Being an Adam Mars-Jones completist is not a full-time job, requiring round-the-clock vigilance by a troupe of assistants. He has published so few books (three novels, two story collections and some essays in 34 years as a published author) that I’m never really convinced that there’s going to be another. Nor, perhaps, is he: “I’m not the sort of person who writes every day. I write when there’s something write, and if I can’t think of a way to write something, I just don’t.” This, surely, is preferable to the alternative. And it means that those rare publications, when they do come, can take us unawares – I had no idea that this book was imminent until a week or so before publication. Which made it a lovely surprise; but perhaps I do need that troupe of assistants after all.
Kid Gloves, subtitled A Voyage Round My Father after John Mortimer’s play, is a memoir not just of Mars-Jones’s father, a High Court judge, but of “a particular time”. So although there’s plenty of Dad, there’s a lot of general reminiscing; and much of the paternal stuff is decently distant. For example, although we’re told on the first page that in 1998 “my father had been casually described by medical authority as demented”, we get no grisly slip-by-slip account of his decline – it’s a voyage round, not a deep excavation – but instead a launchpad for a rush of memories. My father and myself.
(I’m going to lapse into code for the rest of this review, by calling the author AMJ – the only way I can see of avoiding a bottleneck of Mars-Joneses accompanied by clarifications.) Mars-Jones Sr’s decline was already established when his wife died, though she had kept her ill-health a secret from him. AMJ “had just finished telling her that her dying belonged to her and she shouldn’t consider anyone else’s wishes, so I could hardly overrule this decision even though I disagreed with it.” When AMJ apologised to his dad for the fact that he had been given no warning of his wife’s death, “he seemed surprised, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for his wife of fifty years to slip away without a word.” These sentences – an intricately expressed report of inner workings, and emotion not so much muted, to adopt social media terminology, as blocked – are fairly representative of the book.
So, for a memoir incorporating the death of two parents, there’s not much emoting, and deep satisfaction for most of the book is more likely to be found in parsing the neat wit of AMJ’s paragraphs. They flow and fold in such a way that they sometimes need to be read carefully a second time, like the sort of poem where a sentence runs on through two or three stanzas.
Dad’s ideal was that we would all become lawyers, which would be following his footsteps in one sense, except that his drive and ambition had taken him very far from the paths trodden by his farming ancestors. To follow him would be very different from being like him, would mean in fact that we were very unlike him. The more we were like him the less we would follow him. All this tangle needs to be kept distinct from the common-sense awareness that we would most likely never emerge from his shadow and be assumed, even if we went on to ‘great things’, to have got our start thanks to his eminence.
All this reminds me – at the risk of aping the book by making this review more about me than its ostensible subject – that I had more or less made the assumption AMJ expects in that last sentence. Or rather, not that he got where he is from his father’s eminence, but that he has pursued the uncertain life of a freelance writer through some trustafarian reliance on his father’s money. The book reveals that this lazy assumption could not really be more wrong. First, “it would take me about five years of literary journalism in print and on the radio to start earning a living.” Second, although judges, as AMJ understatedly notes, “are not poorly paid” (they currently earn around £175,000 a year, putting them comfortably within the top 1% of salaried employees in the UK), his dad had “reverse financial acumen” and in 1987 it was he who had to turn to AMJ, who then had a regular income as film critic for the Independent, for financial support.
Circling a character from enough angles can give as full an account as being inside his mind, and we do learn a lot about Mars-Jones Sr’s character, despite the coolness of the approach. His debt problems, his love of being admired (“Dad had never been uncomfortable with applause”), his vanity (“I was in the room when he had a negotiation with American Express about how many of his honorifics – MBE, LLB – could be crammed onto his Gold Card”), and his ill-temper all come through with plenty of lawyerly evidence. In the first 25 pages, there are three accounts of him demanding the immediate departure from his company of people who have, to his mind, insulted him. One woman whom he had known since her birth committed such an offence at his retirement party, and her apology merely inflamed his self-righteousness to a comic degree. “That,” he responded, “is something you will have to live with for the rest of your life.” The heavy emotional weather with which he buffeted his loved ones means that occasional tender expressions carry great force, as when he sends a postcard from a health club to AMJ, saying “You have always been a rewarding son” – even though the reward, of course, was his.
We get a lot about Mars-Jones Sr’s professional career too, with detailed accounts of cases involving Gilbert O’Sullivan (big in his time for sure, but a name known to me only because a website once told me that he had the number one single on the day of my birth) and Ian Fleming: so at last, thanks to Kid Gloves, I finally know why the non-canon James Bond film Never Say Never Again exists. And while 274 pages largely on the life of someone you’ve never heard of may seem a bit much, and while sometimes it is, there is plenty to attract even the judiciophobic, whether by content – the eternal battle of the generations, the unreliability of memory, the injustices of biography – or by style. AMJ’s tone is funny, intimate, gossipy and rigorous. This does mean, as suggested already, that there is not much obvious emotional wrench to most of the book. AMJ notes early on that “it’s part of my psychology, not perhaps the deepest part but part of what I work up and perform, to take things in my stride, to make out that nothing slows me down or drags me off course.” Later, more explicitly, he acknowledges that “I seem to be portraying myself as someone who dealt with his parents’ deaths comparatively coolly.” He adds “that’s not how I see it, obviously” but resists the temptation to say more.
What we do get, which is particularly welcome in a work that appears ostentatiously unstructured – no chapters, not so much as a line break – is an acceleration, both comic and emotional, in the last quarter. This famously homosexual (I think that’s a fair term) writer’s father had another defining characteristic: he was an out-and-out, as it were, homophobe. This sets up an apt tension for the coming-out-to-Dad scene – New Year’s Eve, 1977 into 1978 – though AMJ defuses it by playing it largely for laughs. And why not, when one of his dad’s considered responses was to recommend that Adam be “initiated into the joys of natural love by an older woman,” adding by way of provenance that the “procedure had done the trick for Prince Charles, though several courses of treatment had been needed to make sure that the cure was fully rooted”?
AMJ does a lot of defusing in Kid Gloves, interjecting chattily, such as his assurance near the end that “I’m not going for a big finish here, more of a syncopated coda effect.” In fact the final paragraphs, bringing back one of the carers who looked after his dad in his final years, are close to symphonic. And despite the disclaimer, the final 30 pages are heavy with earned emotion, as AMJ reports on Michael, the lover he introduced to his dad post-coming-out, and who died later of an Aids-related illness. “He and I had been saying goodbye almost from the moment we met.” It is these scenes which give the book the bulk of its weight. Openness – and nakedness – takes another form throughout, too: AMJ shows himself willing to appear undignified in surprising ways. So roll up if, among everything mentioned above – and the book contains multitudes – you want to picture the future literary critic of The Observer, aged twenty and squatting over a mirror to check if Kurt Vonnegut’s asterisk-shaped illustration of an asshole in Breakfast of Champions really was accurate. (Spoiler: it was.)