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It was with great interest that I read about the father of a pop star who telephoned a music magazine recently to complain about his son’s zero-star review. The review in question was certainly outlandish, to put it mildly.
The young man’s fledgling sounds, it was feared, would soon be sweeping the nation like “a virulent dose of musical syphilis”. The artist himself was labelled “a poor, misguided wannabe who’s fallen into the hands of the music industry equivalent of Hungarian sex traffickers.” Ouch!
Having one’s peach-faced little son compared to criminal sex-gang practices and venereal disease would, you know, make one bristle. I am surprised the father did not challenge the journalist to a duel. It was what my own father offered to do when I was offered a tiny part in the chorus of Calamity Jane at university (and only that, I suspect, because I had a reputation for being good at catering).
Then, with a large smile, I read of a mother in Paris described as a “52-year-old woman, heavily made-up and dressed in trainers and low-cut jeans” who turned up at her daughter’s school to sit one of the papers for her daughter’s baccalauréat exam. I believe it was philosophy.
The invigilator cunningly smelt a rat, and realised that 19-year-old Laetitia did not quite look herself that morning. Eager not to disturb the other scholars, however, the school let the mother write for more than two hours before involving the police. Yet there was no mention, anywhere, of how well the mother did. If I had done that for my child, as I languished in my prison cell with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics (or Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature) splayed on my guilty breast, I would have my people sue the hell out of any publication that did not draw attention to my high scores.
When I was at primary school there were two dinner ladies with strong personalities who played a large part in the personality of the building. Once a year one of them, Mrs Phillips, would judge the annual fancy-dress competition and once a year her son would win. “That is how families act,” I thought. “You root for your own. You push them forward. You do everything you can. If you don’t, who will?”
Sometimes when I hear myself address my children on the subject of family loyalty, I wonder if they think I’m from the Mafia. I boom at them, “Family. Family is everything! All of us are on the same side. You don’t fight your sister! That slashes my heart into pieces. It literally makes the heavens weep. It’s us against the world. You don’t ever turn on each other. We’re all in this little ship. Together for ever. Understand?” God, how they laugh.
Yet loyalty, even if it’s just loyalty to loyalty, goes very deep with me. At a parents’ evening last week when the teacher my daughter swears is called a geographatician said my little girl was one of the livelier members of the class, I raised a suspicious eyebrow. In an environment where all language is checked and pre-checked for kindness and respect, “livelier” is a loaded word. “Have other teachers mentioned this at all?” the woman carefully asked.
“No, not one,” I lied, and then mumbled, “better ‘lively’ than ‘deadly’, any day of the week,” as we went off to find the biscuits.
All this leads me to the fact that at this time several books and films, and, I believe, an opera, are being written about my late father, the artist Lucian Freud. Some of these, I fear, will be truly terrible, hitting the nail squarely on the thumb. Some of these authors write me squirming apologetic letters. Others waylay me in public places and ask for my approval, my blessing even. I whisper vaguely Nathaniel Hawthorne-type curses at them under my breath, such as, “Shame on you.” What else can I do?
It is not illegal to libel the dead. How much money would I have to offer these people to just stop it? My house? Could I threaten them in some way? Bribe their agents? Blackmail their publishers? Can I protect my dad against being misunderstood, trounced, traduced, used? Can I prevent people claiming him as their own when obviously he’s, you know, mine.
I draft emails to my lawyers in the small hours. Sometimes I send them. I discuss it with my father in my dreams. “Leave it.” He is stern. “It’s painful but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s footling and banal. Don’t give them the satisfaction of showing you mind or have even noticed.”
“Easy for you to say,” I object. “You weren’t averse to threatening the odd lawsuit on occasion.”
“That I can’t deny.” He looks at me seriously.
“Well then!” I protest.
“Throw yourself into your own work,” he tells me. “Finally, that is all that matters.”
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt
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