Brian Matthews reviews 'A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism' by Jim Davidson

When some years ago I read Jim Davidson’s outstanding biography, Lyrebird Rising (1994), I was initially concerned by what seemed to be his potentially distorting fascination with the scene-stealing Louise Hanson-Dyer. But I soon discovered I needn’t have worried. Jim Davidson is not the sort of biographer whose obsession with his subject overcomes proportion. On the contrary, his sense of humour, his alertness to the fallible, the ridiculous, and the noble reinforce rather than compete with his respect for, and absorption in, the recorded life. A style full of elegance, wit, and, when called for, irony, ranging from gentle to corrosive, constantly works sharply against any temptation to be over-impressed. In A Führer for a Father, however, this armoury is strained to its limits.

The title stands as an early warning: either it is ironic, pointing a little bleakly to an overbearing, uncompromising, but broadly acceptable tendency in the father, or it is meant to slide away from metaphor towards the meaning that the ordinary German word ‘führer’ has inevitably taken on since World War II: Führer und Reichskanzler des deutschen Volkes – a title only ever accorded to, and assumed by, one man. Any doubt or equivocation on this point that we may entertain as we begin reading A Führer for a Father, Davidson clears up in the first sentence of the first paragraph:

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