Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir by Alan Cumming

9781782115458_1I’m not usually one for celebrity autobiographies. There are so many of them, generally with very little to say. Every so often, though, one comes along that seems to sit apart from the rabble. In this case, I was already a fan of Alan Cumming and liked his attitude to life – in as much as you can pick these things up from afar – and I’d already read his novel Tommy’s Tale and rather enjoyed it. I knew he could write.

Not My Father’s Son is not your bog-standard celebrity book. Not only can Cumming write – and this book was written by him, not a ghost – but he also has a fascinating, though at times sad, story to tell.

The book opens with a young Alan at home with his mother, father, and brother at the north-east Scotland estate where his dad runs the sawmill. It is dinner time, and out of nowhere, Alan’s father tells at him that he needs a haircut. This may not sound especially out of the ordinary, but it is actually the precursor to a terrifying evening of emotional and physical abuse that ends up with Alan being held down on a table in a barn and having his head roughly shorn by his father. Such events were not uncommon in the Cumming household, with Alan, his brother Tommy, and mother (who Alan refers to throughout by her full maiden name, Mary Darling) living in fear of his father’s violent temper.

Interwoven with chapters covering his childhood, Alan speak of the almost-present day. By 2010, Alan was the outgoing actor that we all know and love. He had long since broken off contact with his father (as had his mother and brother) and was living happily between the UK and America with his husband, Grant. He tells raucous, hilarious stories about being on stage at a charity auction in Cannes with Patti Smith and Mary J. Blige while chaos reigns behind the scenes, no one knows what’s going on, and Alan is left holding the mic. He writes about how much he loves an airline lounge and his ritual Bloody Mary before a flight. You can tell how grateful he is for his bizarre, amazing life as it is now.

Then, he was approached to take part in the BBC’s popular genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? If you’ve not seen it, although if you’re in the UK you doubtless have, celebrities are taken back through branches of their family tree, unraveling secrets and unknown identities in the process. Cumming jumped at the opportunity to take part, especially because there were long-standing family rumours about the fate of his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling, who didn’t come back from the Second World War.  The way the show works is that a number of celebs are approached, and if they give permission, their family trees are delved into to see if there is anything interesting enough to warrant an hour’s television. (Pity the poor stars who are told that their ancestors are too bog-standard to bother with.) Alan was told there was indeed an interesting story here, and he’d need to have his passport ready. Oh, and go and get these specific vaccinations before travel. He looked up the vaccinations online, and they were associated with travel to the far east, particularly Singapore and Malaysia. He and his mother got excited about perhaps uncovering a whole host of new Asian relatives.

Life has a habit of throwing cruel twists at you. Just days before Alan was due to start filming Who Do You Think You Are? he got a frantic call from his older brother. Their father had been in touch, with somewhat of a bombshell. Their father had told Tommy that Alan was not his biological son.

So, Alan finds himself on a dual journey. Who was his maternal grandfather, and was he really killed in a “shooting accident” as the family had been told? And what was the truth about Alan’s own parentage? How do you go back and face the demons of a physically abusive father, who may not have been your father at all?

Cumming tells these stories without resorting to any “woe-is-me” misery. He is straightforward, honest, and open with his readers, and it makes for unputdownable reading. Or listening, in my case, as I chose the unabridged audio book, read by Alan himself. I’m so glad I did, because he really made the whole book come alive (and I can never get enough of his lilting north-east Scotland accent).

Not My Father’s Son is a deeply moving memoir, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed the odd tear, though I wish it hadn’t been on the bus.

Alan Cumming: Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2014). Available in paperback, eBook, and audio book.

5 comments on “Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir by Alan Cumming

  1. Jackie
    November 30, 2015

    Your enthusiasm is wonderful and this sounds like an excellent, if occasionally harrowing memoir. It’s really amazing that the author grew up to be such a cheerful and insightful person, coming from that sort of upbringing. You’ve got me curious at how the ancestral story turns out, so I may read it sooner than anticipated. I bet the audiobook was a treat!

  2. Eve Harvey
    November 30, 2015

    I loved this memoir! I went to see Alan Cumming in coversation with Ian Rankin this year at the Edinburgh Book Festival and he was just as warm, witty and lovely as I’d thought he’d be. Afterwards I queued for a long time to ask him to sign my book, practicing in my head all the witty stuff I’d come out with when it was my turn. And then I did that thing when you freeze as soon as you’re face to face. So I said that to him, “Oh shit, I’ve just frozen in terrified celebrity awe” and he went “Rawwwwrrr” with scary clawed hand movements…and then smiled this massive warm smile. And I loved him! 🙂

  3. Lisa
    December 2, 2015

    Brilliant review. I’ve long admired Alan Cumming and will buy this ASAP. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Caroline
    July 15, 2016

    a really fabulous read! I want everyone to read it. I heard him talk about it on BBC Scotland – the interview was hilarious, particularly the bit about Patti Smith at Cannes – I loved him years ago on ‘The High Life’ – if you haven’t seen it you might be able to get it on youtube. Camp magic, but the book is way more than that.

  5. Pingback: You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams – Alan Cumming | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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