I wrote this in 2010: the opening to a 50,000 word memoir which I completed but have still not tried to publish. At that point, seven novels in, I thought I had renounced fiction for good. Or fiction had renounced me. You never can tell.
“Human beings across the globe expend staggering amounts of time and resources on creating and experiencing fantasies and fictions. The human fascination with fiction is so intense that it can amount to a virtual addiction.” (Denis Dutton The Art Instinct 2009)
1 Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself
Hello, my name is Haydn Middleton and for the last 32 years I have suffered from a strange compulsion. It’s not just me. Millions of us worldwide are in the same boat – although very few of the others appear to mind. I for one have had enough. So here in full public view I plan to confront my demons with a view to laying them finally to rest.
2 Setting the Decoy
What image does the word ‘decoyman’ conjure up for you? Someone creating a diversion at a bank heist? Or a footballer shaping to take a free kick – ‘feinting’ – then letting a team mate ping the ball in from a different angle? Decoy: the selling of a dummy.
Those are both decoymen for sure. But the first ones go further back. In Holland at least as far back as the 1500s. Decoys were big hoop-and-net traps for catching wild ducks. A decoyman was the estate worker who set them up. Once the ducks were caught he would snap their necks ‘artistically’ so well-heeled people could eat them without getting a mouthful of lead shot. That was in the old days. In more recent times he would just put a ring on their leg and let them go. If you already knew all that, forgive me. But I can’t imagine knowing it myself if my own East Anglian father hadn’t been one.
When people used to ask me what line of work dad was in – a commonplace question faced by children in the 1960s – they would look blank when I answered. As this might indicate, my inquisitors weren’t country folk themselves. For while dad was netting mallards, teal and widgeon by the truckload in rural Norfolk I was growing up with my paternal aunt and 2 much older sisters on the outskirts of Wolverhampton.
It would be satisfying to say today that dad passed on to me all the mysteries of decoy work. In other families this did happen. The Skeltons of Lincolnshire and the Williamses of Cambridgeshire were decoying dynasties that persisted for centuries. But as a boy I felt blessed that dad saw me as no sort of protege. Never cut out to be an educator, he barely had enough patience to wait for his bacon to turn brown before guzzling it straight out of the pan. His series of working dogs scared the life out of me too. ‘Pipers’ dad called them, snappy little terriers or Labradors who lured ducks into the ‘pipes’ of netting he rigged up over narrowing artificial channels that fanned out from the lake.
Annually from the age of 6 I spent a week of my school holidays out east with him. This went on until I left home for Teacher Training College in 1973, the year of dad’s first arrest. Intermittently too he would clatter across country to us in his filthy Ford Cortina – without his current piper if we were in luck. That would tend to be during the summer months since decoying was primarily a winter activity, while for the rest of the year dad ticked over as a gamekeeper. He would come to us, there would be bitter arguments, he would go – like the ducks a kind of migrant himself, our fiery summer visitor.
My aunt’s dislike of dad ran deep but I was too inhibited to ask why. My sisters were not and whatever they learned made them refuse to accompany me on those dozen holiday weeks in Norfolk – although later they hinted it was not related to what dad in due course went down for. I can only assume it involved our mother. For unlike me, my sisters were both old enough to remember her, and her disappearance from all our lives not long after my 2nd birthday had never been coherently explained.
I have no idea how much dad contributed towards our upkeep in suburban Staffordshire. He led an almost primitive existence at his tied cottage. But I don’t imagine working duck traps paid particularly well and whatever he saved on electricity, shoe soles and running water can’t have allowed him to send much spare cash our way. Not, as it transpired, that duck decoying was all he got up to in and around Norwich. This was the locale where he ensnared in his criminal net, among other innocent victims, the parents of the schoolboy Philip Pullman: something which would come back to mortify me 40 years later when my own professional path became entwined with that of the peerless children’s storyteller.
Dad never, in fact, called himself a decoyman. Certainly not to me and I am sure never during his brief phase of public notoriety. For a man who spent a lifetime deceiving people, a job description like that would have been too piquant for any reporter not to jump on. But by the latter part of the 20th century the term like the job was no longer widespread; as early as the 1880s writers were describing decoying as a dying art. Yet long after dad was sentenced I heard from his 3rd or arguably 4th wife that he went about his work in a resolutely traditional way – continuing, for example, to use smoking lumps of peat to stop the ducks from picking up his own smell before he strode into in the pipe’s mouth to block off any attempt at escape. As far as I am aware, though, he never wore a coat of scarlet – a colour once believed to cow the birds into inactivity.
But I picture him now in just such a scarlet coat whenever he crosses my mind – as still he does every day. I have no truer visual record of him except an improbable yellowing newsprint photo taken at a gymkhana dance c.1969. In this cutting he stands well-groomed and handsome in a white tuxedo but almost violently foreshortened – like a middle-aged Bryan Ferry who has just been unpacked from too small a crate.
I do however have a photo he took of me, aged 6 on Cromer beach when I stayed with him the first time. He caught me on the point of throwing a pebble at the sea. Briefly beforehand, I remember, he tried to show me how to skim them over its surface. How this picture came into my possession I don’t know. I keep it here on the bureau at which I sit to mark my pupils’ essays, next to a small pebble – mottled fawn and grey, shaped something like a clog – that I brought back from a visit 8 years later to the same beach.
It’s hard for me to forget that visit now, or the night that preceded it. All week dad had been sleeping poorly, in the smaller back bedroom into which he moved whenever I came. Through the wall I listened to him toss and turn, then his light would snap on and I would catch the thin sweet smell of his roll-ups. That night he seemed less restless but shortly before dawn he woke himself – and me – with such a cry. Somewhere between a roar and a groan, it seemed to spiral up from the very bowels of the cottage. What I pictured as I leapt out of bed was some great beast of the forest being dragged down by a pack of dad’s pipers.
I didn’t go into his room. From his doorway I saw he had swung himself around to crouch on the edge of his bunk. The off-white of his vest heaved in the dark as he stooped forward. ‘A dream, just a dream…,’ he panted less to me than himself, clutching at the back of his head. ‘A dream about your mum…’
‘Mum…,’ I murmured. Still half-asleep and quaking from the shock of his cry, in any other circumstance I would never have dared say more. But before I knew what I was doing the words were out of me: ‘Where is mum?’ I asked. ‘Where did she go?’
His upper body turned my way. He dropped his hands. ‘Do you want to know?’ he breathed – as if any such desire defied belief. ‘Because only I can give you the truth, no matter what anyone else says. You want that, do you? Are you ready for it?’
I didn’t say yes or no. Aged 14 I was barely ready for anything. But I thought – or dreaded – he might tell me anyway. Instead he heaved himself back on to his bunk, cleared his throat and turned away. Next day we drove with his piper to Cromer where I picked up my clog-shaped pebble. We never spoke of my mother again. But dad was not the only person who could give me the truth. It has taken me years but now I have it: a truth I can only thank dad for sparing me when I was 14 – and one that at 54 I am still not convinced I can live with.
I call my father a decoyman because that’s exactly what he had to be. This is his story as well as mine and my mother’s, and – thanks to its sombre later twist – Philip Pullman’s too. It might even in some larger sense turn out to be yours.
Or it might if it were true. Even fictionally true.
Which it isn’t.
3 Ersatz Alchemy
That wasn’t the start of a misery memoir or novel. Nor even a novel dressed up as a misery memoir. It was the start of nothing at all. My real and once highly-present dad was a joiner-turned-builder from the Rhondda Valley. I don’t know what crimes my made-up decoy dad was supposed to have committed. I never thought it through that far.
But nothing at all can be based on real somethings. Decoymen do stand near the ball and feint at free kicks and it’s true that I left home in 1973. Then there’s the historical detail about duck decoying. I assume that’s gospel. It comes from an attractive little 40-page booklet ‘Duck Decoys’ by Andrew Heaton (Shire Publications, Princes Risborough, 2001).
A week or so ago on the Bank Holiday I bought a copy at Compton Verney, the Warwickshire stately home. I’d driven up from Oxford through spitty rain with Decca to visit the art gallery there. A new exhibition was exploring themes prompted by Titian’s painting of Actaeon the hunter caught looking at the naked goddess Diana. (Although sadly the painting itself wasn’t in the show – so in this case a nothing formed the basis of a something.)
The gallery shop often throws up some worthwhile little souvenir or other. I’m not as artistically-minded as Decca so I usually go in for a browse even before viewing the art. This time ‘Duck Decoys’ caught my eye and I paid my £4.99. Then we took a turn around the exhibition. We had some tea and a Bakewell slice, ran into a former teacher of a couple of our children from our former marriages, then we went home. So far, so unexceptional. Lots of middle-aged couples do things like that on Bank Holiday Mondays. It doesn’t even have to be a Bank Holiday. It’s what happened next that matters.
For while Decca did the ironing and made spaghetti carbonara I put the TV on. Eric Clapton was playing a reunion concert with Steve Winwood. For music fans of my age this pair are gods – and whereas Actaeon was turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own dogs for daring to peek at his deity, I had carte blanche to stare at mine enraptured for an hour. But I didn’t just stare at the screen. While listening I also flicked through ‘Duck Decoys’ and underlined a number of passages, because once again my bug was biting. I was slipping into the routine I had followed ever since I took a running jump out of the advertising industry as a 22-year-old in mid-1977. I was back on my ersatz alchemical quest.
Proper alchemists, as you’ll know, aimed to transform base metal into gold. My project was to take the world as I found it and try to transform it – via fiction – into my world; turn the base metal of everyday common-or-garden experience into storytelling gold. And right away decoys looked a promising base metal. Decoy – good word, good sound, plus the bonus in the booklet’s text of ‘decoyman’ which came complete with its own subtext: smoke and mirrors, fakery, unreliable narrators. All meat and drink to the postmodern novelist.
Get something down, I told myself. Use your own life as a time-frame. Whet their appetites. (I’ll come back to who ‘they’ are.) While you’re about it, drop in a surefire marquee name. (And yes, in real life Philip Pullman and I have exchanged Christmas cards for years and nothing whatever about him mortifies me.) In the following days I wrote and rewrote my 5 pages. A prologue. A preface. A setting out of my stall. But as ever there was more to it. Nothing if not a Method Novelist, I immediately got into character. I became that timid boy living with 2 sisters in Wolverhampton. I dragged poor Decca off to a duck decoy museum at Boarstall in Buckinghamshire. Whenever I wasn’t at my desk – which wasn’t often – I began to eat, think and sleep in the manner of the son of a criminal decoyman.
For 32 long years I had been trying to transform like this. With age you’re meant to grow out of your daydreams. I grew into mine. And what did I have to show for these 32 years? For 12 years in the middle I did get paid for my fabrications. But for the 10 before and the 10 after, I didn’t. That’s 2 decades with no financial return. ‘Which comes first?’ people used to ask George Gershwin’s lyricist brother and collaborator Ira, ‘The music or the words?’ ‘The contract,’ he would say. No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
Then yesterday I had my Road to Damascus moment. When I went back and took a cold-eyed look at Daddy was a Decoyman, and at that point I decided: No More.
As Damascus moments go, it was low key; maybe because (as the matchday commentators say when the first Chelsea goal of the afternoon hits the net) it had been coming. Damascus is seldom about a single moment. Even Saul had to be on that road in the first place, and once he got to Damascus he had to wait 3 days for Ananias to restore his sight.
I’d been on my own road a long time. Thirty two years. At last though the dream is over. The nightmare. The sometimes seriously risky dream or nightmare. I was the world’s biggest blockhead but now I’ve seen the light and given up fiction.
And I’m not sure where that leaves me…