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On appearing in the Guardian

22nd July 2009

Dear all,

How do you kill a vegetarian?
With a steak through the heart

(I made that up)

Last Saturday the Guardian published an essay I’d written about my father. The journey this piece has taken is akin to the epic odyssey of the Alaskan salmon, swimming the rivers and streams of the wild frontier, into the high seas of the Pacific Ocean, then battling upstream through the same rugged waterways before returning to the place of their birth. OK, it’s nothing like that. But still, it’s been quite a slog.

Back in December 05, seated at my laptop and surrounded by interviews, obituaries and a copy of the book, “Underdogs: 18 Victims of Society” in which my dad appeared, I wrote the original essay, for my own pleasure. Since then I have pitched it to various Guardian and Observer supplements as well as a handful of other publications, all to no avail. So when the Family section agreed to print it a few weeks ago I was naturally very pleased. Little did I know this was only the beginning of the process.

What do you mean, “only the beginning”?

The original essay was an ode to my father, to his years in the wilderness and also a showcase for his writing, interspersed as it was with passages of his own prose. There was very little about our relationship. Yet because this was appearing in ‘Family’ the editor, Sally, was naturally keen to learn more about the two of us.

This I was totally unprepared for. Not only was I concerned about going public with the intimacies of our often difficult relationship, I was also aware that the more I wrote that was personal, the more of the original piece would be displaced. I believed the original essay worked perfectly well on its own merits and felt very proprietorial about it.

Go on, tell us what else you were worried about

I was also deeply concerned about the central theme: failure. My dad’s unfulfilled writing ambition was the hook upon which the original piece was hung, but with plenty of other interesting biographical information surrounding it. This time, with far less space to play with, it was going to be pared down, the result being a far greater emphasis on this ‘failure’, especially since much of the additional, personal information the editor wanted was to be refracted through this same theme. The dilution of the longer piece would be replaced by a concentrated essay on my father’s nonachievement. A son writing about his dead father’s flunk. How did I feel about that? Not great.

Anything else?

If that wasn’t bad enough, what if the essay turned into one of those icky pieces? I couldn’t get away from the fact that my dad was dead. With less biography and more ‘us’ it might look like I was dancing on his grave, getting something off my chest or worst of all, fishing for sympathy. ‘Poor me’ might be the subtext. This kind of journalism makes me feel uncomfortable. Was I about to write something I myself would despise?

Thankfully I was in good hands. Sally and I spoke at great length about my dad. She was very patient and helped me understand what was required. I didn’t mind opening up verbally but I was struggling to work these verbal openings into the essay. I had a go. She was appreciative but asked for more. I cancelled a trip to Norfolk and dedicated my weekend to ensuring I didn’t denigrate my father’s memory or humiliate him in any way, all the while trying to tread the delicate line between heartfelt and gooey, reflective and critical.

What I didn’t appreciate was that by opening up, I was much more likely to touch people than if I’d merely had my original essay published. I now understand exactly why they asked me to do what I did. And despite in some ways preferring the 2005 version, I’m pretty pleased with the article that appeared last weekend.

Heard anything back?

I’ve had a great response. People who knew my father have crawled out of the woodwork, eager to ply me with anecdotes and detail. Old friends of his have told me what an accurate and honest portrayal it is. I am thinking in particular of his pal Ifor Nottingham, still living in north Wales with his wife and quoted extensively in the original piece. The essay ends: “He is gone, but my world is far richer for having been in his”. I spoke with Ifor. “You know the last line in you piece?” he said to me down the phone. “That’s exactly how we feel about Christopher.” So touching. Beyond that I got offered a ticket to the last day of the second Test and even received a gift from my agent!

So there you go. It seems the more you put out there, in every sense, you more you get back. All in all I’ve come down with quite a case of the warm fuzzies over the last few days.


Saul x