The first time I ever saw my dad was when my mum lay down a copy of the Derry Journal in front of me. I was nine years old and sitting at the dinner table in our flat in Walthamstow. She opened up the paper and there he was, his words, his face, looking back at me. It was a special anniversary edition of the Journal and as one of their ex-writers who’d gone onto Great Things, he’d written an article about his time there. I went into a sort of panicked shock. I read it five times in a row and then bawled my eyes out.
My dad had left when I was six months old. In my life, we’ve had two main phases of contact with each other. If I hold up all my fingers in front of me, that’s about the amount of times I’ve met him, so you’ll have to excuse this piece being mostly made up of half-truths, rumours and second-hand memories. There are some of own recollections scattered here and there.
Harry Doherty was born in Derry in the 1950s. The son of a milkman, he was a teenager as Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement was kicking off. He and my mum were on the Bloody Sunday march; it’s him at the front of the stock footage the BBC show every time they mention it – he’d gone to the front as he was covering it for the Journal. Later, he started writing about music and they moved to London. By the mid-‘70s, he was one of the main writers at Melody Maker. A lot of the articles he wrote are up on Rock’s Backpages (http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Writer/harry-doherty). He was one of the first people to write about Kate Bush and he wrote extensively on Thin Lizzy, although looking at that site he seemed to balance this out by writing an awful lot about Jethro Tull. I write about music for a living too (you can have that one for free, amateur therapists) and can only imagine the big-collared, flare-wearing fun of living the Almost Famous dream. It was an era that invented rock’n’roll clichés, and he probably did most of them; he told me that he’d done heroin “by accident”, thinking it was coke. My cousin once let slip that my dad was sleeping with one of Abba and that was one of the reasons why they split. I have no idea if that’s true, although I found it hard to join in the celebrations of his legendary swordsmanship.
When I was 11, he got in touch for the first time. My mum took me to meet him at Earls Court tube and we went to a computer games exhibition. He looked like me, except his hair was completely white and he was quite fat. He gave me a copy of U2’s Achtung Baby and Pearl Jam’s Ten. The next time we met, he took me to Southend-On-Sea. We had fish and chips and then we drove in his Mercedes Benz to a printing house so he could check up on how production was going on Metal Hammer, the newly launched hard rock magazine he was the editor of. He gave me some more CDs; Nevermind by Nirvana, Yerself Is Steam by Mercury Rev and something by the Hothouse Flowers. He also gave me a copy of Metal Hammer that came with a giant Nevermind poster that I stuck on my wall as soon as I got home; these are mostly the bands that shaped the music I listened to then and ever since. Apart from Hothouse Flowers. Another time, he took me to Metal Hammer’s offices. I was at an impressionable age; the CDs lying round, the posters on the wall… it’s not hard to remember what made me excited about the idea of working at a music magazine.
My mum was pleased that I was happy about seeing him, but it was a short-lived phase of communication. I had his home phone number and one night called to speak to him. A girl answered, then my dad spoke to me quickly and asked to be handed over to my mum. He bollocked her for letting me call the house. The girl who answered was my younger sister who, like her younger brother, had no idea I existed. Things petered out after that. I remember my mum looking so sad one night when he didn’t show for a school assembly I was singing at. I think she felt it was her fault for exposing me, which really wasn’t fair on my lovely mum. There were a few exchanges by letter after that. In one, I told him he’d let me down. In the response, he opened with this: “There are three sides to every story: his, hers and the truth”. It was an Extreme lyric. His way of explaining the situation to me was by using an Extreme lyric.
Ten years later, I was just about to finish university in Leicester. I hadn’t had any contact with him in a very long time. But I’d really started to feel a weight on my shoulders about it. I was worried that if something were to happen to him, I’d feel guilty for not getting in touch. I knew that was absurd, but like all absurd thoughts, it just wouldn’t shift. I Googled him, found his email and wrote to him before rationale had a chance to stop me. We exchanged emails for a while and then met up in December 2002 and went for a pizza in Kensington. I was now old enough to drink my way through any awkwardness and as I was now working at a music magazine myself, he told me stories about how it used to be. We would do this maybe once or twice a year. It felt fine, adult even. I’d scratched my itch.
My mum died in 2007 after a decade-long battle with cancer. I was absolutely heartbroken. She was an amazingly cool and profoundly kind person. After that, I just lost interest in the whole dad thing. I don’t know if that was a reaction to the fact I couldn’t see my mum anymore, or if I realised that I didn’t need a dad. Maybe a bit of both. I think we’ve seen each other twice in the past five years. The first time was at a cousin’s wedding (the first time the family has seen the two of us together) and then at the launch of a Queen book he’d written. He really does try hard these days and I appreciate it. He emails me to invariable replies and often asks for pictures of his granddaughter. He probably feels like he’s banging his head against a brick wall, and I’m sorry for that. It’s just the way it is. Reading this back, I’m worried this has been a My Old Man piece without much of my old man in it, but perhaps that’s the point. When I wanted to see him, he wasn’t there. Now he wants to see me, I’m not there. Maybe one day we’ll meet in the middle.
Niall Doherty is a music writer from London. He lives in Tottenham with his wife and daughter. He supports Spurs.