One of the reasons Baxter Dury wrote Chaise Longue, his memoir about his upbringing and youthful experiences with his father, Ian Dury, was not to celebrate it. The way any child is raised, he accedes, isn't their choice and isn't their fault.
“Mine is, I suppose, unavoidably sad in some ways. We were forced to swim around the memories more than most because living in the vacuum that is a famous parent there are various events and things that seem unreal. You rely on those, even anecdotally, to slightly impress people around you, and you end up regurgitating almost constantly your life, or at least your early life. Without you realising it, it becomes a bit of a byproduct. I went into much greater detail in the book, of course, but then I’m probably more likely to talk about my life than other people. Maybe by writing it, I’m hoping to qualify the nonsense I’ve come out with in the past, or maybe it’s to create new nonsense!”
Whatever it is, one thing is certain: Chaise Longue isn’t an easy read. A compact book crammed with details about a particular period of Baxter’s life (broadly from the age of eight to 15), there is less a whiff of nonsense and more of authenticity. Memories can play tricks, of course, but some specific events are detailed with evocative writing underscored with many years’ perspective and, possibly, counselling sessions.
“I had the idea to write the book at different stages in my music career,” says Dury, a droll character and, in his own right, a characterful songwriter/musician with several albums to his credit. “I tried to do it about five years ago and wrote tiny bits of it that people seemed very interested in, but I knew the only way I’d be able to force myself to do it was to contractually put myself under pressure. I tried to manipulate that situation a few times, but it never came to fruition.”
Cue the arrival of a new management team, one of which took a particular interest in his notebooks. “He wasn’t necessarily well-connected in the literary world, but he was quite well-read, so that framed the idea. From there, I signed a contract, and there were people around me who believed I’d be able to do it. That’s when I knew I had to do it and then, of course, lockdown last year forced the issue because I had nothing else to do. That was weird because even when I signed the contract, I thought an actual book was never going to happen. I think I just liked the sound of my own voice saying that I was writing one! But I was housebound, so that was that.”
Ian Dury’s “mercurial” nature and how many examples of it shaped the relationship between him and Baxter forms the thrust of what can often be a disquieting book. “He was equally brutalised and smothered in affection as a child,” Baxter writes, “and had strong tendencies towards both kindness and cruelty as a result. To be around him was complicated and to be his son even more so. I accepted that I was marginalised by his need to do what he wanted first and then be a father later. His energy to succeed was a route to protecting himself against what he had suffered to get there.”
Dury admits that to serve the purpose of highlighting some of his father’s worst aspects, he “gets a bit stitched-up”. What you read, he acknowledges, isn’t always even-handed, “but a book like this one isn’t meant to be. It’s very easy to write about how strange someone was rather than how kind they were, so to some extent bits and pieces are slightly unfair versions of Dad, but then he came from an unfair world. One thing he was very confident about whatever he did is that he was used to being a bastard. He wasn’t domestically scrupulous, or anything like that, and he didn’t disguise whatever he did. That said, now and again he could be very normal. He wasn’t all high-velocity.”
He writes of his mother, Betty, in a lighter, warmer way. You don’t have to read between the lines to sense that her presence was central to his emotional survival, yet he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I was a kid of beatnik/hippie-era parents that had broken away from the post-war regulations, so children of the early 1970s were experiments that were just set free. Some of that became entangled in parenting methods, aspects of which were based on not monitoring children – all the parents smoked pot and got up late. Also, the diagnosis or syndrome generation hadn’t arrived, so there was very little emotional or psychological accountability. I feel now that kids of that time were raised in either rock’n’roll experimental or fairly normal family modes. You could get quite buckled because of that as sometimes it’s better if you were one or the other.”
He and his older sister, Jemima, were in the two camps. “My mother was relatively straight, normal, and didn’t have any rock’n’roll or hedonistic attributes. She was unbothered about that way of life, yet she still didn’t confront some of the problems I was facing. Looking back, I don’t think they learned how to do that. Maybe they were at odds with finding out what we were doing, what the consequences of our behaviour were, or what was being inflicted upon us. It was muddled, but luckily not everyone was crazy.”
Fast forward to now. I ask Baxter does he have any children, and he laughs, somewhat ruefully, as if he fully knew he’d be asked. “I have a son, and we have lived together for years. He’s now 18, we live in the same flat that I write about in the book, and he’s an entirely different species. Can he fry an egg? Actually, he’s completely useless in the kitchen, but there’s a different appreciation of parenting now, isn’t there? I’m much more dedicated to my son, but I think society has attended to or balanced that because everything in that area has changed, or mostly, anyway. Dad was someone who felt awkward in a parental role – he probably cooked twice for me in his life. That was odd but it didn’t feel wrong.”
I throw out Philip Larkin’s lines from his poem, This be the Verse (“They f*ck you up, your mum and dad, They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you”). He says he appreciates the sentiment but is adamant that everyone has a different experience.
“Ultimately, I tried to write a book about a child that lived in imbalanced circumstances. I skipped over Dad’s music because the book is more about the consequences of being his son. It’s a patchwork of foggy memories, some of which are over- and under-exaggerated, and I’m hoping it doesn’t offend too many people.”
With a measure of finality, he says he did what he could. “I’m sure I’ve pissed off the family, but we’ll have to wait and see!”
Chaise Longue by Baxter Dury is published by Corsair, £16.99
Ian Dury: Childhood polio & art & rock & roll
Born in 1942, Ian Dury contracted polio at the age of seven, resulting in the paralysis of his left shoulder, arm and leg. After spending time in a hospital for less able-bodied children (during which he was physically and sexually abused), he left school at 16 with three O levels (English, English literature and art) to study painting at the Walthamstow College of Art and subsequently at the Royal College of Art. From 1967, he taught art at various colleges. By the early 1970s, Dury was married, had fathered two children, Jemima and Baxter, and started performing music. His first band was Kilburn and the High Roads, but their debut album wasn't released until after he found much greater success with Ian Dury & the Blockheads. Best-known for hit singles Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick; Reasons to be Cheerful,Part 3); and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Dury's had a singular appearance and his quick-witted skills as a lyricist set him apart from his contemporaries. The Blockheads disbanded in 1982, subsequently reforming throughout the 1980s and 1990s to minor commercial effect. In the same period, Dury drifted into acting and stage work (he famously turned down a commission from Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the lyrics for Cats). Dury died of colorectal cancer on March 27th, 2000.