My grandfather Norman’s childhood was brutal. His father abandoned him for a new life in the United States, then his mother tried to murder him. The trauma he experienced at the hands of his own parents affected his entire family.
Becoming a father terrified me: how can you pass on the best of yourself to your children, and not the worst? It’s the question that hangs over my first book, A Line of Blood, a twisty psychological suspense novel about a London family who love each other and who want to be good, but who do the most terrible things.
I remember my grandpa Norman as a gentle man, a minister of religion, preaching peace from his pulpit in the Congregationalist Church. But my dad and my uncle remember their own childhood; they remember Norman’s depressions, his nightmares, and his rages. They also remember the beatings that came with those rages. My father told me Norman was consumed by something that was beyond his control.
We know that trauma can be handed down the generations and upbringings don’t come much more traumatic than my grandfather’s. Those angry beatings he visited on his sons didn’t come from nowhere.
Norman’s father, my great-grandfather Frederick McPherson, survived the trenches of the First World War and went on to become a world-class swordsman; he taught the young Louis Mountbatten to fence. He was fencing master at Eton and at Sandhurst. He was an elegant man, lithe and strikingly handsome, though he never lost his rough London accent. There is a beautiful piece of slow-motion footage here of Frederick demonstrating rapier play in 1923.
On screen he seems to epitomize chivalry and courtly values, but as a father, Frederick was an utter failure. He confused and terrified Norman. He once told his young son to close his eyes because he was going to show him a magic trick.
Imagine the delicious intimacy of the moment, the excited suspension of disbelief; imagine the boy’s eyes tightly shut. Magic…
Perhaps Frederick had been brutalized by his own father. Perhaps the mechanized slaughter of the war turned his mind. Or perhaps there’s no clear point of origin, and the violence in our family goes further back. It hardly matters. What we do know is that Frederick was a tyrant and that what he showed my grandfather that day was the opposite of magic.
Frederick burned Norman on the palm of his hand with a cigarette. Flesh-and-blood. This was a lesson, he said. A lesson? Yes. You must never trust anyone, “not even your own father.” There were other tricks with walls and moved ladders. “Close your eyes, son. I’ll catch you.” He never did.
The traumatic trigger
Frederick abandoned his family for a new life in the United States. He became fencing coach at Princeton and later at a private school in New York; by the late 1930s, he was living in Manhattan with a new common-law wife.
I don’t know why Frederick left, but the effect on the family was immediate: it devastated them; it made them homeless. Norman’s mother, Hilda, sent her son to beg from Frederick’s wealthy “friends and acquaintances.” None of them would help. With her husband gone and with no money coming in, my great-grandmother had few choices: she became a cook for well-to-do families.
By the time of the attempted murder, Norman’s sisters had left home. My grandfather was sixteen and living with his mother in a country house near Builth Wells in Powys, Wales. Hilda had smuggled him into her quarters in secret. She would only allow him out to take the air in the dead of night, while the owners were asleep. They must not know he was there.
Hilda began drinking heavily. She suffered some sort of mental breakdown. One day she set upon my grandfather with a kitchen implement — a knife or a pair of scissors — and tried to kill him.
It’s hard to imagine the trauma of being attacked by the woman who gave you life, to know that your own mother wishes you dead.
Norman escaped — none of us would be here otherwise — and Hilda was committed to Abergavenny Asylum on 12th January 1928. She died there 29 years later.
Norman did not tell his sons about his own parents until he was in the last years of his life. He could have kept quiet, though I’m glad he didn’t: it would have been so much harder to understand the anger and the beatings.
But what does any of this have to do with my own life and with my novel A Line of Blood?
A Line of Blood
My father never beat me: that took huge strength of character, and I’ll always be grateful. He and his brothers made a conscious decision to break a chain of violence: they would not pass on the damaging parts of Norman’s legacy to us; they would pass on the good things.
My grandfather taught my father to fish; my father taught me, and I have taught my own son: there’s a chain there, too, but it’s a chain of love, expressed through the doing of simple things, father to son, parent to child.
But what would have happened, I wondered, in a family where no one had consciously broken the chains of a violent past?
Which leads me to the fictional family in A Line of Blood, to their tiny house in the very worst part of London, and to the corpse that’s waiting for them in the house next door…