Dad’s the word: The Edge, Bob Geldof, Paul McCartney and more famous sons on their fathers
What started as an idea to raise money from sketches Bono drew of his father has turned into a book featuring international stars in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation, writes Kathy Gilfillan
U2 guitarist The Edge (David Evans) with his son, Levi
Bob Geldof and his dad Bob senior : ‘Later I knew and loved him for the excellent man he was, but [as a child], how I dreaded his homecoming.’Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
‘It’s a melancholy exercise, remembering a loved one no longer with us,’ Mick Heaney on his father, Seamus. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
‘I was probably not the sort of son my father expected.’ Photographer Mario Testino, with his father, Mario
Robert Fisk Robert Fisk: ‘Pádraifg Pearse I once tried to explain to [my father] Bill, probably saved his life - and mine!’
‘If he had a specific talent in the Domestic Manly Arts, it was in the arena of farting’ Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter. Photograph: Larry Busacca/VF15/Getty Images
"Two summers ago, Bono spoke to me about drawings he had made of his father. He asked if they could be used to raise money for the Irish Hospice Foundation. He had drawn his dad in the last days of his life when words were difficult. Bono has always drawn. He supplied all the illustrations for a previous Irish Hospice Foundation project called Peter and the Wolf.
"The sketches of his dad, on pages of a notebook, they were just that – images quickly sketched and snatched. Together with Marie Donnelly, who has worked on many Irish Hospice Foundation fundraisers, we decided on a book called sons+fathers.
"The idea had universal and particular appeal. The relationship between sons and fathers is not always easy but it is always interesting. We threw out a net and were thrilled with the response. Fifty-six international sons and fathers responded. They included all four members of U2, Daniel Day Lewis and former US president Bill Clinton. Writers such as Colm Tóibín and John Banville are in the anthology, but also artists Jeff Koons and Peter Sis and film makers Neil Jordan and John Boorman, as well musicians and actors such as Bob Geldof and Colin Farrell.
"Famous people get asked constantly to do things for charity for free. I was aware of that and appreciative when they said yes – and even more so when they delivered.
"So we had the cast. We wanted the book to be beautiful, an object to look at again and again. Ciaran O’Gaora, another long-term Irish Hospice Foundation supporter, stepped up as designer. We wanted the costs covered so the money raised would not disappear into administration. The Ardagh Group covered the printing and Park Hyatt ordered 10,000 books for their hotel suites around the world. Park Hyatt has a Sons+Fathers foundation in the Pritzker family."
Kathy Gilfillan, Editor, Sons + Fathers
[The public can also be part of this through the sons+fathers Facebook page. They can send in their own pics and donate €4 to the cause at the same time. Advance copies of sons+fathers can be ordered at hospicefoundation.ie]
Jump to your favourite father and son story:
“Fishing seems to connect us to a primal existence. The acceptable face of hunting. Somehow it’s less obnoxious dragging a fish out of its watery habitat and banging it on the head with a stick then shooting another mammal in a forest with an arrow or bullet.
“I remember a fishing trip with my father, Garvin, when I was 12 years old. We went to a river in Wales called the Tywi for three days with Granduncle Gordon. It wasn’t exactly the passing of the secret knowledge, as my dad and I were both pretty clueless, but the important thing was we got to hang out doing something that we could share. It’s so long ago that I can’t remember much beyond the awareness of a rare bonding time spent with my dad.
“There is one moment, however, that is indelibly printed in my memory. It was the electric shock I felt down my spine as my line suddenly went taut, my fishing rod bent downward, and I realized that a large salmon had taken my bait.
“The next few minutes were a blur of activity that ended in a slack line and no fish. There was a post-mortem of possible causes: a bad knot; the reel resistance was set too tight; lack of tension on the line, but the disappointment faded quickly and we moved easily into that time-honoured ritual, the telling of ‘the one that got away’ story. It was an important time for my father and me but the connection made between boy and nature has also remained.
“I still love to go into the wilderness to reconnect with – exactly what I don’t know. Maybe the idea of a primal existence and a more natural pace of life, the way my senses are all engaged and heightened, maybe it’s to finally catch the one that got away.
“All I know is that when I had my son it was one of the first things we did together. First hunting for crabs on the rocks, then a bit of line fishing and eventually some bigger stuff.
“Here we are with a barracuda I caught in the Bahamas. As a father I see now how the secret knowledge gets passed in both directions. My son Levi from the earliest time insisted on throwing back his catch, which now makes sense to me because they are all ‘the one that got away’.”
The Edge was born in 1961 as David Evans in Essex, England, to Welsh parents who moved to Ireland when he was an infant. He was a founding member of U2 in 1976.
BOB GELDOF and his father, BOB GELDOF SNR
“My father had two pairs of underpants. They were a class of very baggy Y-fronts. The elastic on one of the pairs had gone. Meticulously he would hike them up above his waistband and tie his belt tightly around the Bri-Nylon shirt, the loose washed-too-often-in-a sink vest and the unelasticated top of his flabby undies. He neither looked nor was hapless. He was simply a man without a woman or money in the early 1960s.
“He’d leave on Monday morning and come back Friday night. We shared a bedroom. It was awkward. But I think he liked it. It gave him a false proximity to the son he hadn’t seen all week and really hardly knew except for my hopelessly essayed efforts at being the model child. Until I decided that I didn’t want to do that any more. Then things got a little more difficult.
“On Monday morning he would pack. Before Bri-Nylon and its ability to dry overnight hanging from the back of some rural bed-and-breakfast bedside chair, he had one shirt and three exchangeable collars. I learned my packing from him. He gave me that. I am an expert packer. In the Ryanair age this is not something to be sneered at.
“The battered blue cardboard suitcase contained the shirt, the fully elasticated underpants, two pairs of socks, darning materials for same in the event of heel or toe holes, three pressed hankies, a spare tie and a jumper or cardigan for relaxing in and a tired and frayed sponge-soled pair of beige-brown patterned slippers.
“The toiletries had the shaving gubbins – blades, razor, brush, stick of shaving soap, one bottle of Old Spice, a jar of Morgan’s pomade, two hairbrushes (one to hold the hair down, the other to slurp into rigidity enough to last the day) and a brown plastic tortoise-shell-design comb for the final slicked, seal-like flourish.
“He wore his suit and shoes and ‘normal’ tie. A black polished pair of shoes with steel edges on the sides of the heel he came down most upon. He clacked whilst walking. In winter a grey or brown cardigan underneath the jacket, and an overcoat.
“None of this ever changed.
“He travelled the country roads before they were really roads, selling his towels and rugs and sometimes Phoenix crockery to an, I imagine, fairly disinterested clientele. In my mind it was probably lonely but in reality I think he loved it. Nights with the other ‘who-do-you-do-fers’, the self-styled Knights of the Road. Oh there were some ‘right buffs’ that he couldn’t stand but in general there was the gossip and the camaraderie, such as it might be.
“He had his routes. Kilkenny-Kilrush-Killaloe-Killakee. I don’t know if that’s right or not. It sounds right in my mind. And he had his B&Bs and the lonely country nights in the shared rooms with some other barely known traveller to keep the costs down on the extremely tight budget. He said he went for walks. He never talked about going to the pub. But he must have.
“He knew his food. He had been a chef. He never complained about the stuff he must have been given in those basic days. Or the many lonely meals in the wherever- you-can-get-food-at-this-time-of-night towns. And he always ate whatever he was served. There were no gastropubs or restaurants in Killakee. Wherever that is, if it exists at all.
“He never called home. There were no phones. Sometimes – and this now strikes me in the email age as bizarre – he’d write a letter and we’d get it, I assume, the next day, because he’d have been home soon after so it would have been pointless. It never said much. Exhorting us to be good, do our homework. How the weather was in Killakee, etc.
“He grew to know all his customers and their families and they in turn looked forward to his visits and I suppose ordered things from him just to give him the work. Eventually he ended up staying above the shop with them and on his death many came to his funeral and those that couldn’t wrote or sent flowers. Many were the children and grandchildren of his original clients.
“My mother had died and he was lonely. Did he have girlfriends around about? I don’t know, but he must have. He had been a beautiful man and remained, despite the Y-fronts, stylishly handsome and effortlessly charming. Women loved him.
“I know he felt guilty leaving his three children on those Mondays. I felt a great expelling of air. I could breathe again. He felt guilt but he also, I believe, like me, felt relief. I’m sure of it. Free. The atmosphere in the house could be oppressive. My sisters trying to please him and loving him, feeling sad for him, wanting and vying for his attention and then me, the errant, wilfully indifferent boy. Free. Outtathere!
“Later I knew and loved him for the excellent man he was, but back then, how I dreaded his homecoming those Friday nights. I couldn’t help it either. Perhaps he did too. Both of us on duty for 48 hours pretending to be the very thing we were not and could never be. Perhaps he knew that it was his house, but it was our home. Not his. He wasn’t there. Not that much different to the B&B he’d just vacated, really. Except you sort of knew the guy in the other bed a bit better. Me.
Bob Geldof is a singer -songwriter, activist and fund-raiser
PAUL McCARTNEY and his father, JIM McCARTNEY
“When I was a kid my dad had a lot of expressions that he used and nowadays I remember them with great fondness.
“One of his expressions was, ‘Put it there if it weighs a ton.’ After he passed away I wrote a song using the essence of what he said and this is it.”
Put it there
if it weighs a ton
that's what a father said
to his young son
I don't care if it weighs a ton
As long as you and I are here
Put it there
long as you and I are here,
Paul McCartney was born in Liverpool in 1942. Having changed the world of music with The Beatles, McCartney has continued to write and perform for more than 40 years .
MICK HEANEY and his father, SEAMUS HEANEY
“It’s a melancholy exercise, remembering a loved one no longer with us. When it’s a wonderful father whose strength, advice and company you could always count on, it seems an unfair one too, reducing as it does an incredibly rich life to a few selective memories. Of all the huge wrenches caused by dad’s passing, one of the strangest, not to mention saddest, is the realisation that our relationship is now a one-sided affair, a monologue rather than a conversation, defined by my recollections of our time together.
“No matter how many shared experiences I try to recall, I know that they can never begin to tell the story of our time together. The best I can hope for is a blurred snapshot, and a highly subjective one at that. (By way of underlining that point, anyone looking for enlightening insights into the literary imagination of Seamus Heaney may as well turn the page now.)
“But just as we have treasured family photos, so there are moments to which I find myself returning again and again, which encapsulate different stages of our family’s life.
“There was the excitement that greeted dad’s return to our home in Wicklow after what seemed like an interminable absence abroad – in reality, six weeks in Berkeley during the spring of 1976 – though, truth be told, much of my joy probably pivoted around the swag of impossibly exotic American toys he brought back for us, chief among them a die-cast model airplane in bright yellow, red and blue. But still, never having been separated from him so long, I can still feel the air of expectation in the days before his homecoming, as well as the elation and sense of completeness when he was finally back with mum, Chris, Catherine and myself.
“A decade or so later, it was me crossing the Atlantic to be reunited with the family, this time for Christmas in America, where dad was teaching at Harvard for a year. One morning, as the pair of us strolled through Cambridge streets damp with melting snow, dad splashed his way through a sidewalk puddle, mainly to show off the Doc Marten boots that he, like me, was wearing. “Doc conquers all,” he said, grinning away.
“That such an ostensibly throwaway remark should thrum with understated emotion, even at the time, is no accident: it was dad’s expertly weighted way of voicing affection without indulging in anything so embarrassing to his 21-year-old son (and maybe even to himself) as a declaration of paternal love.
"Of course, just in case it appears that all our dealings were suffused with a rose-tinted glow, there was a fair bit of cut and thrust too, particularly during my adolescence. There was, for instance, the morning when Dad supposedly did me a favour by giving me a lift to school. Instead, the short journey was accompanied by a catalogue of standard parental gripes - scruffiness of uniform, dog-eared nature of school books, etc. - so relentlessly grumpy as to be unintentionally hilarious. That the incident became something of a family joke says much about his powers of stern discipline.
"But for whatever reason, I keep harking back to the afternoon Chris and myself passed with Dad in a London pub in January 2013. He had given a typically marvellous reading at the Irish Embassy the previous evening, and as Mum and Catherine went about their own business that morning, me and my brother received a text from Dad wondering if we fancied a swift pint before we took the plane back to be with our own families in Dublin. It was barely midday, but the prospect of an ever-so-slightly cheeky drink was irresistible.
"We spent an hour at the most in the pub he suggested, a Soho watering hole once frequented by the London literati. We didn’t talk about anything especially important - beyond a running gag about whether it was ‘too early for a brandy’ I don’t remember anything we said - but amidst our mild giddiness there was an unsaid yet palpable sense that such moments were to be cherished, as they were a finite resource.
"Just how finite we did not then know, thankfully. One of things I miss most about Dad is having those kinds of conversations, where nothing of consequence was said because there was no need to, and I could just bask in his company. So to remember these moments can be heartbreaking. But it’s a pleasure too."
Mick Heaney was born in Belfast in 1966. The eldest son of the late poet Seamus Heaney and his wife Marie, he is currently radio columnist for The Irish Times as well as a regular television contributor on the arts.
MARIO TESTINO and his father, MARIO
“I was probably not the sort of son my father expected but this never stopped him from being the most generous with me. He gave me a lot of freedom and at the end was almost the one that would push me forward into being me.
“The best advice he gave me was: in life there is what you want and what life wants. Life is just more powerful than you so pay attention. Everything that I became seemed to have been chosen by life, not necessarily me!”
Photographer Mario Testino was born in 1954 in Lima, Peru, the eldest son of an Italian businessman and an Irish mother. He is is best known for his fashion spreads and advertising campaigns. His work is now in major museums and galleries. He carries his fame lightly and has quietly worked for Peruvian and international charities.
MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN and his father, PAUL CRAIG-MARTIN
“In the mid-1990s I was visiting my father Paul, who was 87 and in a nursing home in Dublin. I took him out to lunch. He was nearly blind, quite deaf and very frail, just able to walk, but in other ways surprisingly well and alert. As usual, he had a gin and tonic followed by three full courses with wine. As we were having coffee he said, ‘You know the way I used to like doing woodworking, making shelves and bits of furniture? Well I’ve started again.’
“Startled by the news, I asked how he was managing this. ‘I do it all in my head,’ he explained. ‘I draw up the plans, cut the wood, knock in the nails, everything, right down to cutting my finger.’
Michael Craig-Martin RA was born in 1941 in Dublin. He grew up in the US and was educated at Yale. He is a conceptual artist and painter. His work is in many public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, the Tate Gallery, in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris. He lives and works in London.
GRAYDON CARTER and his father, EP CARTER
“My father was a man who got mixed reviews for his overall execution of the Manly Arts. Outdoors, he was on good form. He was a superb skier, a decent sailor, and he played a scratch game of golf. Indoors, things got a bit thicker. He was a hopeless carpenter and general handyman. My mother used to complain that he couldn’t even load a dishwasher properly.
“If he had a specific talent in the Domestic Manly Arts, it was in the arena of farting. He was to the perfectly executed release of air what Constable was to the movement of paint on canvas. He was a virtuoso and could produce something resembling a tune on command. In my parents’ circle, he achieved minor – I won’t say celebrity – let’s just say notoriety for his gifts in this arena. When we were kids, he would signal the arrival of trouble by asking one of us to pull on his little finger.
“My mother grew up in a smart neighborhood of Toronto, then still a sleepy outpost of post-Edwardian probity and caution. She was a well-known local beauty, and during the war had been going out with the captain of the University of Toronto football team. The competition for her hand was not inconsiderable. My father, who had just appeared on the scene, had any number of debits on his ledger. He was the son of a fur trapper who had uprooted his family from London to the wilds of western Canada after reading The Call of the Wild. And my father, who was a bit over six feet tall, weighed in at just 115 pounds. On the credit side, he was a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, and this being wartime, he was in uniform, and he looked good in it. With his mustache and general manner, from a distance he could have passed for an anaemic David Niven.
“One evening early in their courtship, he took my mother to the movies at a theatre near her parents’ house. They settled into their seats and chatted while the theatre began to fill up, largely with friends of my mother and her family. People said hello. Fellow soldiers saluted one another. And then while the lights were still on and before the newsreel had started, my father did the unthinkable. He broke wind.
“Not just broke wind, but created a prolonged disturbance that stopped people talking. Heads turned in my parents’ direction. My father, never one to do the expected, drew himself up, looked down on mother and said, ‘Oh, Margaret!’ And with that he edged his way along the row of fellow moviegoers toward the aisle and marched out of the theatre. My mother, God bless her, found it funny. They spent more than half a century together and in all that time, I never really heard them exchange a stern word, save for the time my father wanted to name their new sloop Passing Wind. That was one of the few times my mother put her foot down.”
Graydon Carter was born in Toronto in 1949 and has been the editor of Vanity Fair since 1992, his tenure taking him through seven presidential administrations and four trouser sizes.
DYLAN JONES and his father, MICHAEL JONES
When I was young, my father and I always fought. Actually, that’s not strictly true, as it was my father who fought, my father who hit me, my father who would hit me so much that I would cower whenever he entered the room. He hit me so much that at the age of 10 I stammered so much that I found it impossible to say my own name.
So when I left home at the age of 16 I was sort of leaving for good. After one final confrontation with my father, I decided I wanted out. We stayed in touch, he would occasionally help me financially, and I often went home for Christmas, but ours was a troubled relationship. It got better - obviously, it had to get better - and we learned to spend time together without ever acknowledging the past, but those early years stayed with both of us in ways that we never bothered to articulate. At least not to each other.
After a while, our relationship seemed to become like the relationships that many fathers have with their sons: he would berate me for not achieving what he thought I was capable of, often referring to what I did as ‘rubbish’. Yet I could tell that he was secretly proud of me; he just couldn’t find a way to tell me.
One of the accidental by-products of ageing is finding out what clichés are true. And so regardless of what decisions you make along the way - monumental or seemingly incidental - a lot of life is determined for you. This was the case I suppose with our relationship: after a while it was always going to be this way.
When my father died, my brother and I went to empty his flat. His death had left me strangely unaffected, although spending a day dismantling what was left of his life was the hardest thing. The day was not without its comic moments, as my brother and I divided his belongings like a couple embarking on a divorce (‘No, it’s OK, you can have the wagon-wheel coffee table ... The Phil Collins CD? Actually you can have that too if you like...’), and the process was as much a bonding exercise as a cathartic one: yet it was the boxes under the stairs that threw me.
My father had always been a keen collector of my work, and whenever a photograph of me appeared in a newspaper, or whenever I’d written something for a magazine - no matter how small - he had found it, cut it out, and regularly pasted it into a scrapbook, had it mounted on cardboard, or even, sometimes, framed. He had honoured my brother in a similar way, covering the walls of his bedroom with photographs of Dan getting another promotion or military medal; but you can write a lot of columns in thirty years, and my father had seemingly collected all of them.
I’m no slouch when it comes to archiving my own work, yet my father had found and kept articles, features and reviews that I’d long since forgotten. His bookcases were full of my books - sometimes three or four copies of the same one - including a couple I’d written or contributed to early in my career, which I was so embarrassed about I didn’t even have them myself.
Just when I thought I’d found everything of mine he had collected, I discovered four metal briefcases that were full of cuttings from a newspaper I had worked on back in the nineties. There they were, all my cuttings, carefully glued into A4 booklets, each one with the date of its appearance scribbled in dark-blue ink in my father’s own spidery writing.
All I could do was stare. His obsession didn’t border on anything other than love. Ever since I had started to appear in print, he had collected me. Collected my life. A life he had helped build. Maybe he had collected them because he thought that one day they would run out, that one day there wouldn’t be anything else to collect.
But there it all was, scraps of a life told though scraps of a talent. My brother didn’t need to ask which one of us was going to keep these, and, in an act of something more than brotherly love, he just started carrying them out to my car.
I’ve still got the boxes at home, pushed under the stairs in my house. I never look at them, but then I don’t need to.
My father did that for me.
Dylan Jones was born in 1960 and educated at Central Saint Martins in London. He is a writer and journalist who has edited GQ magazine in the UK since 1999. He was awarded the OBE in 2013 for services to publishing and the fashion industry. He is married with two children.
MAX MCGUINNESS and his father, PAUL MCGUINNESS
“Stately, plump Paul McGuinness came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. Although in actual fact there was no razor at all because some ungrateful progeny had swiped his stubble-slicer and not bothered to return it. ‘Shite and onions!’ he bellowed whilst seeking another means of paring his visage, before happening upon the very same foam-flecked shaver lodged surreptitiously in the adjacent bathroom.
“The ablutions done, Paul stood up and went over to the parapet whence he surveyed the proceeds of rock and roll – mares in foal, a well-sprung hare gambolling across the grassy knoll, and the rhododendrons, at last, blissfully under control. All seemed to be progressing well, till he glimpsed an aesthetic outrage, which made him want to yell: the corner of the greenhouse beyond the trees could still be seen! Such an unforgivable intrusion upon the pastoral scene!
“Still cursing the rudeness of the angle, he proceeded to take a dunk in a pool which, quite unlike the 40-foot at Sandycove, was neither snotgreen nor in the least scrotumtightening – a balmy breaststroke hither and thither and then . . . launching himself with relish upon the inner organs of beasts and fowl. Putting a forkful into his mouth, chewing with discernment the toothsome pliant meat, he pondered the future of the recording industry, plotted revenge against a recalcitrant ISP [internet service provider], then resumed consuming the rest of the succulent kidney. Though seeing as I’ve been willfully violating the intellectual property rights of the Joyce estate for the past few minutes, perhaps we should call it evens.
“By lorries along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Mr McGuinness walked soberly, past Windmill Lane, Leask’s the linseed crusher’s, the sailors’ home, Principle Management, the postal telegraph, a loop the loop around the Green, past the old Dandelion Market where an eon or two before, he first clapped eyes on Bono Boylan and the lads. Ah yes jingle jaunty blazes Bono. Stepping in dark shoes and socks with skyblue clocks to the refrain of I Will Follow. In the audience a slut shouts out of her: eh mister Bono! Your fly is open, mister Bono! But McGuinness, hovering discreetly at the back, has taken their measure. Having concluded their set, the teenage musicians trepidatiously approach the man browsing the newspaper with Olympian indifference. And without even looking up from his copy of the Freeman’s Journal, he says: you don’t really know how to play your instruments, do you? A pause. And then: but, Blazes Bono, Bono Boylan or whatever you’re called, tell me this: would you be interested in breaking America? Because I am.
“He entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral Pub. He doesn’t chat. Hell he probably hasn’t even been there in over 20 years but I’ve started so I’ll go on. Now they don’t serve gnudi or crudo or lamb hamburgers or what have you in Davy Byrne’s Moral Pub. So McGuinness orders a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich. And frankly, they don’t serve that in Davy Byrne’s either, but they did once upon a time, so bear with me. An acquaintance accosts him – I would transform the character into someone here but it’s not very flattering so I’ll leave it as it is:
Blazes Bono and the lads well? asked Nosey Flynn. ‘Quite well, thanks, McGuinness replied . . . a cheese sandwich, then. Gorgonzola, have you? Doing any singing these times, Blazes Bono?
Music. Knows as much about it as my coachman.
Max McGuinness was born in Dublin in 1986. He attended Oxford University and is completing a PhD in French literature at Columbia University, New York.
ROBERT FISK and his father, BILL FISK
“My mother called me in Beirut in 1993 to say that my dad had died. I had long since stopped calling him dad – father was the word I used, firstly with a kind of irony because he always demanded respect, and then because it suited his years and his history.
“He was 93 when he died; he was born in 1899, so I can say that my dad – or my father, Bill Fisk – was born in ‘the century before last’. He had been a soldier in the Great War, a patriot in the most literal sense of the word. Bill was a faithful man, he kept his word, he paid his bills on time.
“In any event, I replied to my mother on the phone that day 21 years ago that Bill was ‘a man of his time’. He was a Victorian, a poor boy taken from school by his father at 13 because Edward Fisk – my grandfather, former mate on the Cutty Sark and later deputy harbour master of Birkenhead – had no more money to pay for his son’s education. So Bill was self-educated in accountancy until, by the time of his retirement in the 1960s, he was borough treasurer of Maidstone. I also told my mother that day of his death that Bill, over the years, had taught me to love books and history. That was his bequest to his son.
“It was the best I could say of him. For in his later years, he could be a harsh man – I avoid the word ‘cruel’ with some difficulty – shouting at my mother and myself, insisting that he and he only would decide where we would live, how we would spend money, what I would wear, what I would say, that I would attend – against my wishes – a violent, bully-infested English boarding school. One day, during a fierce argument, he threw a silver-plate knife at me.
“Bill had inherited the world of his own father, which was the Mersey of the late 1890s: racist, anti-Irish, intolerant of those who did not share his views. Many years into his retirement, he was appointed to a fair-rent tribunal – and came home one day boasting that he had raised the rent of a young couple because he suspected they were not married. He called black people ‘Ni**ers’ – and I think this was intended to provoke me.
“It did. I did not go to see him before he died. And yet . . .
“I suspect there is always an ‘and yet’ about out fathers. For Bill was a teenage soldier. He tried to sign up for the British army underage because he wanted to join his schoolmates and fight for ‘Little Belgium’. Once he was in uniform, they sent him instead to Dublin because of a man called Padraig Pearse, and he arrived in Ireland after the Rising, posted to Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks) in Cork.
“This saved him from the first Battle of the Somme, in 1916, in which 20,000 British soldiers, including some of Bill’s school friends, were killed on the first day of the attack. Pearse, I once tried to explain to Bill, probably saved his life - and mine!
“Bill arrived in France for the third Somme battle, in 1918, fought in the trenches, helped to liberate Cambrai – and was then asked to execute a Royal Artillery soldier by firing squad. The soldier had killed a British military policeman in Paris. Bill refused the order. He would not execute a fellow soldier. It was, I am sure, the finest act of his life, one of which his son would have approved with all his heart.
“Second Lieutenant Bill Fisk was a courageous man. He had wanted to join the Gurkhas, become a regular officer, but his brave act of disobedience destroyed such hopes. So he lost his military career – and, it seems, a French girlfriend – and returned to the fog of Birkenhead.
“And as the years went by, Bill became a disillusioned man. He read the biographies of Field Marshal Haig and realised the Great War was founded upon lies. ‘A great waste’ was all he would call it when I talked to him one day when he feared (mistakenly) that he was dying of cancer.
“He stopped attending his church. He became more right wing than the Conservative party he always voted for. In his very old age, he asked my mother to frame a photograph of him in 1918, in uniform and riding a horse called Whitesocks, which, according to his handwriting on the back, was taken near Hazebrouk in Flanders. He wanted to put it on his desk. My mother unkindly refused.
“All his life, Bill said he wanted a proud son, but he was unable to understand that affection must be earned and not taken for granted. He said he wanted a son who honoured him. I fear what he really wanted was an obedient junior officer. This he could not have. Which was his misfortune. And, I suppose, mine too.”
Robert Fisk was born in 1946. He is Middle East Correspondent of the London Independent and lives in Beirut, where he has been based for the past 38 years.
An edited version of this article appears in The Irish Times Saturday Magazine, April 11th, 2015.