This is an unsettling book. On the face of it a memoir by the opera critic of the Daily Telegraph, it veers from social history to intimate confessional, from objective understanding to subjective contempt, with strong elements of hatefulness.
In the summer of 1959 the author’s father, a prominent journalist and son of Arthur Christiansen, Beaverbrook’s great editor of the Daily Express, left the family to live with (and eventually to marry and have a family with) his secretary. What Christiansen describes in his book is the fall out from this act of betrayal. The subtitle includes ‘love’, which must refer to the son’s love for his mother.
Time’s arrow, travelling in the one direction, means that sons have the advantage over their fathers (when was the last no-holds-barred memoir by a father of his son?) and, as a rule, generally being dead, fathers have no right to reply. Here, so strong is the son’s sympathy for his mother and contempt for his father that the reader longs to hear the other side of the story. But after his parents’ divorce Christiansen never saw his father, and did not attempt to make contact in later life (Michael Christiansen died in 1984). It makes for the odd silence at the heart of the book. ‘It is as though I have locked a granite door,’ writes Christiansen in the midst of a rich paragraph of similes and metaphors emphasising the fact.
At the same time it is the picture of an eccentric, engaging man that emerges through the words of the father’s contemporaries. As editor of the Daily Mirror he hired John Pilger, tireless apologist for any enemy of the West, on the grounds that he was Australian and likely to be a useful spin bowler.
While maintaining that he did not seek his father out because he ‘didn’t care’, it is obvious that Christiansen has been burdened all his life (‘a knapsack of unfinished business’) by the mystery of why his father left so apparently wonderful a wife as Kathryn Lyon. And although he does his objective best to qualify his passion for this undoubtedly characterful woman, he sees no grey area, no possibility that his father’s actions may have been understandable if not forgivable.
Towards the end of the book he writes: ‘I don’t know of anyone in comparable middle-class peace-time circumstances who did what my father did.’ Although leaving your wife with a baby and a four-year-old child is undoubtedly deplorable and rare, this is a shade hyperbolic and rather unworldly. There is hyperbole, too, in the use of Medea and Macbeth as analogies for his parents’ story, which suggests a melodramatic strain in the author’s make-up. Too much opera perhaps?
It is cruel to be flip, however, because quite clearly this knapsack has weighed a ton, and this book’s failure to unpack it (admitted by the author) leaves the reader saddened on Christiansen’s behalf, hopeful that he can shed his load and indeed ‘move on’.
I Know You’re Going to be Happy is a love song to the author’s mother. He blames his father (and the conformists of the much-loathed Petts Wood, the model 1920s garden suburb in which Christiansen was brought up) for the miseries of his mother’s subsequent life. Christiansen believes she died in something like despair, and this book, which, given its brevity, takes a long time to deliver, does, in the end, make his heartbreak evident. Nonetheless, the unsettling feeling remains that this is an opera short of one important aria.