The son of a difficult father
by Colin Grant:
Colin Grant has spent a lifetime navigating the emotional landscape between his father’s world and his own. Born in England to Jamaican parents, Grant draws on stories of shared experience within his immigrant community — and reflects on how he found forgiveness for a father who rejected him.
0:11 - This is a photograph of a man whom for many years I plotted to kill.
0:20 - This is my father, Clinton George "Bageye" Grant. He's called Bageye because he has permanent bags under his eyes. As a 10-year-old, along with my siblings, I dreamt of scraping off the poison from fly-killer paper into his coffee, grounded down glass and sprinkling it over his breakfast, loosening the carpet on the stairs so he would trip and break his neck. But come the day, he would always skip that loose step,he would always bow out of the house without so much as a swig of coffee or a bite to eat. And so for many years, I feared that my father would die before I had a chance to kill him. (Laughter)
1:14 - Up until our mother asked him to leave and not come back, Bageye had been a terrifying ogre. He teetered permanently on the verge of rage, rather like me, as you see. He worked nights at Vauxhall Motors in Luton and demanded total silence throughout the house, so that when we came home from school at 3:30 in the afternoon, we would huddle beside the TV, and rather like safe-crackers, we would twiddle with the volume control knob on the TV so it was almost inaudible. And at times, when we were like this, so much "Shhh," so much "Shhh" going on in the house that I imagined us to be like the German crew of a U-boat creeping along the edge of the ocean whilst up above, on the surface, HMS Bageye patrolled ready to drop death charges at the first sound of any disturbance.
2:16 - So that lesson was the lesson that "Do not draw attention to yourself either in the home or outside of the home." Maybe it's a migrant lesson. We were to be below the radar, so there was no communication, really, between Bageye and us and us and Bageye, and the sound that we most looked forward to, you know when you're a child and you want your father to come home and it's all going to be happy and you're waiting for that sound of the door opening. Well the sound that we looked forward to was the click of the door closing, which meant he'd gone and would not come back.
2:51 - So for three decades, I never laid eyes on my father, nor he on me. We never spoke to each other for three decades, and then a couple of years ago, I decided to turn the spotlight on him.
3:05 - "You are being watched. Actually, you are. You are being watched." That was his mantra to us, his children. Time and time again he would say this to us. And this was the 1970s, it was Luton, where he worked at Vauxhall Motors, and he was a Jamaican. And what he meant was, you as a child of a Jamaican immigrant are being watched to see which way you turn, to see whether you conform to the host nation's stereotype of you, of being feckless, work-shy, destined for a life of crime. You are being watched, so confound their expectations of you. To that end, Bageye and his friends, mostly Jamaican,exhibited a kind of Jamaican bella figura: Turn your best side to the world, show your best face to the world.
3:59 - If you have seen some of the images of the Caribbean people arriving in the '40s and '50s, you might have noticed that a lot of the men wear trilbies. Now, there was no tradition of wearing trilbies in Jamaica.They invented that tradition for their arrival here. They wanted to project themselves in a way that they wanted to be perceived, so that the way they looked and the names that they gave themselves defined them. So Bageye is bald and has baggy eyes. Tidy Boots is very fussy about his footwear. Anxious is always anxious. Clock has one arm longer than the other. (Laughter) And my all-time favorite was the guy they called Summerwear. When Summerwear came to this country from Jamaica in the early '60s, he insisted on wearing light summer suits, no matter the weather, and in the course of researching their lives, I asked my mom, "Whatever became of Summerwear?" And she said, "He caught a cold and died." (Laughter) But men like Summerwear taught us the importance of style. Maybe they exaggerated their style because they thought that they were not considered to be quite civilized, and they transferred that generational attitude or anxiety onto us, the next generation, so much so that when I was growing up, if ever on the television news or radio a report came up about a black person committing some crime — a mugging, a murder, a burglary — we winced along with our parents, because they were letting the side down. You did not just represent yourself. You represented the group, and it was a terrifying thing to come to terms with, in a way, that maybe you were going to be perceived in the same light. So that was what needed to be challenged. Our father and many of his colleagues exhibited a kind of transmission but not receiving. They were built to transmit but not receive. We were to keep quiet. When our father did speak to us, it was from the pulpit of his mind. They clung to certainty in the belief that doubt would undermine them. But when I am working in my house and writing, after a day's writing, I rush downstairsand I'm very excited to talk about Marcus Garvey or Bob Marley and words are tripping out of my mouth like butterflies and I'm so excited that my children stop me, and they say, "Dad, nobody cares."(Laughter)
6:41 - But they do care, actually. They cross over. Somehow they find their way to you. They shape their lives according to the narrative of your life, as I did with my father and my mother, perhaps, and maybe Bageye did with his father. And that was clearer to me in the course of looking at his life and understanding, as they say, the Native Americans say, "Do not criticize the man until you can walk in his moccasins."
7:11 - But in conjuring his life, it was okay and very straightforward to portray a Caribbean life in England in the 1970s with bowls of plastic fruit, polystyrene ceiling tiles, settees permanently sheathed in their transparent covers that they were delivered in. But what's more difficult to navigate is the emotional landscape between the generations, and the old adage that with age comes wisdom is not true. With age comes the veneer of respectability and a veneer of uncomfortable truths.
7:52 - But what was true was that my parents, my mother, and my father went along with it, did not trust the state to educate me. So listen to how I sound. They determined that they would send me to a private school, but my father worked at Vauxhall Motors. It's quite difficult to fund a private school education and feed his army of children. I remember going on to the school for the entrance exam, and my father said to the priest — it was a Catholic school — he wanted a better "heducation" for the boy, but also, he, my father, never even managed to pass worms, never mind entrance exams. But in order to fund my education, he was going to have to do some dodgy stuff, so my father would fund my education by trading in illicit goods from the back of his car, and that was made even more tricky because my father, that's not his car by the way. My father aspired to have a car like that, but my father had a beaten-up Mini, and he never, being a Jamaican coming to this country, he never had a driving license, he never had any insurance or road tax or MOT. He thought, "I know how to drive; why do I need the state's validation?" But it became a little tricky when we were stopped by the police, and we were stopped a lot by the police, and I was impressed by the way that my father dealt with the police. He would promote the policeman immediately, so that P.C. Bloggs became Detective Inspector Bloggs in the course of the conversation and wave us on merrily. So my father was exhibiting what we in Jamaica called "playing fool to catch wise." But it lent also an idea that actually he was being diminished or belittled by the policeman — as a 10-year-old boy, I saw that — but also there was an ambivalence towards authority. So on the one hand, there was a mocking of authority, but on the other hand, there was a deference towards authority, and these Caribbean people had an overbearing obedience towards authority, which is very striking, very strange in a way, because migrants are very courageous people. They leave their homes. My father and my mother left Jamaica and they traveled 4,000 miles, and yet they were infantilized by travel. They were timid, and somewhere along the line, the natural order was reversed. The children became the parents to the parent.
10:25 - The Caribbean people came to this country with a five-year plan: they would work, some money, and then go back, but the five years became 10, the 10 became 15, and before you know it, you're changing the wallpaper, and at that point, you know you're here to stay. Although there's still the kind of temporariness that our parents felt about being here, but we children knew that the game was up. I think there was a feeling that they would not be able to continue with the ideals of the life that they expected.The reality was very much different. And also, that was true of the reality of trying to educate me. Having started the process, my father did not continue. It was left to my mother to educate me, and as George Lamming would say, it was my mother who fathered me.
11:16 - Even in his absence, that old mantra remained: You are being watched. But such ardent watchfulness can lead to anxiety, so much so that years later, when I was investigating why so many young black menwere diagnosed with schizophrenia, six times more than they ought to be, I was not surprised to hear the psychiatrist say, "Black people are schooled in paranoia." And I wonder what Bageye would make of that.
11:43 - Now I also had a 10-year-old son, and turned my attention to Bageye and I went in search of him. He was back in Luton, he was now 82, and I hadn't seen him for 30-odd years, and when he opened the door, I saw this tiny little man with lambent, smiling eyes, and he was smiling, and I'd never seen him smile. I was very disconcerted by that. But we sat down, and he had a Caribbean friend with him, talking some old time talk, and my father would look at me, and he looked at me as if I would miraculously disappear as I had arisen. And he turned to his friend, and he said, "This boy and me have a deep, deep connection, deep, deep connection." But I never felt that connection. If there was a pulse, it was very weak or hardly at all. And I almost felt in the course of that reunion that I was auditioning to be my father's son.
12:43 - When the book came out, it had fair reviews in the national papers, but the paper of choice in Luton is not The Guardian, it's the Luton News, and the Luton News ran the headline about the book, "The Book That May Heal a 32-Year-Old Rift." And I understood that could also represent the rift between one generation and the next, between people like me and my father's generation, but there's no tradition in Caribbean life of memoirs or biographies. It was a tradition that you didn't chat about your business in public. But I welcomed that title, and I thought actually, yes, there is a possibility that this will open up conversations that we'd never had before. This will close the generation gap, perhaps. This could be an instrument of repair. And I even began to feel that this book may be perceived by my father as an act of filial devotion.
13:46 - Poor, deluded fool. Bageye was stung by what he perceived to be the public airing of his shortcomings.He was stung by my betrayal, and he went to the newspapers the next day and demanded a right of reply, and he got it with the headline "Bageye Bites Back." And it was a coruscating account of my betrayal. I was no son of his. He recognized in his mind that his colors had been dragged through the mud, and he couldn't allow that. He had to restore his dignity, and he did so, and initially, although I was disappointed, I grew to admire that stance. There was still fire bubbling through his veins, even though he was 82 years old. And if it meant that we would now return to 30 years of silence, my father would say, "If it's so, then it's so."
14:44 - Jamaicans will tell you that there's no such thing as facts, there are only versions. We all tell ourselves the versions of the story that we can best live with. Each generation builds up an edifice which they are reluctant or sometimes unable to disassemble, but in the writing, my version of the story began to change, and it was detached from me. I lost my hatred of my father. I did no longer want him to die or to murder him, and I felt free, much freer than I'd ever felt before. And I wonder whether that freednesscould be transferred to him.
15:35 - In that initial reunion, I was struck by an idea that I had very few photographs of myself as a young child.This is a photograph of me, nine months old. In the original photograph, I'm being held up by my father, Bageye, but when my parents separated, my mother excised him from all aspects of our lives. She took a pair of scissors and cut him out of every photograph, and for years, I told myself the truth of this photograph was that you are alone, you are unsupported. But there's another way of looking at this photograph. This is a photograph that has the potential for a reunion, a potential to be reunited with my father, and in my yearning to be held up by my father, I held him up to the light.
16:32 - In that first reunion, it was very awkward and tense moments, and to lessen the tension, we decided to go for a walk. And as we walked, I was struck that I had reverted to being the child even though I was now towering above my father. I was almost a foot taller than my father. He was still the big man, and I tried to match his step. And I realized that he was walking as if he was still under observation, but I admired his walk. He walked like a man on the losing side of the F.A. Cup Final mounting the steps to collect his condolence medal. There was dignity in defeat.
17:19 - Thank you.
17:21 - (Applause)