Ian Clayton: Mining the past to shed light on who we are

Ian Clayton.
Ian Clayton.
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Ian Clayton’s latest book is a funny and moving journey that delves into his past and present and reunites him with his dying father. Chris Bond went to see him.

THE walls of Ian Clayton’s home near Featherstone are crammed with photographs and paintings.

Some are portraits of music stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Geraldine Farrar, a local big band singer who shot to fame in the 1940s.

Others, like the photo of him running onto the pitch in his final rugby league match and that of his daughter, Billie, who tragically died eight years ago in a canoeing accident, are deeply personal.

Each photograph has a story behind it and if you asked him he could reel off when the picture was taken and recount the tale behind it.

Even his home, a converted church hall where he lives with his partner Heather and son Edward, has a story to tell.

But then Ian Clayton has an unshakeable belief in the power of stories to bring people together, coming as he does from that great tradition of Yorkshire storytellers that includes the likes of Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe and his hero Barry Hines.

In his latest book, Song For My Father, he writes about being reunited with his dying father. Although this wasn’t how the book started out. “I’d got to the stage where I realised I was middle-aged,” he says, rolling a cigarette on his kitchen table. “There’s been novelisations about mid-life crises but I’d never seen a book that was a kind of memoir of middle age, so I started writing about rites of passage. Your political awakening is a rites of passage, so is your first pint of beer and when you beat your grandad at arm wrestling for the first time.”

He started writing about these small, yet very personal, moments in his life. “I had a walk with my grandfather every Saturday morning for years to a pub called The Spread Eagle at Wragby.

“He’d been down the pit all week so he liked to breathe a bit of country air. I would sit on a bench outside of a dark door that led into a snug at this country pub and listen to the clack of dominos and the smell of tobacco coming out and I wondered if one day I’d get invited in.”

Eventually the fateful day came. “I wasn’t invited to play dominos with them, but they let me sit at the table and watch them. Well, me grandad got me drunk and my granny went bloody mad because I was sick,” he says, chuckling at the memory.

“I can remember we’d had four pints. There were four of them in the game of dominos so they all took turns to pay for a round and I said to my grandad, ‘shall I get the next round?’ and he said, ‘well, we haven’t just come for a look round lad’, and he slipped me a quid under the table.”

It was while he was writing these stories that he got a phone call from his youngest brother Andrew, who said his father wanted a word with him.

“He put him on and he says, ‘it’s your father, will tha’ come and see me before I pass t’other side?’ I said ‘aye’ and he said, ‘well look sharp because I’ve only got about six weeks.’”

Ian’s parents had an acrimonious split in the early 1970s and since then Ian had only seen his father three or four times. He’d heard that he had cancer and now doctors had given him just weeks to live, so in January last year he went to see him. “It was an extraordinary meeting,” he says. “I’m confronted with a lot of things that make me think about what I’ve been writing - about me and about middle age.”

His was father was living in a bungalow in a rough part of Hull with his elderly partner.

But he found his father upbeat, in spite of his grim diagnosis. “He’s there laughing and telling stories and jokes. He’s got a pair of psychedelic braces on, a lumberjack shirt that doesn’t fit him because he’s lost that much weight and a pair of trousers that you’d go dancing in,” he says.

Six weeks later he visited him again, this time with his two brothers Andrew and Tony.

“He’s trying to give me all this stuff. He tries to give me metal detector and a painting he bought in Blackpool, except it’s not really a painting but something they’d give away at a bingo hall that makes the sound of rain forests. It was a jungle scene with a waterfall and it lights up and you can hear humming birds.”

But rather than having a meaningful reconciliation with his father, Ian ended up having a series of somewhat surreal encounters with him which he recounts in his book.

“Having started writing a book about rites of passage I’m now writing about the death throes of my father and it became a kind a song to him.”

He admits that his father’s absence as he moved into adulthood affected him. “I looked for father figures. I befriended elderly people when I was young in the hope they would pass some wisdom on to me and I still do it now.”

Father and son relationships are often complicated but the fact Ian’s dad hadn’t been part of his life for so long was a barrier to them becoming close.

“I never talked to him about anything serious because I couldn’t. I just tried to say nice things and he just said daft things back.

“One of the first things he said to me was ‘do you remember when you fell off that donkey in Blackpool?’ And I could remember but it was when I was four or five and he only knew stories about me when I was a boy.

“He didn’t know anything about me. He didn’t know my partner of 35 years, he didn’t know my son and he never met Billie. It’s like I was looking through a window at my old man and I was in the same room as him, and he was dying.”

Ian went to see his father one last time on the eve of a trip to China where he’d been invited to teach to students at a university in Changchun. “He can hardly talk and I know it’s going to be the last time I’ll see him. But I didn’t know what to say.

“I leant over to him and his pyjama button is in my eye and I get my zip caught in his clothing. So I said ‘right, I’m off’ and he looked at me and said ‘don’t forget kid’ and I said ‘what?’ ... ‘Umpa, umpa, stick it up tha’ jumper.’ And those were my father’s last words to me,” he says, laughing almost in disbelief.

In the end his father died just short of his 80th birthday, almost a year after his initial six-week prognosis.

Ian is glad he made his peace with his father and although there is sadness in Song For My Father it isn’t a morose book, it reverberates with warmth, humour and joy and it’s a story people can relate to.

“We all go through rites of passage and all books are about beginnings, middles and endings and I’ve tried to write something about where I’m from because there are enough stories near to where we live that need telling.”

l A limited hardback edition of Song For My Father, numbered and signed by the author, are available from the publisher Route, priced £15 plus p&p. Visit www.route-online.com. The paperback is out in November.

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