When my dad, Terry Doonan, died last week, a friend said, “He must have been so proud of you,” to which I replied, “No. Not so much.”
Fortunately for me, my dad and I were best friends, and best friends have no need to throw bouquets at one another. If I had to pick a word to describe his feelings or attitude toward me, I think “bemused” would probably best cover it. Terry was bemused when, at age 16, I threatened to sell my body on the Rive Gauche in Paris. He was bemused when, two years later, I asked him to drive me and my tranny best friend to a drag ball, “so that we don’t get beaten up by skinheads.” At the time, I was wearing a Marilyn Monroe 1950’s swimsuit and fishnets.
Terence Sydney Doonan’s detached approach to child-rearing contrasts dramatically with the efforts of today’s relentlessly helicoptering parents.
“It’s your life; it therefore behooves you not to bollocks it up” was about as specific as it ever got with Terry.
He was an unconventional bloke, an unwittingly sophisticated mixture of irreverence and intelligence that belied his lack of university education and his deprived upbringing. When he was in the R.A.F.—he joined up at the tender age of 15—he would return back to his base in India, after dropping bombs on Japanese trading vessels, loosen his ascot, light up a pipe and listen to scratchy classical-music 78’s. When he worked for the BBC as a Russian news monitor during my childhood, he smoked through a cigarette holder and palled around with other journalists from far-flung lands. A typical Saturday would find Terry, sans ascot, half-drunk on his own homemade elderberry plonk, mending his motorbike, covered in oil, and getting all weepy over a Maria Callas radio broadcast.
Cultivated yet practical, Terry hailed from an era when being able to fix things was an important part of being a chap. He was good with his hands. When I was about 10 years old, he painstakingly built a two-seater plywood canoe from scratch and lowered it out of the top floor of the house which we shared with all of his deranged relatives—oops, I mean our deranged relatives.
The saga of Terry’s family has more than a whiff of Dickens about it. Things started to unravel early for Terry when his dad committed suicide.
His mum subsequently went bonkers and had a lobotomy. He spent much of his childhood watching over his two brothers, Vivian and Kenneth.
Ere long, poor Kenneth followed granny into the land of the daft. No wonder Terry lacked all the usual preconceived notions about parenting!
Growing up, I was less than pleased with Terry’s somewhat avant-garde decision to turn our residence into a lunatic asylum. We already had my blind Aunt Phyllis and various lodgers—why did Terry think it was O.K. to inflict his batty mum and brother on the rest of us? Now I understand that he was merely performing what my Jewish husband calls a “mitzvah”: Our in-laws lodged with us—and I’m now glad they did—because he did not want them rotting in some grim state mental institution.
Back to Terry’s anti-bourgeois parenting style and its role in the creation of moi: I maintain to this day that Terry’s lack of traditional expectations was a truly great gift. I never felt for one single moment—especially when I was wearing a Marilyn Monroe swimsuit—that he was ever attempting to live vicariously through me. My dad always left me with a crystal-clear feeling that I, unlike the over-parented sons and daughters of today, would always own my own accomplishments. (He threw in my flops and fuck-ups for good measure.)
Also denied to the young ’uns of today: Terry accepted the fact that I was a big screaming poofter without making a big deal out of it. Ever the perfect fag-stag, he never failed to welcome both my fag and fag-hag friends to his home and heart.
Like my ballsy mum Betty—she predeceased my dad by seven years—Terry definitely qualifies as a member of Tom Brokaw’s so-called Greatest Generation. But somehow he managed to be totally great without ever turning into a bombastic asshole. He may or may not have been proud of me, but I was definitely proud of his lack of assholism.
R.I.P., Terry Doonan. I will miss you.
If you feel moved by this column and are inclined to make a gesture of solidarity, then I have an idea for you. Think David Niven—run out and buy an ascot. It was Terry’s signature. Let’s take this reviled male accessory and put it up where it belongs.