Magnetic North Blog
One of the challenges of being the child of a minister, as we explore in Our Fathers, is the set of preconceptions that go with that. Looking at children of ministers in public life, past and present, we can see where some of these clichés are borne out.
There’s an idea that the 'sweet-talking' sons and daughters of ministers, influenced by watching their father standing up and talking for a living, are likely to end up in some kind of performance related career. In the course of making this show, we've certainly found a few other sons of ministers in the Scottish theatre community, as well as Rob and Nick. David Tennant’s father was a moderator of the Church of Scotland. Prominent musical children of ministers include Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and DJ Tim Westwood’s dad was the Bishop of Peterborough.
The next expectation around being the child of a minister is that you have two options - rebel against your upbringing or else channel it into a dutiful life of public service.
Several of Edmund Gosse’s Victorian contemporaries shared his loss of faith and rebellion against their parents’ beliefs. Matthew Arnold, the son of Rev Dr Thomas Arnold, wrote about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of his faith in Dover Beach. Friedrich Nietzsche moved about as far away from his Lutheran pastor father’s beliefs as it’s possible to get when he proclaimed ‘the death of God’. Joining him in the spectacularly rebellious sons of clergymen team, although in terms of behaviour more than philosophy, is Branwell Brontë. His and his sisters’ father, Patrick Brontë, was the curate of Haworth, where the family lived in the Parsonage. Branwell tried and failed to be a painter and a poet, became addicted to alcohol and laudanum and had a scandalous affair with a married woman. His sisters – perhaps inevitably in Victorian England – were less obviously rebellious, but Charlotte has Jane Eyre rejecting the promise of salvation through missionary work and choosing a fulfilling life on earth in 1847, two years before Edmund Gosse was born.
Although being stereotyped by her father’s job is probably not her biggest current concern, perhaps the most influential child of a clergyman in our public life at the moment is Theresa May – with the ‘vicar’s daughter’ tag often repeated in the media. Or ‘the vicar’s daughter in kitten heels’, defining her by her father’s job and by her clothing just to show how much sexism can be compressed into 6 words. Similarly, we were regularly reminded in Scotland that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a ‘son of the manse’ - in some kind of shorthand for serious-minded dutifulness, with a side order of a dour, driven work ethic. It would be interesting to find out if there is a German version for Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.
Of course, it’s probably the case that sons and daughters of ministers are as different and various as the children of everyone else. But in Our Fathers we found some common ground between Edmund Gosse, son of a minister in the Plymouth Brethren; Nicholas Bone, son of a bishop in the Church of England and Rob Drummond, son of a minister in the Church of Scotland. You can find out what that is when we open at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh on Sat 21 October.
On tour October-November 2017.
How can I try to explain,
Cause when I do he turns away again
It's always been the same, same old story
(Father and Son, Cat Stevens, 1970)
Every father I know or have worked with, has, to a greater or lesser extent, but usually the greater, wanted to do the best for his children. What is hard to come to terms with is the sheer weight of the opposite. That is, fathers depicted as unlistening, uncommunicative, distant, tyrannical, I could go on (‘feckless’, ‘deadbeat’).
You would think that seventy years after Edmund Gosse’s description of "the hush" around the stern father and lonely son "in which you could hear a sea anemone sigh", that things would have changed for the better. The World Wars of the first half of the 20th century may have made men more taciturn about their feelings but, surely, the loosening of role-divisions over child care and the lessening of demands on men to be the sole breadwinner that came after, ought to have made a difference in how fathers and children got along with each other. Not so for Cat Stevens.
As a Scottish father, I am pained by accounts of unloving fathers that turn away. More so when they are Scottish. There is no end of memoirs about abusive Scottish fathers from, for example, comedian Billy Connolly, author Alan Burnside and actor Alan Cumming. Clearly there are troubling (and troubled) Scottish fathers but the sheer volume of their depiction, seems to have led to the creation of a widely held view of all Scottish fathers. Cruel fathers of the type played by Peter Mullan in the film Neds (2010) and described by Andrew O’Hagan:
Those Scottish fathers. Not for nothing their wives cried, not for nothing their kids. Cities of night above those five o’clock shadows. Men gone way too sick for the talking. And how they lived in the dark for us now. Or lived in our faces, long denied. And where were our fathers? We had run from them (Our Fathers, 1999).
Such characterisations of men stretch back many years and continue to be repeated. So, I have not only been pained by such accounts but I have also been spurred to find out as much as I can and to write about the day-to-day micro-challenges that men can face when trying to be good fathers. If you dig deep you can find contra-accounts, stories, for example of the Dundee house fathers of the 1920s. But these accounts are in a minority.
What’s the answer? Every time children (of all ages) are asked about their fathers, the one consistent thing they say they wish they could have (or have had) more of, is his time. Fathers don’t have to do anything or buy stuff they just need to be with their children. And when they are far away or absent for whatever reason, children need to know he has kept them in mind. Not much of an answer but it costs nothing and can move mountains.
On tour October-November 2017.