'Father's Fortune' A Wealth Of Humility And Humor Acclaimed writer Michael Frayn has written a memoir about his father, a self-made roofing salesman who overcame deafness, widowhood and the two world wars. The fortune that he left behind for his son was not one of material riches, but rather a legacy of resilience, healthy skepticism and humor.
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'Father's Fortune' A Wealth Of Humility And Humor

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'Father's Fortune' A Wealth Of Humility And Humor

'Father's Fortune' A Wealth Of Humility And Humor

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

When Michael Frayns father died at a hospice in 1970, workers there brought him a box holding what his father had left behind: A pair of socks and slippers and a toilet bag; some candy, cards, spectacles, a signet ring, a watch and a hearing aid.

Forty years later, Michael Frayn now writes about what he cherishes as his fathers legacy: His humor, his skepticism, his struggles and sacrifice.

Michael Frayn, the acclaimed poet, novelist and playwright has written a memoir, "My Fathers Fortune." He joins us from London.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL FRAYN (Author, "My Fathers Fortune"): Nice to be here.

SIMON: What moved you to write about your father now?

Mr. FRAYN: It was my children. My children, all middle-aged, said to me we really don't know very much about our grandparents. My eldest daughter said, we feel as if we have arisen from an unknown place. Why don't you write down what you can remember about your father while you can still remember it?

So, I was very reluctant to start. I thought it was going to be rather a chore, rather at the pious chore. But in fact, once I got started, I got more and more emotionally involved in it. And it became a really major emotional experience and really affected me a great deal.

SIMON: Help us remember your parents. Your father was named Tom; handsome, good dancer, and had to work from the age of 14.

Mr. FRAYN: One of the reasons that he had to work from the age of 14 was that he had a very feckless father. That's one of the things I discovered when I was researching the book, his father had been a drinker. And my father got to go out and try and earn some money to keep the family going, keep his mother going.

And he fell in love with my mother when they were both very young - when he was 18 and my mother was still 14. But they had to wait for 11 years to get married, because he felt he couldn't get married until he was no longer responsible for supporting his mother.

And he was set - some really quite severe problems. He was also deaf; he and all his siblings became deaf as adults. My father went deaf in middle life. He worked as a salesman, continued to work as a salesman even though he was very deaf. And how he did that, how he faced the customers every day when he couldn't hear what they were saying, I really don't know.

SIMON: You have a wonderful description when you talk about his deafness, about how he...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...how he just managed to do all the talking. That was one way of evading the problems of deafness.

Mr. FRAYN: Maybe that's an advantage for a salesman to be deaf. I don't know. Maybe the customers saying no, no, we don't want your roofing - no, just take it away. And he couldn't hear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Would it be safe to say that you didn't exactly impress her family with either your scholastic or athletic prowess?

Mr. FRAYN: No, I didn't. My father, his passion in life was sport, particularly cricket. He loved watching cricket. And what he really wanted was a son who was a sportsman, preferably a cricketer, preferably a batsman. And I was hopeless at it and he tried to coach me in the garden. And I just couldn't hit the ball. I couldn't catch the ball. So I was a great disappointment to him.

And one of the themes of the book is how very slowly over the years, he agreed to accept the idea that I was relatively good at some subjects at school and agreed to see that as my succeeding in some kind of way.

SIMON: How did your family get by during the war? I mean you lived through the Blitz.

Mr. FRAYN: Yes, we did, right? One of the bits of fortune - my father - the book is called "My Father's Fortune," and one of his bits of good fortune is that he was too young for the First World War, and too old for the Second World War. But we were in the outer suburbs so we didn't suffer in the way that the East End, the center of London did. But we did get a flying bomb, the V-1s.

And on the very first night of the V-1s, one came just over the roof of our house, missed it by a few feet, hit the hillside just up the road and killed everyone in the house it came down on, and did a lot of damage to our house and all the other houses on our street - which we felt was marvelous.

It was like a kind of early Christmas; everything was special. There was no front door. There were no windows in the house. There was a great hole in the roof.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAYN: But when I think about it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAYN: ...it must have been hell for my parents. All the carpets full of plaster dust and broken glass. I don't know if they ever got it out.

SIMON: You did - your family, your father did make certain that you have bomb shelter though, didn't he?

Mr. FRAYN: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAYN: ...yes. Well, one of the few things he spent his money on was a shelter in the garden. But what he hadn't taken into consideration is that if you dig a hole in the ground, it fills with water. And we only ever used the shelter once because after that it was just a stagnant pool, and you couldnt conceivably, or plainly, much more dangerous getting into the shelter than staying in the house in the raids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAYN: But he had a very smart idea because he thought what do we need? We need food in the war. We need eggs. Everyone else was buying chickens and getting chicken eggs but he thought what kind of creature likes water? Ducks. So we acquired some ducks and they lived in this armored duck pond...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAYN: ...the rest of the war and they provided us with eggs.

SIMON: I guess you were about 13, Britain survives, wins out in this long tragic, terrible struggle, and then one day your life changes.

Mr. FRAYN: Yes. I was 12, you know, it was just after the end of the war, my mother suddenly died, heart attack and very painful for all of us. But what I never thought about before was the problems - the practical problems is that my father because he had to find some way of getting my sister and me looked after. And those next few years were very grave for my sister and me, and it must have been terrible for my father. He was very grief-stricken, his life had fallen apart, but he also had this terrible, practical problem.

SIMON: How did your father regard your writing career the early success that you begin to have?

Mr. FRAYN: I rather think it was my father that got me into writing in the first place, because when I was about six or seven years old, I wrote an essay at school, "The House I Should Like To Live In When I'm Grown Up." My father read it and said to me, perhaps you ought to be a journalist. But it maybe it lodged at the back of my mind, maybe it's one of the things that made me interested in writing and turn to writing.

But the curious thing was when I actually started working as a journalist, when I left university, I got a job as a reporter, and he never bought the newspaper I worked for, and it was years before he admitted that he had read anything that I had written.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAYN: Well, it was the style then. You were not supposed to make them it was thought that you would make them big-headed if you encouraged them too much. So my father didn't confess to reading anything of mine really, until I was in my 30s and then I wrote some newspaper articles some reporting pieces that he liked about Cuba, and he rang up and said, well, you ought to do more of this. And I said well, that's what I've been doing ever since I left the university.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Besides the socks, the slippers, the signet ring, the hearing aid, what did your father leave you, Mr. Frayn?

Mr. FRAYN: Well, one thing he left me I think his professional resource was his sense of humor. It was a professional resource for him because he used it as a way of getting around his deafness, and I think I picked up that habit of joshing people. And I think I inherited his skepticism, yeah, maybe his skepticism his indifference to systems of belief. He was not a believer in either religious systems or political systems or whatever. And he gave me, I think, a stable childhood and a happy life. He couldn't help the death of my mother, but he did his best to get around that and to keep the home going. The longer I live, the more grateful I am for that.

SIMON: Michael Frayn. His new book, a memoir is My Father's Fortune.

Mr. Frayn, thanks so much.

Mr. FRAYN: Thank you very much.

SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from Michael Frayns memoir on our website, npr.org.

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