Title: My father, the invisible man
Author: Nicci Gerrard
Source: The Observer
Publish date: Sunday June 11, 2000
When Paul Morley was a very young man, just beyond his teens, his father killed himself. Leaving the family home in Stockport, he drove all the way to Gloucestershire, and two days later, overlooking a green English landscape, he threaded a hose pipe in through the window and lay back to die. To leave a life that had become intolerable.
When Paul Morley was told about it, he remembers that a neighbour - to give him some activity - ordered him to clean out the cooker. He mindlessly scrubbed and scrubbed the grease-encrusted interior of the oven until patches glistened silver again through the crud. Then he kind of put his father’s death away. It was, he says to me, ‘as if as soon as he had died, he had been dead 20 years’. For his father had been going for a long time before he was really gone, dwindling away from his own life.
In the book that Paul Morley has written two decades later about and for him, the father is an absence to the son, who doesn’t really know what he does for a living, who can’t really say what he looked like. He even seems to lack a name. The book is called Nothing . It is exhilarated with words and their many meanings, hooked on repetition and pun and nuance - yet it circles round and round the ‘nothing’ of Paul’s father, as if he really were the black hole that one of Paul’s sisters calls him, sucking in emotions. He never seemed to speak, never told his son he loved him, never kissed him at the end of the day but just muttered an abbreviated ‘n’night’, didn’t laugh.
When he died, Paul Morley didn’t see his body. A few years later, he saw another body, of the singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. He stared and stared at it, but still didn’t think of his father, who seemed to have slipped out of his life, leaving no trace behind him, like a ghost. For his son, the father was mute, colourless and invisible. He was a depressive and he died at the age his son has now reached, more or less.
He stares across the coffee cups on the table. Paul Morley - the rock journalist who sprinkles Barthes and Sartre through his prose, co-founder of the group Art of Noise, promoter of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, master of intellectual swagger and narcissistic cool - is not the way I had expected him to be. He is 43 now, but beneath his dark stubble, his face is rather sweet and anxious. His dark eyes look young and vaguely troubled.
And the book - though dense with the allusive, braggardly, language-intoxicated prose that Morley has made his trademark over the years, crammed with Kafka and Kierkegaard and Foucault and echoes of Italo Calvino and swoony, doomy rock stars of the Seventies such as Nick Drake and postmodern games and lists of the books he’s read and the ones he’s nearly written and the titles he’s flirted with - is a surprise. Under the decorated and swanky surface, it is raw and self-exposing; here’s a Morley who’s been hiding behind himself all these years. It’s about loss, grief, a shadowy bereavement that has haunted him all his adult life. It’s about the father he never knew and now tries to recreate out of the ‘top 10 memories’ which, he says, he carries around ‘like a few stones in my pocket’.
And it’s about him, an awkward and solitary boy, growing up in Stockport, miserable at school, living in a house where love could not flourish in the presence of his father’s despair, disconnected from himself, drifting slackly through teenage years with greasy hair and spotty cheeks, masturbating and falling in love with Marc Bolan’s songs, waiting for the first kiss that would turn him from toad to prince. He doesn’t really call himself unhappy: ‘Or maybe I was unhappy without knowing it. Certainly, I was extremely unhappy at school. A lot of the time, I was scared. I was scared of my dad, of what he might do next. I remember looking at him, but hoping he wouldn’t see me looking at him. I do have a few memories of happiness; I was happy when I bought a record. That made me happy.’
Music, and writing about music, was where he lost and found himself and his book remains obsessed with the sense that words are both a place to discover things and a place to hide; both treacherous and true. The father he creates is made up by him, self-consciously his fiction.
Very soon after his father died, Paul Morley left home. ‘I fled. I became someone else. I disappeared from my old life. I disappeared into the New Musical Express and all the pop culture which I found mesmerising at the time. Maybe the reason I wrote the way I did was that I was always looking for clues and meanings, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I would write 4-5,000 words every week. I felt I was invisible, too, like my dad. I felt I kind of flamed through life and no one really noticed me. I became addicted to my byline, even more than lots of journalists do. If my name was there, that was instant reality. I must exist.’
So he didn’t think about his father at all. He went through his twenties, became famous, infamous, developed a reputation for a kind of journalistic cruelty (this seems to hurt him). Rock idols died young. But his father wasn’t there, not even as a memory, a distant ache. He married, had a daughter, divorced. He started Art of Noise. His two younger sisters grew up, with some difficulty and pain (the youngest, Carol Morley, has just made a film about her promiscuous and boozy adolescent teens, The Alcohol Years), but the siblings never discussed their father’s death. His mother emerged as someone loving, soft and eccentric (‘almost hippyish’), but neither did she talk to her son about what had happened.
There was no guilt, rejection, anger, not even any conscious sense of loss. He was gone, nothing. He had died miles from home, in an unknown place. There was no grave to visit. Paul Morley couldn’t even remember the date of his death, not the day, or month, or even year. He thought that he had died at the age of 43 and this made him ner vous; 43 was approaching, it would hit in 2000. Perhaps, he thought, there would be ‘a switch’. Perhaps he would turn into his father. When he came to write Nothing , he discovered his father actually died at 41, and he’d already passed the marker, appropriate in a book that’s full of botched revelations.
He always wanted to write a book but never had a subject (of course, he always had a subject; for the whole of his adult life this has been his hidden subject). Then an editor, hearing from a friend of a friend that his father had been a suicide, took him to the Savoy for tea and asked him to write an article about it.
‘I started, but I couldn’t do it. Not in a piece like that. But I had a beginning. I put it in a shoe box. I kept thinking about doing it, and gradually I knew it was my subject. But I still felt I couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t think I could remember anything. There were only these little whirlpools of memory around darkness.’
But at about the same time his daughter, who was born in 1992, started to ask questions about her dead grandfather - where is he, who was he, what happened? ‘I couldn’t answer and that was wrong. I realised I would have to do something. She was asking these inno cent questions and I could almost start him again from scratch for her. He could be reborn.’ He pauses to sip cooling coffee. I ask if he wrote his book to find his father or maybe to love his father, who he never loved in life. ‘I wanted,’ he says, ‘to miss him. I wanted him to be someone that I missed. I never could say, in all those years ,"I miss my dad". It seemed a terrible thing he’d died so far away and was in an unmarked grave. Agonising, really. Agonising for me, but agonising for him most of all, wherever he is now, with his feelings. Maybe there are still his feelings somewhere. I hope so.’
So he wrote Nothing, and it was in the writing that he began to recover the father he never had. Most people gradually diminish after death, smaller and smaller figures on the horizon. The opposite happens for Paul Morley, whose father, having been reduced to an invisible point, gradually becomes larger for him.
‘It was an act of recovery. I had a few hard and fast facts - classic memories and voids around then. And as I wrote, I found other things, here and there. It’s taken a long time to get them. I do worry, yes, that it is an exposing kind of book. I talk to my partner, and she’s my best friend, too. But I don’t talk to friends. I don’t really have a buddy group like that. I’ve always been quite solitary. Maybe that’s to do with Dad. And here I am, writing this book.’
At the end of Nothing he invites his two sisters and his mother to speak their (contradictory) memories into a recorder. This is the first time the family has sat down together to speak about the past; to make a book, they can remember things that are too painful recalled in the raw. ‘And for them, I think the book is good. For my mother, I think she is glad that I have made him exist again, in a way. That I’ve made him real for me. There are private things I have gone into that are difficult, of course. But she knew I had lost my father and she is pleased I have got him back, that he exists. There is somebody now. When we talked together, we found things about each other that we had never known. If there’s only an audience of three for this book, that’s a good audience.’
He used not to feel very lovable. ‘I struggled to find out what love was. Maybe I didn’t have a good model in place. I was always making my decisions based on "love" but I think really I was looking for stability and security and felt I could contrive it. Maybe love is finding meaning in a cold universe; a father is supposed to protect a child from the cold universe, isn’t he? Maybe in my twenties and thirties I was trying to find that. For a bit, pop music was my meaning.’
Perhaps, he says, he is finally growing up now (in ‘a tentative kind of way’). ‘It’s taken a long time,’ he says ruefully, ‘and maybe that’s to do with my past, or maybe it’s a generational thing, the pop culture we grew up with. Our generation pioneered that postponement of growing up. Maybe that’s why suddenly you get the Nick Hornbys and the Tony Parsons and that lot writing about the family. About bloody dads and bloody children. We’ve finally realised it’s not the Velvet Underground or the Sex Pistols who are extraordinary after all. It’s the family.’ He hasn’t cried for his father yet, although he cries at almost everything else (‘pathetic, hopeless’),so maybe that’s the same thing.
At the end of Nothing , Paul Morley drives out to the place where his father took his life. He stares out across the green land. He finds the grave, has the plaque reinstated. It reads: ‘At Peace’. He, at last, gives his father his name. Leslie Ronald Morley. Paul Morley’s dad.