Paul Dalgarno, a Sunday Herald writer and editor, emigrated to Australia in 2010 with his baby son and heavily pregnant wife. Expecting the good life, he hit unexpected turbulence – a lengthy period of financial and emotional turmoil. Now, aged 40, he has written a memoir, And You May Find Yourself, a moving and funny book which tells the story of being down (if not quite out) down under. Interview by Peter Ross
Paul, you have written with enormous candour about the people closest to you. We read about making love and fighting with your wife, Jess. We read about your difficult relationship with your father, and your worries that you are failing as a parent. How has your family responded to the book?
Jess really likes it and – despite the seeming candour – doesn’t feel betrayed. Which is good, because it could have ended my marriage. One of the biggest achievements for me was finding a way to write a fairly drawn-out sex scene between us without ever describing the act itself – and that’s emblematic of my approach throughout. It gives the sense of being an incredibly intimate book but you’d be hard pressed to find the smoking guns.
Most nerve-wrackingly, my dad read it [the book covers their volatile father-son relationship] which I hadn’t been expecting; even before his own debilitating health issues, he wasn’t a big reader. He said he found it “intriguing" and couldn’t stop. I pointed out to him that the last words I say to him in the book are: "I love you, Dad."
That’s ultimately what I wanted to say to all the people who feature in it. My mum also read it in draft form before she died, and thankfully gave it the thumbs up.
What did that mean to you, to have your mother read it?
It made me happy, and depressed because it felt so futile. After the hopes and despairs of long-term illness her treatment had stopped and she’d been given a few months to live. I was sad to think she wouldn’t see the published book, so I printed out the draft I was working on and sent it to her. Getting her seal of approval felt important, given my relationship with her was closer than with anyone else in my family. The last time we saw each other, in Aberdeen, she told me it had made her laugh and cry, and that, if she survived until the launch and made it out to Australia – which we knew she wouldn’t – her head wouldn’t fit through the door.
There’s a fairly important section about her in the book that was written after she died, and it’s a regret to me she didn’t see that. She’d queried the fact that she hadn’t been written about in the context of her illness – to which I replied that I’d be writing another book, mainly about her. She told me to stop talking, that I was making her cry.
How do you feel about your sons, Finn and Kolya, reading the book when they are older?
Nervous and hopeful. It was written with the older them in mind. With Finn, my youngest, I went through what I can only assume was post-natal depression, and I go into all of that in the book. I loved him, I knew I did, but I couldn’t feel it. It was a challenge to write about that honestly, knowing he might read it in 20 or 30 years. And yet, that’s something other people have really related to since publication. Quite a few dads have got in touch to say they’ve been through a similar experience.
The book could be seen as a sort of gift to your children – an opportunity for them, in later life, to understand their father better than they might otherwise do.
That’s right. I wish I had a book my dad had written, particularly one about what was going on in his head. I’ve been thinking about that lately – how good it would be if everyone, going back generations, had written something about their lives. I’d love to be able to dip into those accounts to see what was going on. It’s nice thinking my kids and whoever comes after them will be able to look back at this snapshot of a forbear who was coping, but only just, and often failing like a pro.
A lot of your life seems to have been spent trying to win your own father’s approval, and yet, conversely, you also worried about being emotionally distant and even violent to your sons, as he was to you. Now that you’ve worked through a lot of this in the book, have your feelings towards your father changed?
My dad and I made our peace long before I wrote the book. But yes, writing it forced me to understand what was going on in our relationship in ways I hadn’t anticipated – particularly in terms of my own culpability. Because I was selfish, like most kids, I grew up believing he felt I wasn’t good enough for him. But when I thought about it, and looked at the reality, I’d been the one acting like he wasn’t good enough for me.
I gained social standing with my delinquent peers from the fact my dad had hit me but, again, looking back, it was obvious he’d never just set about me: I’d provoked him, quite deliberately, to the point of violence; I’d been trying to make it happen.
There were a few things like that. But mainly, just being a parent myself, I’ve come face to face with my own fallibility and conceded that my dad, like most people, was doing his best.
Cycling figures prominently in the book, and seems to have been a boon to your mental and physical health at a time when both really needed a boost. Tell me about that, please.
Cycling came into my life by accident. The commute from my in-laws’ house in the suburbs to my work involved a long walk, an overcrowded train journey, then a jam-packed tram ride, all of which sapped me of the will to live. Taking cover from a rainstorm I ducked into a bike shop and – even though I was skint – left with a bike. After riding it one day in a state of rage and self-loathing I realised that, if I wanted, I could commute the 25 kilometres to and from work along a connected series of bike paths flanked by eucalypts and birdsong. That changed my life.
Before I knew it, in addition to the 250 kilometres of commuting a week, I was riding at the weekends, seeking out hills and mountains, coughing up my lungs and singing out loud.
I love riding in the countryside, or the “bush" as they call it here. Once, recently, I was cycling along an otherwise empty road behind a kangaroo at five in the morning thinking: "Yup, you’re definitely in Australia."
I have a compulsive nature and so, whatever I’m into, I’m really into it. If I ride up a mountain, I typically want to see if I can ride up it twice, then three times. I rode up one hill 161 times in a single day last year to reach the height of Everest. Counter-intuitively, there’s a kind of peace that comes from that type of physical suffering.
You’ve been in Australia for five years now, your children go to school and nursery there. Does that mean you are there to stay?
Barring an offer I can’t refuse, I’m here for the foreseeable. I became a citizen at the end of September. There were a hundred-and-odd people at the ceremony, of all different nationalities and ethnicities. I didn’t really care – I just wanted to get through it for the paperwork. And yet, despite myself, when it came to the pledge, and saying, "I am an Australian", I did feel a tug in my throat.
What do you miss about Scotland?
The first time I went back a couple of years ago, I flew into Glasgow, got the bus to the centre, and was walking under the bridge at Central Station. It was pissing rain, I nearly stood in dog shit, there was a beggar looking miserable with his cardboard sign, a few of the shops were shuttered up … and I just felt really happy. I thought: "This is where I’m from."
And You May Find Yourself is published by Sleepers and available from Readings and others in print and Amazon and others in e-book editions. Peter Ross is a former Sunday Herald journalist and an award-winning feature writer. His book, Daunderlust: Dispatches From Unreported Scotland, is published by Sandstone Press, in paperback and Kindle edition