly. They are the thoughts of Stephen when visits his own parents and realises he only knows “outlines and details from stories” about their lives, but “nothing of how his parents met or what attracted them”:

Only when you are grown up, perhaps only when you have children yourself, do you fully understand that your own parents had a full an intricate existence before you were born.

Memoirs of a murderous Perth childhood: a review of Robert Drewe’s brilliant ‘The Shark Net’

the shark net‘The Shark Net’ is an acclaimed memoir by Australian journalist and fiction and non-fiction writer Robert Drewe recalling his childhood and journey to adulthood in suburban Perth in the 1950s and early 1960s.

I was drawn to the book by the description on the back cover:

“Aged six. Robert Drewe moved with his family from Melbourne to Perth, the world’s most isolated city – and proud of it….Then a man he knew murdered a boy he also knew. The murderer randomly killed eight strangers – variously shooting, strangling, stabbing, bludgeoning and hacking his victims and running them down with cars – and innocent Perth was changed forever.”

If there was ever a back cover description to entice me to read a memoir, then this was it.

Murder.

Murder by someone the author knew of somone the author also knew.

And in the sleepy, isolated town of Perth.

Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, you’d think I’d know someone who had been murdered or been the murderer. But I don’t.

“The Shark Net” is a book I have always had on my mental “must read” list and I was lucky enough to pick up a paper back copy for a couple of dollars while scrounging around in the book section at the Vinne’s op shop in Moonie Ponds.

I’ve known of the author, Robert Drewe, through a collection of excellent short stories I read he edited called “Picador Book of the Beach” and a short story he wrote in it called the “The Body surfers.”

The Shark Net did not disappoint, even though the murders and murderer play a relatively small (but important and binding) part in the plotline of the book.

It begins with Drewe, a young whipper snapper journalist on the Western Australian newspaper attending the trial of the murderer, but then goes back to tell of the story of his family’s move across the country from Melbourne to Perth, a journey that in 1949 took 12 hours by plane with refuelling stops at Adelaide and Kalgoorlie.

Drewe then proceeds to tell the story of his childhood – of his distant, non-communicative father, the archetypal “company man” who was on the rise as a state manager for rubber products maker Dunlop and his overbearing mother who worried about her children dying from “boiled brain” as a result of the Perth heat.

The Perth of Drewe’s childhood bears little resemblance to the modern, mining-rich city it is becoming today.

It’s very much the provincial town where every one seemingly knew each other, so much so that Drewe not only was acquainted with the serial killer, knew one of his victims

Even seven years ago, when I visited Perth for a mortgage conference, it had the feel of a large country town. We stayed in a hotel in the city and my chief memory is of the lack of people on the streets in the middle of the day. You almost expected tumbleweeds to come blowing down. My other memories are of Cottelsoe Beach, delicious oysters, sprawling suburbs with big houses, the historic feel of Fremantle and the long-distances travelled between city and suburb (and lunch at the Little Creatures Brewery).

What Drewe manages to do so powerfully is to create the feeling of being a kid in Perth in this era – of a town that felt seperated in it own universe, far, far away from the rest of Australia. Of the sprawling suburbs among the sand dunes, with the sand working its way into the foundations and onto manicured lawns.

Drewe writes:

“Some people lived in the loose white sand near the ocean. Even though everyone in Perth lived in the dunes I thought of them as Sand People. Every afternoon the fierce sea wind, which they dismissed as The Breeze, blew their sand into the air and corrugated their properties.”

He brilliantly evokes many memorable episodes in his childhood such as his visit to Rottnest Island, where he kills a shark as means to impress a girl (only for it to rot and smelll); a trip with his mother to hear the evangelist Billy Graham speak atΒ  football stadium; a visit by tennis champ Rod Laver, endorsed by Dunlop tennis gear, mysterious suburban prowlers; late night adventures to meet girls and of murder in the suburbs.

Even if you have never ventured as far as Perth or even Australia, it’s an engrossing, entertaining read, with the bland suburbs south of the Swan River turned into places of intrigure, mystery and primal forces.

Make sure you read it.

Modern Perth with its skyscrapers

Modern Perth with its skyscrapers