The television presenter Richard Madeley was having lunch with his agent, discussing possible book projects. They had rejected ideas that had come in from publishers – “The Madeley Medley of Celebrity Gaffes” was probably there, not to mention “Sofa So Good: Behind the Scenes of Daytime TV” – and were discussing their families over coffee. in a casual aside (or so it is claimed), Madeley happened to mention that he was beaten by his father between the ages of eight and 10.
Kerrching! The agent’s eyes turned into pound signs, and soon another tale of screwed-up family life was being written. The result, called Fathers and Sons, has just been published. A neat fusion of two successful genres, the misery memoir and the celebrity confession, it will sell well, and probably deserves to. Not only did Madeley actually write it himself, but its theme is very much of the moment.
There has surely been no generation quite as obsessed by the behaviour and misbehaviour of its parents than that which was born 50 or so years ago. it is a preoccupation which is different from the self-pitying and prurient memoirs of abuse that have littered the bookshops over the past decade. Serious writers, as they grow old, are remembering their parents, looking back with a sense of wonderment at the peculiarity of the family in which they grew up.
They are not exploiting this curiosity about 20th century domestic life so much as expressing it. There is, it seems, a real yearning to understand the generation which is now dying, which was connected to modern life and yet not of it. Thinking about Madeley and his father, I realised that, without particularly meaning to, I had been recently reading a lot of these books – parentlit, perhaps they should be called – and that, while the books told utterly different stories, each was unusually memorable and moving. Brave and interesting writers have been discovering that the most fascinating material for their work is to be found close to home, in their own past.
What can explain this obsession with fathers and mothers? The dysfunctional parents described in Alexander Waugh’s familiarly titled Fathers and Sons; Miranda Seymour’s in My Father’s House; Julia Blackburn’s The Three of Us, and AM Homes’s The Mistress’s Daughter, range from the insanely snobbish to the sexually incontinent, from the abnormally cold to the obsessively secret, but they have in common an uneasiness with themselves and with what family life demands of them.
These are such extraordinary books that it is tempting to conclude that the generation of writers, born after the war and now in late middle age, is ideally qualified to write intelligent, impassioned, wounded stories about their clenched and confused forbears. it understands psychology, and sympathises with men and women buffeted by the pressures of their extraordinary times.
But, above all, those writing, reading and thinking about the mess so many of their parents made of their emotional lives, have one eye on the present. “I wanted to explore how bad things can bleed down through the generations,” Madeley has said, and others who have written about their parents would agree. There is an unspoken subtext to these accounts and it is about the writer, not the subject. it says, “I am saner, kinder, less irascible and uptight, than those who brought me into the world. I have come through”.
It is a comforting thought, even if it is not always true.