Nov 07, 2022
18 mins read
What happens when your intellectual father follows his publishing dream but you think he should sleep on it
Above: Dad in the 1980s being fun as usual, although I was probably highly embarrassed he climbed up on this monument. His trousers have always been too short.
Some of you may know that my 75 year old Dad has written a book. This is fantastic news for our family, because he’s a lifelong frustrated creative who’s long wanted to have his talents recognised by the world. He’s also an unapologetic intellectual, a dying breed who revels in wordplay, the classics, English Literature, intelligent debate. He said he had to come off Twitter because he kept getting into arguments correcting people’s grammar*, but he’s only got 44 followers so I told him he probably didn’t need to worry. I recently learnt what abstruse*** meant, only because it’s currently his favourite word.
When I was a child, I found him equal parts entertaining and frustrating. He was only 23 when he had me, my mum had just turned 20. They met at Cambridge – him a bright boy from Kent, part of the generation of lower middle-class young people entering University for the first time, her a college tour guide, stop-in-the-street beautiful. Extremely intelligent too, except she didn’t know it – she’d been sent to a boarding school in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, to learn to sing and dance and become a young lady, not study Plato.
I don’t really know their love story, how they actually met, because it was hardly Mills & Boon. All I know is that they went to France on holiday as they were breaking up, et voila – I was the souvenir.
Our early years together were spent in Aylesbury, Bucks, where Dad got a job as an English teacher and Mum was one of the first people in town to use the Sainsbury’s when it opened. She was interviewed by the local paper and got all her shopping free that day. It still irks her she didn’t know this would happen because otherwise she would have really loaded up the Spam. The tinned kind obvs. These were the headlines in a Home Counties market town in the 1970s – Young Mother Goes Shopping. Although I’m being facetious, it actually was a big deal because the supermarkets were revolutionary for women who at that time mostly stayed home and did the housework all day. According to mum there was suddenly an explosion of products and prices, plus you didn’t have to ask the grocer what you wanted in front of everyone in the shop. Best of all you could linger in the aisles for hours on the pretext of consumer research, which was a good excuse not to go home and scrub the laundry by hand.
Above: Maybe the only photo I have ever seen of me, my Mum, Dad and little sister altogether - although my face is hidden by Mum's gloves!
But back to Dad.
His talents were magical – he’d disappear into his workroom (Mum’s POV: dining room full of junk), emerging weeks later with a money-can’t-buy, handmade toy for my younger sister and me - a wooden farm, a wooden zoo, a giant doll’s house built from scratch. I still remember the intricate details, like the tiny pictures on the wall of the staircase in the house, and miniature swing gates for the stables in the farmyard. He let our home fill up with my friends which led to me starting my first ‘club’. I remember sitting in my bedroom with about 10 schoolmates and making them all draw, which doesn’t sound the best of fun (for them) now, but those meetings did culminate in Dad taking us all in a minibus to see Holiday on Ice in London (forerunner to Dancing on Ice/Strictly Come Dancing) with several other parents in tow. For a while I felt I had The.Cool.Dad, especially because he was so young. I mean, he had a 7" vinyl of God Save the Queen by The Sex Pistols for godssake.
Above: Holiday on Ice
He was as inventive as he was entertaining. He organised birthday parties where we played games like “What’s on the Tray?” Aka “The Memory Game”, a keep-the-kids’ quiet activity where we were given a couple of minutes to study items on a tray before they were covered with a tea towel . We then had to scribble down everything we could remember before the kitchen timer buzzed. (Note: Having talked to a few friends since, maybe the aim was actually to spot which items were gradually taken away, one by one, in between reveals. It obviously hasn’t helped my recall).
There were no children’s entertainers, just good, old memory fun (Gyles Brandreth/Tony Buzzan eat your heart out). Those games were cost-effective too. Have you seen the episode of Motherland when Liz (Diane Morgan) throws a quid into a room at a kids’ party as a cheap treasure hunt? Well, Dad’s version was “Hunt the butter beans” – he’d scatter hundreds of dried legumes around the house and we all scrambled to find them – whoever found the most won. Mum continued to uncover them years later, every withered white nub being another reminder of why she was relieved they were no longer married. But for me, when Dad left, a little light went out on my childhood, like a bulb blowing on the Christmas lights.
There was a shadow side to him though (there’s always a shadow side). He’s had over 70 years of living with a crippling a fear of failure and a frustration that he’s a brainiac who can’t use his gifts in a way that makes him happy. He’s struggled with bouts of serious depression and low self-esteem, yet to the outside world he’s been pretty successful - you never know how someone is really feeling. He’s been a teacher, took himself off to study at the National Film School in his twenties, became a BBC Film Editor, went freelance and then returned to teaching in his 60s. He’s had a local newspaper column about rowing (he won awards in his thirties with the Auriol Kensington Rowing Club), in recent years he’s been writing study guides for exam texts for an educational publishers’ and has had five children (three with my stepmum in the ‘90s and ‘00s).
But this feeling that he’s never ‘made it’ pervaded, I think probably because to him, success is appearing on “In Our Time” with Melvyn Bragg. When I was still young and optimistic, I remember trying to encourage Dad that anything was possible, which on reflection was like trying to persuade Jacob Rees-Mogg to name his next son Muhammed. Dad’s never felt like his genius has had a chance to be properly acknowledged - until this year, that is. Finally, in his mid-70’s, he's put some pedal to the metal and written a Young Adult book, the kind of book he wanted to read as a boy.
Hallelujah! This is big news and his achievements are impressive, and so near Christmas too. For a start, he’s completed a manuscript which he’s so passionate about that there’s no stopping him self-publishing it. He does not want a word changed (he's had no luck finding a sympatico agent who doesn't want to repackage it). He’s had his book professionally typeset, researched how to self-publish, set up a PO Box number and ordered 500 bound copies to sell himself. He’s illustrated it, protected his copyright, generated an ISBN number. He’s convinced he’ll be interviewed – when I point out he might look weird on The One Show because he hasn't got many teeth left, he says “old men never used to have teeth when I was a boy". I tried to persuade him to use the printing money for implants instead but his creativity outweighed his vanity. Plus he’s only really considering appearing on The Today Programme** anyway, so hey, he's got the ideal dentistry for radio.
Most brilliantly, he’s taught himself the tech in pretty quick time – so don’t ever use age as the reason you can’t engage with the digital world. He’s putting the novel on Amazon, built himself a GoDaddy website, successfully linked the domain and put a countdown to launch on there. He’s also started posting about the new book on his Twitter feed. I suggested he create an account just for the novel, but he’s ignored that and started posting funny-fake reviews on his personal feed (@rapley_paul) in the vein of Monty Python/The Goonies (I think). Things like “D.I.M. Witt has Reviewed Us!” and curiously, a tweet that begins “ya biggin yassel up, gawn on about ya star..” which could be an ill-advised attempt at London English or possibly a Roadman pastiche. Maybe it’s Yorkshire? Sadly his follower count dropped from 45 to 44 shortly after he wrote that.
He also set up a Facebook Business page on my advice (he asked for it), although this was one thing that confounded him. One of our latest Whats App chats about it went like this:
“What is a Welcome Post?”
“I don’t know about Facebook”
“It’s already slipping down the page”
That was all him speaking by the way, which is pertinent because the unique aspect of his new adventure story, “My Glorious Journey told in real time by Mithridates the Magnificent” is that it’s first-person dialogue (my Dad describes himself as 'facilitating,' not writing the novel). Be warned: There are not many pointers about who is actually speaking. Apparently, according to Dad, it’s obvious if you read the book, which I have not (well apart from the first three pages), because if I’m honest, I started it and it made me feel stupid. I gather it’s the authentic, not often-told tale of the Three Wise Men who are searching for a star, while all the time, one of the members of their caravan called Mithridates – Mith for short - is also hoping to become a Superstar himself (for singing). So far so good, except I can’t actually officially tell you what kind of creature Mith is because it’s never mentioned in the book, and when I wrote a (now heavily censored) Facebook post describing how the story was coming straight from this character’s mouth and what kind of being this is, let’s just say, Dad got the ‘hump’..
Yes dear Reader, my Dad cancelled me. For not being 100% on board (we kept arguing and currently are not speaking, although I'm stalking his online development).
Which is an interesting result. Because it's true that while I’ve spent so many years willing him to have the confidence to follow his creative dreams, now that he’s done it, I’m worried he’ll fail and in a weird role-reversal, I feel like protecting him like a parent does a child and he's probably finding that annoying/hurtful. More specifically I'm worried that he will feel a failure if it doesn’t sell any copies/doesn't get anyone to review it/no-one wants to interview him and then he’ll crumble. And he likelihood he won’t sell many is high because 1. He only has one Facebook follower (me) and not many more on Twitter (as discussed). 2. I don't know how he plans to sell it from a standing start although it might be distributed into bookshops as he is on some sort of magic list (Nielson Book).
From what I did read, and from what I know of him, Dad's style and novel is engaging and original and far better written than any of Dan Brown’s books (Dad won’t take that as a compliment, but look how many they sold). But I'm not sure it's the best version it could be. He didn't get an editor to look at it before printing (again, because he didn't want it changed), nor did he ask any 12-16 year olds to read it.
I get why - once the momentum was underway, he didn't want to be deterred. His vision is to put a book out for boys - and some girls - who are not looking for football or action hero heroes because he feels big publishers are not backing enough diverse storylines for boys (and those who identify as). This story has old school characters and adventures and he says he's written it for "100,000 boys and a few girls who were like me 11-18."
However confident he is, though, I'm anxious that he didn't do those last layer checks, run it through a final filter which could have made it more accessible. I'm anxious that if people don’t engage with it first off, he’ll spend the rest of his days in a darkened room using unsold copies of his book as very expensive firelighters rather than use the feedback to pick himself up, rejig and go again.
But can I be sure he won’t sell any? I told my current housesitting host and she said she might buy it for her grandsons, which then made me worry that they might not like it and she would think badly of me. How self-absorbed! Why do I think Dad won’t bounce back even if his readers don't like it or he doesn’t sell any? Couldn’t the mere act of getting it to print feel like success to him? And why do I think there isn’t an intellectual niche for him? At what point does belief in yourself override conventional wisdom and become a Unicorn? Am I protecting him because I (patronisingly) think he’s old and therefore vulnerable? (I can hear my good friend Claire imitating me now when she reads this, saying "I have questions!" because I always have a few). Dad's lived through the End of Rationing, The Cold War, The Winter of Discontent, Maggie Thatcher, numerous recessions and COVID. Am I underestimating him? Why shouldn't he be applauded for taking a big deep breath and giving it a go rather than fussed over by his middle-aged daughter. In truth, I'm still that teenage self inside, finding everything he does embarrassing.
Maybe I should think about the positives. About how impressed I am with the motivation he has for this project, for his drive, the urgency of which might have something to do with how he sees his future panning out. He gave me a clue about that the other day when he shouted “I’ll be dead in 5 years” down the phone, a tad over-dramatically I thought, when there’s no sign of him slowing down so far (apart from the lack of teeth).
It’s a big wide world out there on the internet these days. Who am I to say he won’t find his fans? And how his work should be presented? Isn’t the joy of the new tech the ability to circumvent the established order and share your work your way, without interference and for your own satisfaction? There's an enormous potential to find your tribe, however small. When I think about it, I rarely get anyone to read these columns before I press publish because, especially with the first two or three I wrote, if I had listened to well-intended protective warnings from friends and even myself before I went public, I might never have actually got going or kept going. Which would have been a shame because each time I publish my thoughts, I learn so much more about writing, myself and the world, it's cathartic.. So I understand that Dad wants to just get it out there without doubts holding him back, because otherwise it might just remain a very surreal dream in the back of his ideas cupboard - and he can't exit stage right without leaving his literacy legacy.
In any case, whatever happens, even if he has just created a series of £13.99 doorstops, it’s given me some good starting points for his eulogy. When that dark day comes, I’m thinking of going with, “As D.I.M. Witt said about my father when he first published his now world-wide best-selling novel…He followed his own star.”
CORRECTIONS FROM DAD
I showed him this blog before publishing and unsurprisingly, came back with a lot of corrections. Mostly factual, but as I said to him, the only way to get any facts or straight-talking out of him is to write something incorrectly. I've amended most of them but these are those I left in because I like them
*Correcting people's grammar [on Twitter]. He says: "It wasn't so much correcting people's grammar as frustration at peoples' inabilities to recognise that they - like each and every one of us - are constrained in their knowledge by their own environment, and that they shouldn't be offended by Wordle words that weren't part of their own vocabulary or life experiences". Basically, if you haven't worked that out, he was trying to tell people not to moan if they hadn't heard of a word on Wordle and to embrace new knowledge. But not sure quite how he said it, it might have unintentionally come across like "You fool" as it obviously offended some people or he wouldn't have stopped doing it.
** Dad would like it known that he'd actually say yes to Loose Ends, Saturday Live or Sunday (but all Radio 4 so I got that right) rather than The Today Programme.
Also, he didn't praise my writing but did thank me for being sweet about him and that if I got the facts right he'd "turn a blind eye to all that miserabilist stuff" (the depression).
DAD'S WORD OF THE WEEK
***ABTRUSE 1. not known or understood by many people:
DAD'S SELF-BUILT WEBSITE - PRETTY IMPRESSIVE
To find out more about 'My Glorious Journey told in real time by 'Mithridates the Magnificent' and get a glimpse into my dad's unique take on life, click here
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
Thank you for all your comments and contributions following the last blog about how and why I am in debt and also, what housesitting is teaching me about how we all live today. Here were some of the interesting comments from friends:
RE: The mysterious disappearance of tea towels in people's homes
Pic Credit: Unsplash, Cut Collective
After I wrote that I've noticed a distinct lack of tea towels while housesitting, one friend sent me a pic of her drawer full of tea towels, but it disappeared from Instagram so I can't share it. But anyway, our chat went:
Her: "How do [people] survive in life without a tea towel? Big fan.They are hardly a big investment."
Me: "I think hygiene obsessives are killing them off. Which is a shame because the souvenir ones are also a handy gift."
Her: "Look how easily pleased we are"
Me: "It's the little things that makes life sweet"
Her: "I was saying the same [to my daughter] last week. Elevating the small, everyday things [makes life better]. A fancy tea towel fits the brief. Other things...good handcream, non-snag hair tie, new socks."
RE: The Tea Party pic of the 50+ lady in a lilac cardigan
My very fashionable 50+ friend had this to say:
"I don’t know where these terrible stereotypes come from. When I hit 50 I got a mailer about pensions in the shape of a bowls ball! Suddenly I was meant to wear an A-line white skirt and sensible shoes and start playing bowls!
[Ad] agencies are full of young blokes with no empathy and imagination, that’s where slightly older lady copywriters come into their own. It’s interesting that writers can go on as old as they like, but people think that designers have to be young, which is ridiculous because if you're a good creative, age is irrelevant. Actually age is always irrelevant isn’t it?
It’s such a cliché (but that’s why they're true!) but I don’t feel any different for being older. I identify with you and younger people, not old biddies. I never want to live with a lot of old people, I want to be out annoying the yoof."
Thank you for reading and for supporting me xx