Hooliganism's loss is literature's gain

CLAD in dark T-shirt and jeans, firm-jawed Yorkshireman Tom Palmer could pass for Simon Cowell. Rugged is the word that comes to mind - perhaps, if we're making the mistake of judging a book by its cover, the type of guy who prefers action to reflection.

CLAD in dark T-shirt and jeans, firm-jawed Yorkshireman Tom Palmer could pass for Simon Cowell. Rugged is the word that comes to mind - perhaps, if we're making the mistake of judging a book by its cover, the type of guy who prefers action to reflection.

But no. Author Tom is a man happy to explore his feelings at the right moment. He knows, too, that most UK males are not the emotional deserts some commentators would have you believe.

It's becoming a dad that opened a new door in Tom's life. It focused his thoughts about what it meant to be a dad - particularly as he'd had three fathers himself! When he was given him free rein in deciding the content of a new online book, it was the subject of fatherhood he chose.

As editor of Four Fathers, he wrote a piece on his dad's intense but transitory series of passions: travel, photography, fishing, peg doll-making, making models of imaginary towns and villages.

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Contributor Ray French described the life of a father on a different wavelength: an energetic Irishman exiled in Wales, while James Nash's dad was a former army type with a sympathetic soul behind a tough exterior. John Siddique's was an immigrant making his way in industrial Yorkshire.

The downloadable book spawned meet-the-authors events in 2005 “and it just went mad. I think we did about 15 dates. We only read for about five minutes each and then it was opened up. People talked about their relationships with their dads and it became a two-way thing”.

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Route, the publishing body, issued the book in paperback form - the original writing augmented by pieces about the authors being a father themselves - and Arts Council backing made possible a national tour last year and this.

All in all, the project tapped a well of emotion.

“There was one event on a really snowy night in Halifax and only nine people came, but each one of them said something about their dad. One of them said 'I'd never talked like this before.' It's brilliant. Although we obviously like performing our stuff, we get more out of hearing people tell their own stories!”

The Four Fathers roadshow has also been to numerous jails - and has a date at Chelmsford prison as part of the Essex Book Festival.

“Generally, if we talk to a group, there are one or two people who talk about their experience, and then afterwards there's usually half an hour for a cup of coffee. Then, the prisoners are on to us, one to one and really intense, with conversations about their father who's died, their children . . . happy stories and sad stories: men who have been ostracised by other members of the family because they're in prison - their children turned against them by other people - but other stories of families who really make sure that the children get to see their dads.”

Most dads, Tom reckons, do their level best to be effective fathers, and the majority do it well.

“I'm not going to go down the Fathers4Justice line, but we don't half get the mickey” - he uses a harder word - “taken out of us in popular culture.”

In TV, for instance, the dad is often the dolt - like Homer Simpson. “Another children's programme I watch is Peppa Pig. It's brilliant, but the dad is always the butt, and the mum is always together and the one who's got a smile on her face at the end. Dad is the one who trips up! We get the mickey taken out of us a lot. It's not fair!”

David Beckham, in contrast, is a great example to males.

“Before I read his book I hated him,” Tom admits. “I had to read it for work - I was doing an event with the ghostwriter of Beckham's autobiography - and I was so impressed how the book was about family and the importance of his children to him.

“When I read that, I changed from hating him - because I'm a Leeds fan who must hate all Man U players! - into someone who really admired him as a positive role model. For young men reading that, he's a great example of what a dad should be.”

Generally, he thinks Britain's dads are doing all right.

“The difficult thing is families breaking down. I'm not a great religious zealot, or anything like that, but I do work in schools where 60, 70% of the kids don't live with their dads. I was at this conference recently and was talking about how you could get fathers to read with their children, and what a brilliant thing it is, and a teacher put a hand up and said 'I work in a school where two thirds of the children don't have fathers living at home. How can we use your techniques on them?'

“When there isn't a father at home, it's really hard, isn't it? I think it affected me. I had my stepfather at home, but once you haven't got your 'father father' you look for a role model, and inevitably I looked for a hardcore football hooligan as mine!

“I sort of worshipped him from 13, 15. He was my idea of a man, this guy that I worked for, and he was my big father figure. In a lot of ways he was a lovely man and he really looked after me; but he liked drinking and fighting at the football and he nearly led me astray. Not wilfully, but by example, and I was nearly heavily involved in that sort of thing.”

Softly-spoken Tom doesn't sound the hooligan type . . .

“Well, I'm a natural coward, physically! That's what probably stopped me.”

He recognises there is a lot of pressure on men to spend time with their children - to read to them and be “the perfect dad” - but it's sometimes hard to keep all the plates spinning.

“I think now, on the whole, men do spend a lot more time with their kids. I think it's really good for them - for everybody - but it's hard for a dad who has to leave the house at half-six in the morning and doesn't get back until half-six at night. During the week, for how long is he going to see a child under five?

“Since day one, really, reading with my daughter” - Iris, now three - “has been one of the closest things we do.”

Tom knew neither of his own birth parents. He was born in a home in Leeds and six months later was adopted. Father Two, as he calls him, left when Tom was four. It was Father Three who raised him.

It's no surprise that issues about family are emerging in Tom's writing.

“I've never known anyone I'm directly related to” - other than Iris - “and I've had to re-evaluate my philosophies about life and nature and nurture: about who brings you up, rather than whose egg and sperm it is. I like to think she's like me because she's a blood relation, yet all my life I've been against that theory. It's weird; it's a bit of both, I think.”

Does he want to find out about his birth parents?

“It's a really good question. My wife would like me to, particularly since Iris was born, because she thinks it's really important. I can't muster the will to do it. I suppose I'm worried about causing chaos - both for myself and whoever my birth parents were - but it's in my head all the time.

“We did an event in Cardiff prison and a guy who was talking to me was adopted, and had just found his birth mum. He was saying 'I can tell you want to do it. I can see it in your eyes, but you're scared.' I suppose a bit of me is. But I've got a bit too much to do . . .”

Tom says the couple he regards as his parents - his adoptive mother and Father Three - are forever in his thoughts, although he accepts his wife is probably right when she says he keeps those particular feelings bottled up.

“It's weird. My dad's been dead 18 years and my mum 14, but I still think about them all the time - though in a nice way; not in a 'grief' way. Whenever I think about them it always feels nice now. It didn't use to. When they died, I just thought about the manner of their death, rather than remembering the good 20, 25 years we had.

“It took a good five years to get over seeing them deteriorating with the illness; they both had cancer.

I went on a charity walk to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Relief, who helped me look after my parents, and going on the walk in the Sahara Desert was a massive help; that was the switch that made me see them positively.”

Tom saw Father Two regularly after he left, though they haven't met for a while. “We sort of still exchange Christmas cards and there's a chance we might . . . I don't know. I think it would be good for him to see my daughter. It's a difficult area; I haven't worked it all out. So much stuff swimming around . . .”

He admits to feeling guilty about his stepfather. Why? “We maintained a relationship, but it wasn't ideal. I don't know; I feel guilty because I feel I should be doing more. It's very confusing, isn't it! Ask me in a year and there might be a new twist.”

BOOKS, says Tom Palmer, have quite simply changed his life: an encouraging verdict from someone who found reading hard going. It fact, he hated it until he was 17.

It was his mum who found the key. Realising he was consumed by football, she used newspapers, magazines and children's books about soccer as a hook. It turned a chore into a pleasure and soon he was a confident reader.

Today, part of Tom's role is as a freelance reader development consultant, specialising in both general reader development and working with men and boys. He works in about 150 schools and libraries each year, and often harnesses the power of our national sport.

His Football Reading Game highlights the great football reading material available and draws participants into a quiz about those resources. The game ends with a penalty shootout against Tom, for which he brings his own goalposts!

“Reading books with my daughter has really taught me what books mean to me,” he says. “She will read a story and, the next day, something will come up and she'll say 'Oh, is that like Postman Pat?' And she'll role-play.

“Today she's been role-playing this Postman Pat story about some lost sheep. It's taught her a lot in terms of her frame of reference for situations with other people.

“I'm sure the novels I've read have helped me. I suppose the main thing is seeing things from other people's point of view. It's not just educational, either: it's about loving stories and being moved.”

Tom's first book, in 1997, was an oral history of the Bradford wool trade. The second, 2002's If You're Proud to be a Leeds Fan, is the story of Leeds United's troubled season. He has since had a football-based children's novel called Shaking Hands with Michael Rooney, and is seeking a publisher for a teenage novel: The Football Detective.

Tom is also working on a travelogue of the UK library service - which will feature Lowestoft library - provisionally entitled Don't Join the Book Burners.

The writers behind Four Fathers are holding a live email chat as part of the Essex Book Festival. It's from 11am and noon on March 1. To take part, go to www.essexbookfestival.org.uk and click on Meet the Author

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