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Pater familiar

In his new memoir, Sam Miller unearths a few skeletons in the closet, says family friend Fiona Green

31 March, 2017 — By Fiona Green

Battersea Park football team in 1973 – Tony and Karl are pictured on either side of the goalie

WHAT makes a father? This lovely book poses an important question for all of us.

Shakespeare quotes from Homer’s Odyssey in the Merchant of Venice: “tis a wise child knows his own father”. Other writers alternatively favour the “Collective Evolutionary” school of thought, which maintains that we choose our own parents to fulfil a reincarnated destiny.

Certainly, if true, Sam Miller, the author of Fathers, made a wise choice by having two such extraordinary fathers. For 16 years he grew up with Karl Miller, the famous editor, writer and founder of the London Review of Books as his father, but as he was coming of age was told by his mother that his blood tie was actually to family friend, Tony White, the actor and writer, who had recently died.

I first met Tony White in 1963. He was the closest friend of my husband, Martin Green, collaborator on a guide to London pubs and a frequent visitor to our house in Fitzrovia. Both men played football every Sunday for the literary team Battersea Park. This curious team was made up of writers, editors, journalists and actors. We wives and girlfriends watched lovingly at the touchline. Out of admiration, I even made their football shirts on my kitchen table, emblazoned with the iconic image of Battersea Power Station.

It was on the first of these football visits that I also met Karl Miller whose diffident,witty take on the world made a real impression on me.

In 1969, Martin and I went to see Tony on stage in King Lear. Backstage afterwards, the critic Ken Tynan was among the group congratulating Tony. Tynan’s daughter Tracey recently published her story of the horrors of Tynan family life. In that family – built on the shifting sands of narcissism – there was an absence of love and care, which is in stark contrast to the strong love in the Miller household.

Loyalty can be a problem when writing about one’s family for public consumption. There is an emotional complexity to this genre, and Sam has broken some real taboos. But my question still remains unanswered: what did Karl Miller think and feel about the parentage of his son by his good friend and his wife? Unquestionably, Karl dearly loved Sam as his son and he remained married to his wife. Was that in part because of his own early loss of his parents, who had left him to the care of a grandmother in 1930s Edinburgh? In the context of these pages it seems almost voyeuristic and disloyal to ask.

Loyalty to my own parents was once also tested to the limit, and so I understand and admire Jane Miller’s decision to keep her child.

The book is a testament to love in its truest sense, and Karl Miller emerges as the chevalier of this memoir.

Tony White, our close friend, meanwhile manages – yet again – to remain the romantic, charismatic and elusive person we knew and loved, defying definition to the end of this fascinating tribute.

• Fathers. By Sam Miller, Jonathan Cape, £14.99.

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