In recent years I have been afflicted by the condition known as AALS. For those of you unfamiliar with Wittertainment, Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome causes me to cry uncontrollably at almost any film on planes. Prior to becoming a dad, I had all the emotional response of a carbonised herring. Schindler’s List; Hotel Rwanda; Bambi – all of these are great films, but I watched them without shedding even a solitary tear. With the birth of my son, I have turbo-blubbed at Finding Dory, hyper-sobbed at Captain Fantastic, and even managed to uber-weep at Eddie the Eagle. The slightest reference to parent-child relationships makes my lips wobble like Mick Jagger channelling his inner octopus.
I am therefore the prime audience for Geoffrey Beattie’s memoir. A world expert in ‘micro expressions’, the tell-tale immediate responses that reveal our true feelings, Beattie is perhaps best known in the UK as the resident psychiatrist on Big Brother and Ghosthunting with the Only Way is Essex. Make of that what you will. He is also an obsessive runner, having run most days since his early teens. However, his relationship with his family, and his eldest son Ben in particular, has been less successful, with long periods of estrangement. In recent years Ben has become a serious runner himself, and Chasing Lost Times aims to show how a shared love of racing and training has brought father and son back together.
To trigger the book equivalent of AALS, you do need to care about the main character. The problem here is that Geoffrey Beattie portrays himself – remember, he is writing this – as a man with the charisma of a flatulent turnip. He is unquestionably vain, obsessed with his face being ‘tight’. He makes weird and thoroughly unnecessary asides about dwarves, beggars and overweight people. He is also a distasteful show-off, making repeated references to travelling business class and staying in luxury hotels.
And then there is his treatment of his family, the main reason for his estrangement from his son. By day, he was a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, but he moonlighted as a reporter on the city’s underworld for The Guardian, spending nights in bars and other hives of scum and villainy until 4am. He was rarely at home, and even when he was, the family schedule was constantly put on hold because dad had to go out for his run.
That last bit hit a little close to home, as I have constant guilt about whether I am getting the balance right between running and family (almost certainly not). But I was pleasurably reassured that whatever my faults, I am nowhere near as rubbish a father as Beattie. On one occasion when Ben was a child, Geoffrey abandoned him in the dark so that he could complete his run, because Ben got a stitch and couldn’t keep up. For more than half an hour he left a young boy alone and frightened on the Sheffield moors. Brave of Beattie to admit this story publicly, but hard to empathise with him.
Perhaps the worst of it though was that he found the time to father a secret second family, having two children by a younger girlfriend, on top of the three children with his long-suffering wife. His own children only learnt about their half-siblings when they overheard schoolmates gossiping. It put me in mind of Steve Coogan’s character Tony Ferrino: “Bigamy at Christmas / What am I to do? / Spend it with the Family? / I can’t I have two.”
Beattie is up-front about these failings. At the same time he reveals details of his tough Belfast upbringing. He lost his own father at a young age. His brother died in a climbing accident. Some of his school friends were killed in the Troubles. Others committed murders and ended up in prison. He ran with a bad crowd, but forged a different destiny for himself because of his love of study. All of which admittedly sounds far tougher than my own cushy upbringing, but I couldn’t help feeling that he wants to persuade the reader that these are mitigating circumstances for his bad behaviour, externalising his guilt instead of taking personal responsibility.
Chasing Lost Times is a truly peculiar book. For a story about reconciliation and his son, there is remarkably little of either. The majority of the narrative is a bizarre travelogue of Geoff on various exotic business trips – California, Australia, New Zealand – in 2011, with descriptions of his boozing and racing. His son Ben writes the occasional chapter, mostly very serious thoughts on running (he is a 72min half-marathoner) or his focus on reaching elite status. You do learn why Ben hated his dad, and that what inspired him to take running seriously was the goal of crushing his dad’s PBs. However, you don’t learn why and how they were actually reconciled.
Based solely on the book, I’m not even sure they have reconciled. Running gives the two men a shared language, but Ben always sides with his mum (also a runner) in any situation. When she takes a hard fall in a race (she has one arm) he rushes to be with her. When Geoff suffers a show-stopping achilles injury that leads to a first-ever DNF, Ben couldn’t give a monkeys. And to be honest, neither could I.
Right, I’m off to have a good bawl at the latest Michael Bay film.