Magazine article The Spectator

Legitimate Question

Magazine article The Spectator

Legitimate Question

Article excerpt

My father believed - wrongly - that I wasn't his child. If only there had been DNA tests to reassure him

In this magazine two weeks ago, Melanie McDonagh suggested that DNA testing is tough on children whose apparent fathers turn out not to be anything of the kind. In particular, she had sympathy for the child whose TV presenter 'father' discovered that for years he had been paying child support for somebody else's offspring. No doubt she has a point, but what of the children whose true fathers doubt their paternity?

For me, DNA testing would have been a blessing. My father doubted I was his child, though I didn't know it. I just knew that he didn't seem to care for me very much. 'The cuckoo in the nest' is what he called me.

When I was about six, he would ask me if I knew what the phrase meant. Pleased to show off, I would tell him proudly that I did know about cuckoos and how they laid their eggs in other birds' nests. What I didn't know or understand was the implication that I was not his child. In the 1950s, young children in the middle classes were not enlightened about sex and reproduction.

Of course, I knew there was something wrong with me. At the time I thought it was because I was a mere girl and he had wanted a boy. Or perhaps he didn't like me because I had too many childish illnesses. His other description of me was 'runt of the litter'.

He and my mother, a professor's daughter, were an ill-matched pair. There didn't seem to be any moment when they did not argue.

So the taunt was aimed, I now realise, at her, not at me. It dated back to 1944, the year of my birth, when both of them must have realised that they disliked each other intensely.

Living in an isolated tiny village during wartime, with no transport out of it, their marriage was a torment for both of them. He was like a character in a Surtees novel, passionate about hunting, shooting, drinking and large meals. She thought those things 'coarse'.

She enjoyed painting, playing the piano and flirting. The latter explains why when three Italian prisoners of war were assigned to the farm, the marriage took a downward turn.

'Such charming men. So romantic, ' my mother would recall. 'Bloody Eyeties' was all my father would say, though their labour was welcome on his wartime farm.

I cannot believe that my mother had an affair with any of them, but my father, searching for a reason why his marriage was such a disaster, suspected she had. …

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