Books

A misery memoir from Alan Cumming that's surprisingly thoughtful

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Misery loves company. Anyone who doubts this old adage should pop into their local bookshop, because besides celebrity chefs and Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-style erotica, what keep the tills ringing are misery memoirs. The shelves are groaning with them. Their titles can vary from the merely toe-curling (Cry Silent Tears) to the queasily exploitative (Please, Daddy, No), but even if the names of the characters vary, all these books share the same basic plot. A child is horribly abused in some way, but eventually manages to break free from its upbringing, like a chick hatching from an egg. Good comes out of bad. They are heart-warming, therapeutic and ruthlessly commercial books that use one person’s unhappiness as an opportunity to make a lot of other people very happy indeed, especially the accountants at big publishing houses.

In some respects Alan Cumming’s memoir slips into the genre like a hand into a glove. The cover blurb informs readers that it is ‘a powerful story about embracing the best aspects of the past and triumphantly pushing the darkness aside’, and as with many similar memoirs one senses a tape recorder in the background. On this occasion the villain is Alan Cumming’s father. Having married a woman named Darling, most people would have hugged themselves with delight at the chance to combine their names, which in this case would have meant their son growing up to become the Hollywood and Broadway star Alan Cumming-Darling.

Sadly, a sense of humour was just one of the qualities that the elder Mr Cumming lacked. Some of the others included fairness, generosity, loyalty and a capacity to love anyone weaker than himself. Having realised early on that Alan was not the son he wanted, he set out to destroy his childhood with cruel efficiency, often finding novel ways to cause maximum unhappiness with minimum effort.

On one occasion he decided that his son needed a haircut, so he held him down and sheared his head like a sheep. On another he grew impatient at his son’s difficulty in learning to ride a bicycle, and beat him black with bruises. He tore at his food as if ripping apart a small animal. He surrounded himself with a brooding, muscular silence that could erupt without warning into irrational spasms of rage. No wonder an air of defiance hangs over the title of this memoir: according to his son, Mr Cumming was not the sort of man anyone would want to have as a father.


Inevitably there were repercussions. As with many unhappy childhoods, it appears that for long periods of Alan’s life the years he spent in his father’s cold grey Scottish house were forgotten but not gone — announcing themselves only indirectly through his penchant for angry boyfriends whom he unsuccessfully tried to love. The rest could be cut and pasted from any similar story: a breakdown, a confrontation, an uneasy truce, and finally the recognition that father and son had nothing in common beyond a few strands of DNA.

So far, so familiar. What makes this book far more interesting is the fact that the sad and empty relationship between Cumming père et fils is only half the story. The other half involves the discovery through the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? of a grandfather who was every inch the man Mr Cumming was not.

Tommy Darling was a war hero, awarded a medal for riding motorcycle dispatches under enemy fire in France. He then suffered his own form of nervous breakdown, and was sent to the insane asylum at the Indian hill station of Deolali (hence ‘Doolally’) to recuperate, after which he ended up serving in Malaya, where his kindness was rewarded after his mysterious early death by having a road named after him.

The discovery of his grandfather’s adventurous past forms the second main strand of Not My Father’s Son, and Cumming works hard to point out parallels and contrasts: the mental illness that affected his grandfather but seems to have gone undiagnosed in his father; the discovery of a man who did not confuse respect with fear.

The weaving together of these twin narratives is neatly done, even if the most self-revealing moments tend to be what is not said rather than what is. (Whereas Cumming is keen to stress that his grandfather’s mental health was damaged by his wartime experiences, his father is ‘a monster’ of cartoon villainy whose motives remain largely a blank.)

But overall this is a brave and thoughtful book. Compared with most misery memoirs it is blissfully free from self-pity. There are even some jokes. And of course in the end the son gets his revenge. There are few better ways of showing someone that they were wrong to think you wouldn’t get anywhere than by travelling back to see them first class.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • Clavers

    Surely we are not supposed to believe everything we are told by Victor or is it Barry.

  • ‘Misery loves company’. No, it doesn’t.

    Sadness wants empathy.

    The really miserable want to be alone. And then they want to be rescued.

    And: you’re too casual about the cruelty. Having a sadistic madman as a father is nothing to be urbane about, Mr Douglas-Fairhurst.

    • gerontius

      Hi pops.This sounds a bit heavy for 4:30.
      I’m back to bed and cuddle a cat – if I can find one.

      • You cuddle that cat. I’m cuddling my dog as it’s nearly midnight in the subtropics. xx

        • gerontius

          What strange creatures we are!

        • gerontius

          I posted an amusing tale for you in response to your comment about the two luvvies on newsnight.
          Sadly it went into review (3 times) and nothing ever emerges from review, so you will never see it.
          Probably just as well.

          • Oh dear. You should have emailed it to me!

          • gerontius

            I’ll try again with a censored version.
            Trouble is I’ve bigged it up now
            Anyway here goes

            I’m reminded of a story from many years ago:

            Young working class lad is dating upper class girl (it was the 60s).
            He turns up in his old van and parks it by the front door of the family residence. Girl invites him in to meet her family. Mother is appalled. Tea is served and our hero perches unsteadily on the sofa, cup of tea balanced on one knee, biscuit on the other.
            Stony silence.
            Great Dane strolls in, plonks itself on the rug in front of everyone and proceeds to lick its b**ls. Our hero, in an unwise attempt to cover his increasing embarrassment looks up at the mother and says laughingly “Wish I could do that!”
            Girl’s mother replies coldy ” If you give him your biscuit he’ll let you.”

          • Oh god! : )

          • gerontius

            Sorry!

          • So how is your mother-in-law these days?

          • gerontius

            I hasten to add that it was not my mother-in-law!

          • No, I didn’t think so, really.

          • gerontius

            H’mm

    • Tilly

      Yes sadness wants empathy but occasionally desolation
      hides within the really miserable and they don’t want to
      be rescued regardless of the kindness of others, that can
      sometimes be misplaced.

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