My Father's Fortune: A Life

My Father's Fortune: A Life

by Michael Frayn
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My Father's Fortune: A Life by Michael Frayn

Winner of the PEN/Ackerley Prize

Award-winning playwright and novelist Michael Frayn "makes the family memoir his own" (The Daily Telegraph) as he tells the story of his father, Tom Frayn. A clever lad, an asbestos salesman with a winning smile and a racetrack vocabulary, Tom Frayn emerged undaunted from a childhood spent in two rooms with six other people, all of them deaf. And undaunted he stayed, through German rockets, feckless in-laws, and his own increasing deafness; through the setback of a son as bafflingly slow-witted as the father was quick on his feet; through the shockingly sudden tragedy that darkened his life. As Peter Kemp wrote in The Sunday Times (London), "Frayn has never written with more searching brilliance than in his quest for his past."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250002341
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 940,865
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael Frayn is the author of ten novels, including the best-selling Headlong, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist, and Spies, which received the Whitbread Fiction Award. Michael Frayn is also the author of My Father's Fortune: A Life, The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe, Democracy: A Play, A Landing on the Sun: A Novel, The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue and The Trick of It: A Novel. He has also written fifteen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 1999. He lives just south of London.

Read an Excerpt

My Father's Fortune

A Life

By Michael Frayn

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2010 Michael Frayn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1873-2



I see in the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames that the name Frayn in all its various spellings derives from the French fresne, an ash tree. We were dwellers by an ash tree, and the earliest recorded variation is a William de Fraisn in 1156, who had presumably, as some proud families like to boast, "come over with the Conqueror." Our branch of the family, though, arrived only four hundred years or so later, and in less exalted circumstances. We spring not from twelfth-century Norman knights but from a French pirate who was terrorising the Channel in the sixteenth century. He was captured by the English and hanged at Dover. His ship, and the cargo of gold it contained, was impounded, and both ship and gold are being held in Chancery for any Frayn who can prove his descent from the pirate.

I know this because I was told it by my mother one rainy afternoon when I was about six. The story seized my imagination, particularly the solemnity of the phrase "held in Chancery." I had no clear idea of what Chancery was, but I understood that it was something to do with the law and was dark and lofty and inaccessible. I had a picture of a gloomy paneled hall, and in it, propped on trestles, a kind of Viking longship, with the piled gold gleaming amidst the thwarts. I knew it was my task in life to reclaim it. But how would I prove that I was the legitimate heir? What tests would I be put to?

What, for that matter, had my father already done to secure the gold? Nothing, it turned out when I asked him some years later. The reason was simple: because he'd never heard about it. By this time my mother was no longer there to ask, but I suppose she must have made the story up to keep my sister and me entertained on a wet afternoon, just as she sometimes played the violin to us. It had never occurred to me that it didn't make any sense. Why would the pirate have had a son and heir onboard with him as he raged about the Channel? Why would his ship and his illicit hoard be kept for his heirs to claim? Odd, though. The story's so circumstantial and so out of nowhere. I can't recall my mother's ever inventing any other piece of family history — or any other story at all.

More recently, at any rate, so I've discovered from my researches, the Frayns come from the West Country. Satisfyingly unusual as the name is in London, the nineteenth-century census returns for Devon and Cornwall are littered with Frayns, most of the men blacksmiths or locksmiths, most of the women in service. My father's father, Thomas Frayn, was born in Plymouth, the son of a general warehouseman, and rose into the world of small shopkeeping. He began his career as an assistant in a china shop, and married a greengrocer's daughter, Louisa Lavinia Allen (whose mother was illiterate — she had to make her mark when she registered Louisa's birth). Thomas progressed from working in the china shop to owning it. This turned out to be a step too high in the world, though. He apparently drank the profits, the business failed, and at some point in the last decade of the nineteenth century he brought his wife and family to London, where he found work as an assistant once more, in the china department at Whiteleys.

I can't remember now who first told me about the move from Plymouth. Not my father, who never said anything at all about his parents. I've filled out most of the details from the official records, but perhaps I got the story first from my cousin John Frayn Turner, a fellow writer. John, ten years older than me, remembered that our mutual grandmother had a rich Devon accent, and it was certainly he who first told me about our grandfather's weakness for drink. I was about sixty by then, so perhaps he felt I was old enough to be trusted with some of the family's darker secrets.

Thomas and Louisa had four children, three girls and a boy, and the six of them moved into a house in Devonshire Road, Holloway — chosen perhaps because the name reminded them of the old days. The street is a turning off the Seven Sisters Road, part of the early-Victorian development just to the east of the Holloway Road and a cut above the slum streets that have long since been cleared in other parts of the borough. The terraces could pass for Georgian, with small front gardens and trees along the pavement — exactly the kind of street that in other districts developers have gentrified. It's plainly come up in the world a bit since my father's day, but the Seven Sisters Road and the Holloway Road (which flow through the history of the Frayn family like the Tigris and the Euphrates through the history of Mesopotamia) remain mostly working class, and I had the impression that gentrification was still rather hanging fire. I got talking to someone who had been brought up just round the corner from the house my grandparents lived in. He told me that it had always been "a rough old neighborhood," and he catalogued a few of the more interesting local murders.

My grandparents' house had four rooms, apart from the kitchen, and according to the 1901 census there were two other couples also living there. Presumably each of these other couples occupied one of the rooms. So my grandparents and their four teenage children must have been living in the two remaining rooms. Two adults and four adolescents in two rooms — and all ten residents, presumably, sharing the kitchen. Fortunately, all the Frayn children were slight, wispy creatures. And they might have been packed in even tighter. In the next census, in 1911, there's a space for the total number of children born, dead as well as living, and this records two more, born alive but with no names or birth dates.

So this was my first surprise as I looked into my father's origins: quite how poor the family had been. When he at last joined the household, on 29 January 1901, he was the eleventh human being to be fitted into the four rooms, and cooked for and washed for in the communal kitchen. They named him Thomas, like his father, and Allen, after his mother's family. Thomas Allen Frayn. Tom to everyone as a boy, then Tommy to his wife's family in the years to come, and Tom still for some reason to all his colleagues and customers. The Benjamin, with a big brother to look after him and three big sisters to fuss over him, twelve years younger than the youngest of them.

I have only one photograph of him as a baby. He's wearing a bib, and he looks as if he has just made a great discovery — the only thing that he told me about himself in these early years: if you're given bread and cheese you can eat the cheese and chuck the bread under the table. No sooner on to his first solid food than he'd discovered the inklings of the sharpness and cheek that were going to see him through a career of salesmanship and so many of life's waiting difficulties. Parking his car in central London, for example, fifty years after this — leaving it in front of the Air Ministry and telling the attendant "Business with the minister," or in front of the great north door of Westminster Abbey — "Business with the dean."

* * *

My second surprise, as I looked at the 1901 census, came when I understood the significance of the final column in the return. It was to be filled in, it explained at the top, if

(1) Deaf and dumb

(2) Blind

(3) Lunatic

(4) Imbecile, feeble-minded.

And it was filled in. Every single member of the family except for the two-month-old Thomas was tagged with a (1). The entire family were deaf and dumb.

The first thing this shows is how cautiously you have to treat even the most apparently authoritative historical records. I never knew my paternal grandfather, because he died long before I was born, and I don't remember my grandmother, because she died when I was not yet two, but I'm pretty sure that they weren't dumb — and absolutely sure that my father's brother and sisters weren't, because them I did know. Deaf they certainly were, all of them — Nellie, Mabel, George, and Daisy — seriously deaf; I remember the struggle to make them hear anything I said. I was surprised, though, that they were already deaf as children. My father's deafness came on in early middle age. And his brother and sisters can't have been deaf from birth, because their speech wasn't impaired.

Or perhaps Mabel's was a bit, now I come to think of it. She certainly spoke in a strangely hushed way, as if she were in church. So did Daisy. Yes, and Nellie, and George.

What they were all suffering from was presumably, as I have discovered from the Internet, late-onset hereditary deafness, for which apparently the gene has now been discovered, though I'm not quite sure what's happened to it in the three generations since then. A puzzle remains, though. If it's hereditary it's not surprising that one of the parents was also deaf. But both of them! Was this pure coincidence? Or had they been drawn to each other in the first place because of their deafness?

Four deaf children and two deaf parents. This is surprising enough. But one of the other couples sharing the house with them, a draper and his wife, is listed in the same way. The draper was from Devon, like the Frayns, so maybe he was a relative with the same heredity. But his wife, from Berkshire — also deaf! Maybe they, too, had picked each other because of their deafness ... Maybe the two couples had been drawn to share a house because of the similarity of their marital arrangements ... Or was it all just one great escalating coincidence?

Difficult to fathom this. Difficult, too, to imagine my grandfather selling china, and the other tenant drapery, to customers who couldn't make them hear what sort of china and drapery they wanted. More difficult still to imagine what life was like in the house, with two deaf parents, four deaf children, and two other deaf tenants, all either shouting or murmuring inaudibly to one another in the shared kitchen. Mabel must sometimes have made a particularly striking contribution to the proceedings. She was not only deaf but simple (although reputedly sharp at cards) and was said to be often very trying — given to wild outbursts at certain phases of the moon, when she shouted, among other things, that she wanted a man. Every now and then she had to retire to a mental hospital.

And now here's the new baby chucking his food under the table and screaming his lungs out, with his nappies being boiled on the copper ... In the morning everyone trying to get their breakfast, and hot water for shaving, and their clothes pressed and ready for work. All of them wanting the one lavatory, which at that time was presumably a privy in the back garden.

In the only photographs I have of my paternal grandparents the most noticeable things about them are his dignified but somehow weary and defeated gray walrus moustache and her shock of resiliently springy hair. My father never mentioned their deafness, anymore than he said anything else about them. He never mentioned deafness at all in the various stories he told me about his childhood. Nor did he ever complain about the conditions in which he'd been brought up or imply that in our one-family detached house in the suburbs my sister and I were being spoiled by luxury. He made life in Devonshire Road sound convivial, in a traditional working-class way. At Christmas, he said, the entire clan would gather. (How many more are there packed into these two rooms now, and queuing for the lavatory?) They would all bring their music and recitations, sleep overnight in armchairs and on the floor, and take a door off its hinges to make an extension to the dining table. Not a word about none of them being able to hear what the others were reciting or singing.

My cousin's revelation about our mutual grandfather's drinking came long after my father was dead, so it was impossible to ask him what further effect it had had on the family after the loss of the business in Plymouth. I suppose I have to imagine, in that overcrowded kitchen, not just a struggling mother, four adolescent children — one of them raving when the moon is full — four other lodgers and a squalling baby but my grandfather coming home from the pub the worse for wear. The nearest pub, I noted on my walk around the district, was only five doors away, which may have been the amenity that recommended the house to him in the first place. When my grandmother reproached him for never worrying how they were going to manage if he spent all his wages on drink he's supposed to have asked whether it would help at all if he sat down and did worry for thirty minutes.

I look at my grandfather's picture again, and now I see him brushing the foam off that dejected moustache and sucking the last of the beer out of it. I take another look at my grandmother Louisa, who presumably had to keep this overladen ark afloat. Unlike him, I see, she's still managing the ghost of a smile. Just.

* * *

By 1911, when the next census was taken, the house remained almost as overcrowded as before. Nellie, the eldest daughter, who worked as a needlewoman and made dresses for the wardresses in Holloway Prison (so her daughter, Jean, told me), had gone off to get married to an insurance agent, but the other children were all still living at home. George was a compositor, says the census, Daisy a music-roll librarian for a pianola manufacturer, and Mabel a printer's book folder. The deaf draper and his deaf wife are still in residence, but the other family has been replaced by a young nephew, Courtenay, another arrival from Devon, listed as a tailor's cutter. Whether Courtenay was deaf, like the rest of the family, it's impossible to know, because in the 1911 census the disabilities column has been discreetly blanked out, but he shares some of Mabel's other problems. My father — who curiously never mentioned Courtenay's living at Devonshire Road — often talked about visiting him in a mental hospital, where he sat in silence all day watching the hands of the clock go round. Apparently, Courtenay and Mabel were at one point sweet on each other. Whether he reacted in the same way as she did to the phases of the moon I don't know, nor what life in the house must have been like if he did.

The second picture I have of my father as a child shows him at about the age of five, wearing the sailor suit in which small boys were traditionally photographed then. He looks not wispy and self-effacing, like his siblings, but even cockier than he did as a baby. And cocky he was going to remain, for another forty years at any rate.

The only thing he told me about his education is that at the local central school he was given personal tuition in French by a master who perched on the desk in front of him and brought a book down on his head each time he made a mistake. As a teaching technique this was remarkably effective — it knocked every single word of French out of him. I never heard him essay even a humorous "je ne sais quoi." He was also a boy soprano in the local church, and by the time his voice broke he had risen to become head choirboy. This introduction to religion served almost as well as the French lessons did to French. He retained a strong lifelong distaste for every aspect of it.

Something stuck, though, something that gave him a lot of pleasure over the years: the music. Often as we drove somewhere together he would lift up his voice, by this time tenor but still sweet and strong, and sing the soprano line from one of the old oratorios. He knew most of the great Baroque standards, but the aria that he sang over and over again was I think from Stainer's Crucifixion: "Fling wide the ... fling wide the ... fling wide the gates, / For the Saviour awaits ..." Whether he ever got any further than this, to a bit where the gates were at last open and the Savior was admitted, I can't now remember.

* * *

"Smart Lad Wanted." This was the formula with which a lot of job advertisements used to begin. The smartest lad that any employer could ever wish for is now on the labor market: Tom Frayn, leaving school at the age of fourteen and just starting out in the world to help support his family. I have a number of photographs of him taken over the next few years, and you can see — he's as smart as a whip. So handsome, so poised. Three-piece suit, hair slicked straight back, flat against his skull. In one of the pictures he has a nonchalant cigarette between his fingers. In another his adolescent face is crowned by an enormous gray homburg. Already.

His first job is as an office boy in the Hearts of Oak life assurance company in the center of London. Somehow each morning he emerges from the chaos of that tiny kitchen with a clean collar, his suit pressed and his shoes shined, and walks down the road to get the tram. The First World War is in its second year, and Tom Frayn is enjoying the fourth piece of good fortune in his life, though he probably doesn't appreciate it at the time. The first was the quick wits he was born with, the second was the brother and sisters who have made him such a favorite, the third was the mother who has somehow kept the family going — and the fourth is being only fourteen years old and too young to be called up before the war ends.


Excerpted from My Father's Fortune by Michael Frayn. Copyright © 2010 Michael Frayn. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Homburg 1

Part 1

1 Smart Lad 9

2 House of Straw 21

3 Duckmore 41

4 Furniture and Fittings 59

5 Quick/Slow 79

6 Fire Resistance 97

7 A Glass of Sherry 111

Part 2

1 Child Care 137

2 Top to Bottom 159

3 Skylark 181

4 Chez Nous 199

5 Black Dog 219

6 Closer 239

7 Legatees 255

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