Later this week an actor will perform the first story I’ve written about my father.
My father went missing in 2007 after my step-mother found him lying in the gutter after a drinking binge. Thirty years of marriage and another promise to give up alcohol was enough for her. He soon moved into a bedsit, but is now presumed homeless. We won’t presume worse.
The story begins here: picking up from the gutter. The piece I’ve written is one in the ‘100 Faces, 100 Stories’ installation that runs from 9th-11th September in a brick courtyard round the back of the homeless charity Crisis in Newcastle, North East England. The installation aims to raise awareness of people’s stories of homelessness, alcohol abuse, incarceration, violence, rehabilitation, achievements and friendships; the highs and lows that the charity’s service users call everyday life.
Crisis shares its building with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Some of their users’ stories are part of the installation. As difficult to summarise as they are to comprehend.
None of these conditions describe my circumstances, but Crisis works to create a community through training and the provision of care between homeless and non-homeless alike. I have run a workshop on interviewing skills; writing this piece was another chance to contribute.
It was easier than I thought. I wrote four pieces. The first was of a Scottish homeless man. The third was of an African immigrant, Jeremy. The story of my father slipped in between them before I knew I had written it (this is also how I get out of bed in the morning; I distract myself with narrative while moving my arms, my legs…).
When director Alan Lyddiard told me he wanted to use my piece as one of two to be performed on the opening night, I downplayed the impact it might have on my wellbeing. Being the son of an alcoholic, anything to do with my father is met with a numbness that, according to Roy Baumeister of the Psychology Dept at Florida State University, is much to do with social rejection. I wrote the piece in my father’s voice as I remember it. How will I feel hearing an actor interpret this? I’m not sure. I’m still coming to terms with the inconsequential fact that the actor and I have the same name.
My ambivalence is, I think, to do with feeling I’ve yet to fulfil my potential as a writer as much as it is with my father. Are the two linked? Yes, of course. But I know writing this piece has been a watershed. Not from three years of living with a homeless father, but thirty years of living with an absent one.
In Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen argues that there is no proven evidence for the altruistic benefits of literature or novel reading. But what about writing itself? What other proof do I need than knowing writing this piece—and having it appreciated—has helped me address my relationship with my father. It has also allowed me, in the fullest sense, to contribute more. Since writing this piece, I have completed the draft of a novel and an academic book chapter. In whatever articulation it finds, a blockage has been removed in my capacity to contribute to life.
A few weeks ago I took part in a debate on ‘the limits to freedom’ organised by The Great Debate. On the same panel was a journalist who talked about her research into alcohol and freedom. I Googled her before the debate. I was envious of the quantity of her output and certainty of idea. Before the debate I was, my partner said, the most nervous she had seen me.
The journalist put forward her argument. ‘Britain doesn’t have a problem with alcohol,’ she said. ‘The state is too quick to restrict freedom of personal choice. It treats adults as children.’
In some respects, I agreed with her. Except that part about Britain not having a drink problem. The journalist lived in London. Outside London, Newcastle has the largest homeless population in the UK and one of the worst drinking problems. A joke is that Newcastle is as far as the Scots get on the Glasgow-London train before being kicked off (my father is from Glasgow). Perhaps a more relevant explanation, as reported this month by the North West Public Health Observatory (PDF), is that there is a north-south divide in the misuse of alcohol. The north has a history of heavy industry and working class poverty. When heavy industry disappeared, Newcastle rebuilt its economy around the service industry—the ‘alcohol economy’. It is Europe’s third most popular bachelor party destination.
Members of the audience suggested the London journalist had never spent a Saturday night in Newcastle. I suggested that alcohol destroys not just those who abuse it, but those around them. I used the example of my father. It felt okay to talk about it, finally.
I will sit down later this week and hear my father’s story performed. I will say to myself that writing it has been both instrument and evidence in exploring, and moving past, narratives that had limited me in life: how much I could contribute, cope with, and care about my potential and my community. And as the practices of living seem easier to me now, so does—strangely enough—the practice of writing.
This piece was originally written for and published on the Changing Minds, Changing Lives project website.