I interviewed the writer Edward Docx – published in The Guardian on Saturday 22nd April
Interview with Edward Docx
When Edward Docx was 13 years old, his grandmother lay on her deathbed at the family home in Greater Manchester and made a startling revelation to his mother – she wasn’t who they thought she was.
“The woman that my mum, Lila, called mum for all of her life was an Indian woman from Hyderabad – but as she lay dying, she told my mother that she wasn’t actually her mum, which obviously shocked my mum greatly. My mum’s life turned upside down,” he explains. She then revealed another bombshell to Lila: that her grandfather was in fact her father.
The woman Docx knew as his grandmother, Manwar, nicknamed “Mano”, explained to Lila that her real mother had been a Russian chorus dancer – now dead – with whom Lila’s real father Ralph Partridge Snr had had a short relationship. Ralph Partridge Snr gave the child born from the brief affair to his grown-up son by his first marriage, named Ralph Jnr, who was already married to Mano. They brought up Lila as their own.
Although Docx was in the house at the time of the revelations, they took place behind closed doors from him, and he only later found out the truth about who he was. “I think basically mum kind of protected us all from it at the time so she could tell us in her own way”. Rather than his mother sitting them all down to tell them, she waited to get confirmation of what Manwar had said via letters from her godmother. “I became aware of her discussing it with my dad and then gradually me and my brothers and sisters discovering what she was discussing and why. When my mum started a quest to get pictures of her real mum, we were fully aware of that”. Did he ask a lot of questions? “I was really inquisitive and spent my young life trying to find things out about family and the wider world”.
The Partridges were a military family, officers in the British Army, and the man Lila thought of as her father was called “Military Grandad” by the seven Docx siblings. “My mum grew up thinking Military Grandad and Mano were her mum and dad – that was how it was. Military Grandad at the end of his life abandoned Mano and they became estranged. When I was a little boy I’d go and visit them both as grandparents but gradually Military Grandad was just not there when we visited and then our mother told us he was dead.”
Why did Lila’s father style himself in the role of grandfather and give away his child? “Her real father lied because he had an affair and Lila was the child of that affair – simple as that. But he also took responsibility in a way by making sure that my mother was brought up well and went to university – my mother had a really good education as a biochemist which was paid for by her real father. That created loads of weird cross-currents and semi-dysfunctional relationships.”
When Manwar died, did she take more secrets with her to the grave? Was there a lot left unanswered? “Yes, lots of things remain unclear and me and my brothers and sisters talk about it all the time to this day. I would have loved to have talked to her about all this – for me, I wasn’t on the front line of it like my mum so there’s a lot of questions left unanswered about their lives”.
The woman who Docx thought of as his grandmother died and was buried in England. “It was a long journey for her as she was born in Hyderabad, the 13th child of a Brahmin family. She left her family for Ralph Partridge Jnr without their blessing and when she married him, she was cut off by her family”.
He pauses. “So that was who I thought was my grandmother…”
The gulf between who we think we are and who we turn out to be was at the heart of his Man Booker Prize longlisted novel Self-Help and is a subject in his powerful new book, Let Go My Hand. “My mum thought she was half-Indian and that was my inheritance until I was 13. It raises a very interesting question about nature versus nurture. Whatever the truth of my DNA I had a major cultural reversal. Presumably my DNA is a quarter Russian. But I didn’t think that at all. I thought I was a quarter Indian and loved being a quarter Indian and dreamt of going to India when I was growing up and finding my grandma’s house and even going to see her relatives and saying I know you fell out, but here I am. So I got to the age of 13 thinking all these things…” The discovery changed their sense of narrative about who they were.
How did the family deal with having their identity so suddenly rocked to the core? “Looking back, my Mum handled it with an exuberance – she started dressing in long Russian dresses and bought all these Russian icons and put them all over the house, and bought maps of the Soviet Union, and we had to listen to endless romantic Russian composers. She became a classical music agent and started inviting musicians to stay and had concerts in the front room – Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and would serve syrupy Russian pancakes – blini”. She also searched for traces of her real mother, scouring libraries for any references or photographs of her. “She embraced her Russian heritage. And I sort of embraced it because my Mum did. I started to go to Russia to learn more. I read all of the Russians – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Bulgarkov – long before I could really understand them. I realise now I did that in boyish support of my mum”.
The oldest of seven children Docx grew up in an “eccentric, bohemian” family who lived in a ramshackle house, “slightly on the edge but never quite – no carpets, no curtains, ragged furniture, pre-historic plumbing, every thing threadbare and ancient and cobwebbed and broken-down. You don’t realise as a kid what’s going on but later in life you look back and realise wow that was quite odd”. The eccentricity extended to family holidays: “Because there was seven children, we couldn’t fly anywhere, that was out of the question – so we had these absolutely insane ragamuffin holidays in which they’d drive us for four weeks all over Europe camping and sleeping by rivers and lakes”. They visited places where composers were born or died, and cathedrals and caves and concerts. Or they’d drive madly to see a Formal 1 race in, say, Holland or Germany – and sleep beside the track. “And my mum was also trying to educate us about the disasters of when democracy goes wrong, and we’d go to concentration camps like Dachau”.
Now a father of four himself, Docx has long challenged concepts of what constitutes a ‘normal family’. The discovery of long buried secret identities in his family initially made him question everything but he is now at peace with it. “A lot of people feel trapped in an identity. When I thought my mum was part-Indian and she was actually part-Russian, it made me feel less hidebound or delineated. A surprising number of writers sit obliquely to the cultures that they write about”. Was it ultimately liberating, I wonder? “Totally – now I never feel trapped by identity”.
Lila has also found peace: “My mother has stopped her questing and settled into a happy retirement with my father. They drive around Europe all year attending the concerts of their friends and visiting vineyards and places of historical interest. They’re seldom home now.”
Docx has been aware of the power of stories from an early age – both those that we are told and those that we tell ourselves. Manwar was a great storyteller. “I used to sit with her when I was little, aged 6, 7, 8, 9, and listen to stories of India – amazing stories of running away from tigers and being bitten by a snake and her childhood way back in the 20s and 30s – incredibly rich and exciting stories. I would listen to her for hours. I don’t even know if she made them up, I have no idea.” Manwar’s most powerful legacy was perhaps her stories – and how they went on to form the fertile imagination of someone who, for a living, now writes captivating stories about families.
Let Go My Hand is published by Picador, £16.99
Photo credit: Charlie Carter