Magnetic North Blog
One of the challenges of being the child of a minister, as we explore in Our Fathers, is the set of preconceptions that go with that. Looking at children of ministers in public life, past and present, we can see where some of these clichés are borne out.
There’s an idea that the 'sweet-talking' sons and daughters of ministers, influenced by watching their father standing up and talking for a living, are likely to end up in some kind of performance related career. In the course of making this show, we've certainly found a few other sons of ministers in the Scottish theatre community, as well as Rob and Nick. David Tennant’s father was a moderator of the Church of Scotland. Prominent musical children of ministers include Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and DJ Tim Westwood’s dad was the Bishop of Peterborough.
The next expectation around being the child of a minister is that you have two options - rebel against your upbringing or else channel it into a dutiful life of public service.
Several of Edmund Gosse’s Victorian contemporaries shared his loss of faith and rebellion against their parents’ beliefs. Matthew Arnold, the son of Rev Dr Thomas Arnold, wrote about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of his faith in Dover Beach. Friedrich Nietzsche moved about as far away from his Lutheran pastor father’s beliefs as it’s possible to get when he proclaimed ‘the death of God’. Joining him in the spectacularly rebellious sons of clergymen team, although in terms of behaviour more than philosophy, is Branwell Brontë. His and his sisters’ father, Patrick Brontë, was the curate of Haworth, where the family lived in the Parsonage. Branwell tried and failed to be a painter and a poet, became addicted to alcohol and laudanum and had a scandalous affair with a married woman. His sisters – perhaps inevitably in Victorian England – were less obviously rebellious, but Charlotte has Jane Eyre rejecting the promise of salvation through missionary work and choosing a fulfilling life on earth in 1847, two years before Edmund Gosse was born.
Although being stereotyped by her father’s job is probably not her biggest current concern, perhaps the most influential child of a clergyman in our public life at the moment is Theresa May – with the ‘vicar’s daughter’ tag often repeated in the media. Or ‘the vicar’s daughter in kitten heels’, defining her by her father’s job and by her clothing just to show how much sexism can be compressed into 6 words. Similarly, we were regularly reminded in Scotland that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a ‘son of the manse’ - in some kind of shorthand for serious-minded dutifulness, with a side order of a dour, driven work ethic. It would be interesting to find out if there is a German version for Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.
Of course, it’s probably the case that sons and daughters of ministers are as different and various as the children of everyone else. But in Our Fathers we found some common ground between Edmund Gosse, son of a minister in the Plymouth Brethren; Nicholas Bone, son of a bishop in the Church of England and Rob Drummond, son of a minister in the Church of Scotland. You can find out what that is when we open at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh on Sat 21 October.
In researching famous fathers and sons it became evident that the majority had followed similar career paths. Peter and Kasper Schmeichel, both premier league winning goalkeepers; Martin and Charlie Sheen, both actors with a history of substance abuse; God and Jesus, kind of the same person so couldn't really be more alike; Donald and Donald Trump, both insufferable arseholes.
There is, of course, an evolutionary imperative in copying your father and learning how to read and negotiate the world. Those proto-humans who, from an early age, did not copy the hunting and evading techniques of their parents, did not, in most cases, live long enough to procreate and pass those disobedient genes on. They were not selected for.
Indeed, I remember as a child wanting to be a minister because it was what my father did. I remember thinking that it was a worthwhile pursuit and taking pleasure in the knowledge that showing such respect would make my dad proud of me and perhaps bring us closer - the primal urge to copy and survive still present, but evolved further to include more sophisticated human emotions.
But there comes a time when the child must rebel, and this too is rooted in evolution. The child needs to learn to fend for themselves so that when the parents die they are capable of surviving in the world and finding a mate to start the whole circle over again. Those creatures who, at a certain point, did not break free from their parents, did not, in most cases, live long enough to procreate and pass those overly clingy genes on. They were not selected for.
And so here we are, impossibly caught between two desires, to cling on and to let go; to copy and to create; to honour and to reject. How do we negotiate this dual purpose? How do we keep our parents happy whilst also living our own lives? If your father wanted you to do something that wouldn't really cost you much, like sprinkling some water on a child's head and telling a wee lie about how you plan to bring them up, would you do it? Which impulse would you follow? Respect or rebellion?
I know which way I'm leaning, but if you come see the show you might be able to help me decide once and for all.
How can I try to explain,
Cause when I do he turns away again
It's always been the same, same old story
(Father and Son, Cat Stevens, 1970)
Every father I know or have worked with, has, to a greater or lesser extent, but usually the greater, wanted to do the best for his children. What is hard to come to terms with is the sheer weight of the opposite. That is, fathers depicted as unlistening, uncommunicative, distant, tyrannical, I could go on (‘feckless’, ‘deadbeat’).
You would think that seventy years after Edmund Gosse’s description of "the hush" around the stern father and lonely son "in which you could hear a sea anemone sigh", that things would have changed for the better. The World Wars of the first half of the 20th century may have made men more taciturn about their feelings but, surely, the loosening of role-divisions over child care and the lessening of demands on men to be the sole breadwinner that came after, ought to have made a difference in how fathers and children got along with each other. Not so for Cat Stevens.
As a Scottish father, I am pained by accounts of unloving fathers that turn away. More so when they are Scottish. There is no end of memoirs about abusive Scottish fathers from, for example, comedian Billy Connolly, author Alan Burnside and actor Alan Cumming. Clearly there are troubling (and troubled) Scottish fathers but the sheer volume of their depiction, seems to have led to the creation of a widely held view of all Scottish fathers. Cruel fathers of the type played by Peter Mullan in the film Neds (2010) and described by Andrew O’Hagan:
Those Scottish fathers. Not for nothing their wives cried, not for nothing their kids. Cities of night above those five o’clock shadows. Men gone way too sick for the talking. And how they lived in the dark for us now. Or lived in our faces, long denied. And where were our fathers? We had run from them (Our Fathers, 1999).
Such characterisations of men stretch back many years and continue to be repeated. So, I have not only been pained by such accounts but I have also been spurred to find out as much as I can and to write about the day-to-day micro-challenges that men can face when trying to be good fathers. If you dig deep you can find contra-accounts, stories, for example of the Dundee house fathers of the 1920s. But these accounts are in a minority.
What’s the answer? Every time children (of all ages) are asked about their fathers, the one consistent thing they say they wish they could have (or have had) more of, is his time. Fathers don’t have to do anything or buy stuff they just need to be with their children. And when they are far away or absent for whatever reason, children need to know he has kept them in mind. Not much of an answer but it costs nothing and can move mountains.
I think about my father every day. Just over five years ago we had to let him go, he died due to poor mental health and cancer, but he’s still with me, and still in my heart.
At times I hear his disapproving tut, sometimes I see the look he had on his face when he thought he said something funny. Most of the time I see him when I look in the mirror and when I catch myself saying something he would’ve said. I was still learning about my Dad when he died, and still trying to figure out who he was, and why. More importantly I was still trying to figure out our relationship. I knew he loved me, and I loved him, though we seldom said those words.
His legacy is that he makes me think about how I bring up my sons, how I hold them, play alongside them, share knowledge, and marvel at their own discoveries. Aye of course when I get annoyed around them I think of my Dad too.
When I was younger there I could feel a tension between the two of us, there was so much unsaid. I had no way of knowing how to start asking him the big questions. We had small moments of honesty and truth, mostly snatched conversations whilst in the car.
These are patterns that I see repeated in my work with other Dads. There is so much that goes on between fathers and sons, and so much more that remains unspoken.
My sense is that there’s a process we all have to go through with our parents, as we grow up and start to find ourselves we expect our parents to hold us. They need to allow us to push at their boundaries. We need to test out how far they will let us fall and fail.
Whilst I never had my Dad’s words to use as a compass to guide me on my adventure of being a dad, I had his actions, and his mannerisms. The love was there, but given in different ways, and implied by his actions. When he died I was angry at him, for a lot of things. One of which was around why he couldn’t have told me (and the rest of my family) that he loved us more than he did.
As time has passed, I’ve come to the realisation that perhaps it was down to him being a product of his generation, and indeed his family background (that’s a whole other story). I’ve mellowed and given him a break. It was never going to be easy for him to tell me he loved me. I’ll never know what my dad was thinking, but I know he loved me.
I had to let go of my father, just as I was coming into my own fatherhood. I would encourage all parents, sons and daughters to feel the fear and ask those questions you’ve always wanted to ask. Find out who your parents are, before you need to let go.
Did I live in a religious household? I guess I did, but it never really felt that way. We said our prayers at night and grace before dinner (and because I knew no other way, those events did not feel odd or extreme at all) but apart from that my parents were very hands off by way of religious instruction. That was for Church. My upbringing was far from severe and I have no doubt that my character contains many positive attributes gleaned from the version of Christianity I was brought up in. I try to be kind and think of others. I am not overly preoccupied with gathering wealth or possessions. I believe in turning the other cheek as much as possible. And this is not to say that a secular upbringing cannot produce identical traits, nor that these traits are true of every religion or indeed always positive in every situation. Growing up in a religious household has not severely damaged me, but I’d like to talk about two ways in which it seems to have left a little bit of a mark.
Firstly, there is the sin of pride. It’s a sin, you see, because if you are proud of an achievement it is to dismiss or diminish the role that God had in that achievement. Instead of feeling proud of yourself you should rejoice in the God who made it all possible. This is designed to have the effect of making one feel humble, but in reality, what it did to me was to make me incapable of feeling joy in my achievements. I didn’t win the rugby tournament. God did. To this day I still hold some shadow of that idea within me making it difficult for me to enjoy my successes. It’s now ingrained within me, only I’ve exchanged God with determinism. Don’t be proud. You didn’t do it. It’s just something that had to happen.
And secondly, infinity. When I was young I did not have a crippling fear of death. No, I had a fear of never dying. Or being alive on an ethereal plane … forever. With no hope of it ever ending. No option but to continue. For ever. FOR. EVER. It’s not an exaggeration to state that this crippled me to the extent that I used to cry the bitterest, most fearful tears one can imagine into the mirror in the bathroom thinking about it. Yes, I was dramatic about it, but the fear was very real. I can still call upon it if it’s useful when performing. Now, of course, I’m thankful to say, it’s death that makes me feel that way, and the idea of infinity is thankfully no longer a concern.
I am thankful that these two afflictions of character are the only two that immediately spring to mind, suggestive of the fact that my religious upbringing has been of little hindrance to my life at all. However, it’s important to remember that this is not everyone’s experience and, as is all too evident today, faith and religion can lead to altogether more hideous outcomes.