Damian Thompson on a painfully frank memoir of parental decline Swimming with my Father by Tim Jeal, Faber and Faber £12.99 So many books about the senility and/or death of parents have appeared in recent years that they have turned into a literary sub-genre of their own. Despite their subject matter, many of them are extremely touching. Tim Jeal’s Swimming with my Father is no exception: it’s almost as funny and sharply observed as The Scent of Dried Roses, Tim Lott’s memoir of his mother’s suicide.
Jeal’s mother, Norah, was the daughter of a ferociously snobbish baronet. In 1932, she was visiting Heal’s furniture store in the Tottenham Court Road when she became mesmerised by a good-looking shop assistant. Joe Jeal was a grammar school boy with an overpowering love of nature. Norah’s parents disapproved, but at this stage Joe’s eccentricities extended no further than swimming in the Serpentine on his way to work. The couple married and were reasonably happy.
When war broke out, gentle Joe horrified his father-in-law by trying to wriggle out of military service. He also joined the Order of the Cross, one of those mystical brotherhoods that occupied the time of neurotic and gullible people before the New Age came along. The elegant Norah was ashamed of Joe’s funny ways. So was his young son. Joe would sit on a District Line train, methodically rolling his eyes as he practised the Bates exercises for better eyesight; Tim’s cheeks burned.
Jeal is a novelist as well as a biographer; Norah and Joe are as exquisitely delineated as minor characters in A Dance to the Music of Time. He leaps backwards and forwards in time with the confidence of a practised author. Interleaved with memories of his childhood are glimpses of his parents in decline. This is difficult territory, calling for all his writer’s skill and judgment.
Joe’s deterioration is awful: his personality fades away “like the image in some old photograph, giving us no chance to mourn or even mark this series of imperceptible deaths”. The couple move into an old people’s home. Norah complains that the resident who calls himself a major is actually nothing of the sort, and that some of the old ladies snatch at the cream jug and steal all the baby tomatoes from shared salads.
Jeal’s feel for bleak comedy is not in doubt; whether the book is welljudged is another question. One evening, he drops in to see his parents in the home. He finds that his mother “had been sitting in the garden a lot recently, and her face was the same dark brown I’d previously associated with the faces of vagrants”. Joe, now suffering from the delusions of Parkinson’s Disease, asks about “the fish market at the end of the corridor”.
But hang on – these are his parents he is writing about. Joe’s delusions should have been a private matter, not material for a memoir, however heartwrenching. No doubt Tim Jeal concluded that his father wouldn’t have minded. But how can he be sure?