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when-did-you-last-see-your-father-book-cover2I saw the movie When Did You Last See Your Father? at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, twice. I didn’t have the chance to read the book until a couple of days ago, about 7 months later. But as I read, all the scenes came back to me, and I appreciate the film even more than before. Yes, this is definitely a successful attempt at turning Book Into Film…and a hugely impressive one at that. The stellar cast with Jim Broadbent as the father and Colin Firth as the adult son, plus the exceptional supporting roles have brought out the spirit and the essence of the book poignantly, thanks to the very artistic and sensitive treatment by director Anand Tucker. To read my review of the movie, click here.

Blake Morrison is a contemporary British poet and writer. He was literary editor of The Observer and the Independent on Sunday before writing full time in 1995. AWDYLSYF is a memoir of his relationship with his father, Arthur Morrison, who died of cancer at age 75. Published in 1993, the book has won literary awards, and has been translated into many languages, from Japanese to Syrian.

The name of the book has its source in a painting of the same title by the Victorian artist W. F. Yeames. Yeames depicted an imaginary scene during the English Civil War. The young son of a Cavalier (Royalist) was questioned publicly by the enemy, the Roundheads (Parliamentarian), as to the whereabouts of his father. The question posed a serious dilemma for the boy. If he answered truthfully, he would endanger his father. If not, he would be commiting the immoral act of lying. Click here to read the story behind the painting.

And Painting by W. F. Yeames, When Did You Last See Your Father

Such a dilemma finds a parallel in the book. And it is apparent that Morrison has chosen to do the former, for the story he tells is incredibly candid, up-close and personal. As a reader, I’m glad he has done that. Eulogies are sometimes euphemism honoring the dead in order to please the living. But what Morrison has delivered is a courageously honest narrative of a precarious father-son relationship marked by ambivalence and love-hate sentiments. I can sense the pain such exposure could bring to the people involved, his mother, his sister, close family and friends. But I feel Morrison has burst the romantic bubble of the naturally congenial relationships we assume as we look at other people’s family portraits, or see families depicted in movies and novels. Love does not come naturally because of the tie that binds. Respect still needs to be earned, and loving acts need to be learned, for both parent and child.

The 20 independent, short chapters darting back and forth across the landscape of memory record the poignant reminiscence of a son living under the shadow of a powerful father. Arthur Morrison was a revered doctor in the town of Earby, in the County of Yorkshire…revered because of his imposing, domineering and callous demeanor. He could always get his way, and get out of troubles. In his recalling of childhood episodes, son Blake has aptly intermingled humor with pathos, all the more bringing out the complexity of character, and the ambivalence we sometimes feel towards our loved ones.  And to be fair, Arthur had cared for his family, albeit in his own patriarchal and egotistic manner.

He was gregarious.  In all social situations, he was the one leading the conversation and successfully avoiding topics that he was ignorant about…and was sure to stay away from games like Trivial Pursuit.

He hates feeling fallible: ‘I may not be right but I’m never wrong’ is the motto on a horrible brass wall-plate he has. He isn’t a vain man, but he is a proud, even bumptious one, a man with a puffed chest who learnt to water-ski in his fifties and thought he could go on forever.

How can such a character be brought to face his own imminent demise? Blake Morrison describes his father’s fast deterioration after diagnosed with cancer. The preparation though seemed to be harder for those who were going to be left behind than the patient himself. There was a relationship that needed mending, and, there were truths to be revealed. For years, Morrison had suspected the intimate relationship between his father and Auntie Beaty, a family friend. It had affected his perspective on his father, and on himself as a son. But he wasn’t given such a privilege. Other people’s secrets are theirs to own, even though that person is your father. And the living won’t tell: “Please leave me one last small piece–it’s mine” Auntie Beaty pleaded.

So the pressing question is: How is a son to prepare for the imminent demise of his own father, having lived in such a precarious relationship? The revelation comes at the end of the book. Death and mortality has a way of helping us put things in perspective:

Don’t underestimate filial grief, don’t think because you no longer live with your parents, have had a difficult relationship with them, are grown up and perhaps a parent yourself, don’t think that will make it any easier when they die.

Faced with the finality of death, all grievances one has towards the dying seem minute in comparison. As a son now, Blake has to learn to let go of his father, ironically, a lesson his father had failed to learn in the raising of his own son. Grievances give way to caring, to the consoling of the living, to the respect of a life lived on its own terms, to forgiveness, to closure.

In his Afterword, Morrison writes:

When young, we were impatient with our parents: now we want to atone for our callowness, and to acknowledge what they were and all they did.

Poignant words for us to ponder.


And when did you last see your father? by Blake Morrison is published by Granta Books, London. 1993. 230 Pages.

A movie tie-in edition by Granta Books is published October 2007.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

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