The Reluctant Fathers’ Club by Nick Duerden, featuring Matt O’Connor

The Reluctant Fathers’ Club by Nick Duerden, out now.

Published by www.shortbooks.co.uk

Featuring contributions from Blur bass-player Alex James, BBC Journalist John Simpson and Fathers 4 Justice Founder Matt O’Connor.

Matt O’Connor, Weekend Father

In 2003, Matt O’Connor, a creative design consultant from Kent, founded an organisation called Fathers 4 Justice to help gain greater contact rights for fathers separated from their children. He had recently gone through a messy divorce himself, his newly ex-wife suggesting at one point, he be allowed no more than four hours access to his two young sons every month. He wanted more, and so, first through the family courts, but increasingly through the media, he fought for more, highlighting his case and those of other, in his words, “wronged” fathers, his voice so loud and so hectoring that he was soon difficult to ignore.

F4J became a ubiquitous presence nationwide, its increasingly outlandish antics splashed in bold print across newspaper front pages as they pulled off a succession of highly public, and highly disruptive stunts. Each featured a father dressed as a modern day superhero, the reasoning being, O’Connor explained, “all fathers are superheroes to their children.”

Batman scaled the balcony at Buckingham Palace and set off a national security alert. Spiderman brought traffic to a standstill high above Tower Bridge. They powder-bombed the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, invaded the pulpit at York Minster and gatecrashed BBC1’s National Lottery Draw live in front of ten million viewers.

“We became very good,” he deadpans, “at grabbing the nation by the scruff of its neck and demanding attention. And guess what?” He puffs his chest out, bristling with pride, “We got it.”

There are, and long have been, various pressure groups working for the rights of divorced fathers and pressing for a change in family law that many feel is unfairly biased towards the mother, but it was O’Connor’s outfit that brought their plight suddenly and forcefully into the headlines.

While he has yet to effect any change in the law that, in his eyes, denies fathers their fundamental rights when a marriage goes sour, he has nevertheless succeeded in creating serious debate on the subject, MP’s even going on record to say they approve of the man’s message, if not quite the manner in which he delivers it.

In 2005, GQ magazine named him the seventh Top Communicator in the UK, and the 92nd Most Powerful Man in Britian.

“The Labour government,” he says, “has done more in the past decade to remove the need for fathers in the modern family than any other government in history. We are viewed as little more than cash machines. You can for example, walk out on your family tomorrow morning and nobody would give a damn as long as you continue to provide financial support for your children. No one seems to care whether you continue to provide emotional support; as long as you keep up your payments, that’s all that matters. And if you want to continue seeing your children after separation? That’s where the fun begins.”

Much of his campaigning attempted to challenge the view that fathers today are too easily demonised by the law, the media and, he insists, by mothers themselves. Upon the breakdown of a marriage, even if fairly amicable, the father is promptly cast out by the family law courts, now forever frowned upon and judged with suspicion, whether suspicion is warranted or not.

“There seems to be this idea in society, that is you are a father and you stand up for fathers’ rights, then you have to be whiter than white before you are even given a chance of a fair hearing,” he says. “But if you happen to come with normal baggage in life (and O’Connor did), then you are in for some serious trouble. Fathers are being systematically undermined here. It’s nothing less than gender apartheid.”

As the F4J brand grew, so O’Connor’s private life fell increasingly under the media spotlight. Revelations emerged, amongst them the suggestion that while married, he was anything but a model husband. He drank, he womanised, he was rarely home. Ironic then, that he was now so desperate to see the very children he had had such little time for before.

In many ways, O’Connor got off comparatively lightly. A little character assassination, he says grinning cheekily, “never hurt anyone.” Meanwhile it came to light that several other key F4J members had even more to hide. Some had restraining orders issued against them, others convictions for domestic violence – factors that did much to remove any sympathy the cause might have otherwise engendered. Next came dissension within the ranks, some members convinced that O’Connor wasn’t going far enough in the pursuit of justice. Splinter groups began to spring up.

And then, in 2006, the entire organisation imploded when a story was leaked to the media that F4J’s latest plan was to kidnap Leo Blair, the five-year-old son of the then Prime Minister.

O’Connor denied all knowledge of this at the time, and claims now that it was “all bullshit cooked up by the Labour Party”. Whatever the truth, it proved the death knell (albeit temporarily) of F4J, which promptly ceased its public operations.

But by now O’Connor was already moving forward. In 2007, his autobiography was published, and the film rights to his life story quickly snapped up. F4J had given him a platform from which he could now operate in other, perhaps more effective ways, his confidence undiminished, his ambition undimmed.

“But while I still have a breath left in my body, Fathers 4 Justice will continue to carry the torch for fathers. I will never, never, let the matter lie,” he says, bringing a Churchillian fist down on the table between us, making his coffee cup rattle in its saucer.

If many men can be described as reluctant, perhaps even fearful, at the idea of giving up a previous life in favour of fatherhood, then Matt O’Connor represents another extreme altogether. He was the kind of alpha male who barely gave it a moment’s hesitation, the reality of his wife’s pregnancy merely a blip in an already heady existence, and one to sidestep with a cavalier shrug of the shoulders. The arrival of his first son into his life gave him little pause for thought: “I’m not the most self-analytical person,” he admits. “I’m always looking forward. Can’t help it; I’m cut from a certain cloth; I’m a force of nature.”

And so he simply carried on much as before, under the illusion that his wife would prove an uncomplaining homemaker while he remained the traditional breadwinner, with unimpeded access to a very full social life. His story may not be a particularly pretty one, much less, at times, a sympathetic one, but he is nevertheless representative of a great many men.

I meet him on a cold February morning in a library café in Winchester, near the house he shares with his wife Nadine. He is a big, voluminous man with an expensive hairstyle, heavily framed designer glasses and a watch the size of a dessert plate. Like certain rock stars, he somehow manages to be almost winningly obnoxious, a proudly unreconstructed bloke who thrills in delivering sexist asides that leave you wondering whether he is being ironic or simply a fan of 1970’s comedy.

He has a supernatural confidence, and much like the man he befriended during his early campaigning days, Bob Geldof (another divorced father who took on the family courts and won), he seems preternaturally disposed to starting an argument with anyone, with everyone, as if conflict were his default setting.

But behind the over-the-top gregariousness and the evident pride at having become so infamous, O’Connor is in fact just another divorced dad desperate to do right by his kids.

“If I’d met and married Sophie now, in my early forties rather than back in my twenties,” he says, “I think we’d have stood a much better chance of lasting. But you live and learn, don’t you?”

Fourteen years ago, he was a high-flying creative consultant overseeing bar and restaurant designs, putting in long hours at the office, then entertaining clients long into every night. He had a string of girlfriends, all of them casual and from whom he craved nothing permanent. But then he met a Spanish woman called Sophie, the same woman he would one day refer to as “Franco in a skirt; a one-woman Spanish Inquisition”. A whirlwind romance ensued, O’Connor wooing her with his customary garish flamboyance. It worked. They were quickly married, and she fell pregnant shortly after.

“My reaction?” he says now. “Delighted, completely delighted. Did it change my lifestyle? No I have to say that it did not. My job came with certain demands that I wasn’t able to walk away from. I lived a hedonistic lifestyle then: birds, booze, hotel rooms…”

Even during his wife’s pregnancy? “Yes. Funnily enough many of my friends from that time are still at it today, a full decade later. Well, actually, not all of them. My former business partner is dead. That tells you all you need to know, I suppose.”

Inevitably, his marriage began to show signs of strain, Sophie pleading for him to be home more, his invariably flippant responses prompting even more conflict. Despite the growing animosity, they attempted to brave it out. A year after their son Daniel was born, Sophie then gave birth to another, Alex.

“I’ve worked out only recently the exact mechanics of where our relationship went wrong,” he says, and I suggest that a fool could work that one out. But O’Connor, a touch defensively, is quick to claim that he wasn’t always quite as self-obsessed as he sometimes appears, and that perhaps there were other factors at work too, one of which might just have been Sophie’s post-natal depression.

“At the end of the day, it boiled down to this: we had a great relationship before the kids came along, but having two in quick succession put a big strain on the whole thing. Too big.”

She asked for a divorce. He refused, asking for one more chance. But then he systematically failed to mend his ways, and so when she now demanded they separate, he decided, he says now, “to go out and embrace the female of the species with open arms. I had a harem going at one point, and that’s when things began to get ugly, and I started to worry about just how damaging this could be to the boys. I didn’t want that. I really didn’t.”

The day he left, he says, was the worst of his life. The divorce proceedings would soon become pronouncedly bitter, his ex-wife refusing him access to his sons, now furiously – and quite understandably – angry with him, his conduct, his failings. His business partner died in mysterious circumstances; his company went bust, his savings all spent on legal fees. He was angry much of the time. One night, he ended up on Waterloo Bridge, drunkenly staring into the murky abyss below. But that suicidal night was the moment he decided to stand up and fight back, in the most public manner possible. Suddenly he was re-energised.

But behind F4J, the necessary scaffolding that was essentially keeping him up, a more personal realisation was beginning to dawn. He was about to become a weekend dad.

The weekend dad is not a rare species. He is there on every high street in every neighbourhood, the forlorn figure in McDonald’s hoping that a Happy Meal lives up to its billing, while his children view him with newly wary eyes; he is the forcefully jolly character in the playground trying to elicit as many precious laughs from his kids before his allotted time is up.

O’Connor readily admits that he made for a hopeless husband, and that his wife had every right to turf him out. But he insists that he was never a bad father, merely an all-too-absent one. It was the breakdown of his marriage that effectively shocked him into taking belated responsibility for his sons, and throughout the lengthy separation process, all he really craved was sufficient access to them in order to right his wrongs.

But this was not to prove easy. Relations with Sophie were becoming, he says, “increasingly nuclear”, and he reacted to the endless bureaucracy of family law by ranting and raving, often right there in court. He once punched a barrister: “I was lucky I never got banged up for that one.”

For a while, he was permitted to see his boys only within contact centres, venues normally used as a pick-up and drop-off point for children when relationships between an estranged husband and wife have degenerated irrevocably. “My lowest point,” he says now. “Horrible places, completely and utterly degrading.”

The situation did gradually improve, but only marginally. He was granted full Saturday access, one day in a week to somehow try to make up for those other six when he was elsewhere.

“You can’t do it, it’s impossible – and it’s also an insane state of affairs,” he says. “Think about it. My wife was free to set up home with any new bloke that took her fancy, and no one would impose any court-ordered check on his past. For all we know, he could be a murderer, a rapist, whatever, but he would automatically have more access to my children than I would myself, Now tell me, how can that be fair?”

He felt himself in a “hamster wheel” of misery, bled dry by all the emotional turmoil and feeling increasingly financially stretched, the legal proceedings as expensive as they were convoluted. After three years of court battles, he was ready to walk away.

“I’d just got fucking traumatised by the whole thing that I thought the best thing to do under the circumstances was not to see my children again until they got older.”

He explained this to a judge one day in his customary manner, his face purple, while his ex-wife, also present in court, watched on in silent horror. It proved a turning point for her, and over lunch they somehow managed to thrash out an agreement for access that had previously always eluded them.

“And so today,” he beams, “I have as much contact as I want. I get to see them every weekend and on days during the week, and you know what? They are amazing boys. Somehow, these wonderful, bright, intelligent, vivacious children of mine have gone through this entire process, so far as I can work out, with barely a scratch. It’s a miracle, and I’m grateful for it.”

Four years on, and another unlikely development in his bitter battle with his ex-wife has emerged. “We get on famously these days,” he says. “Well, mostly we do. There are still occasional spikes of resentment that pop up every now and then, but mostly we get on just fine; we’re friends. I can’t stress just how important that is for everyone in this situation. You’ve got to remember the F word: forgiveness. You simply can’t afford to hate your ex more than you love your children, and so we all have to learn how to forgive. That’s what I’ve done and, to her eternal credit, that’s what Sophie has done as well.”

At the age of 42, he is a new father all over again. He and his wife Nadine have a young son, Archie. “I’ll admit the pregnancy was never planned,” he laughs. “In fact it was anything but, just the result of a very rock ‘n’ roll weekend down in Brighton. She phoned up a month later and told me and asked me what we should do. The blood drained from my face, much as you’d expect, but I told her she should just let it be. I said to her, I’m happy, you’re happy, neither of us believe in abortion, so fuck it, lets go for it, and we did.”

You’d think, I say, he’d be wary of entering fatherhood again given his past experiences, but O’Connor, cut, as he likes to say, from a certain cloth, was instead his customarily bullish self about it. But he was newly confident as well, and with good reason.

“I won’t make the same mistakes again because I’ve drawn a line under that chapter in my life. I don’t go out much any more, I hardly drink. I just want to be at home with my kids these days. That’s what age and maturity do for you, I guess.”

But while many of his old proclivities have been successfully reined in, one of them has remained in rude health: his ego. F4J may have made him a footnote in history, but he is keen to keep himself visible.

The majority of his attentions these days are focused on the setting-up of a brand-new political party, which he, naturally will lead, a libertarian one that will extol the need for greater civil liberties, greater democracy, greater privacy and strong family communities. O’Connor is convinced he will make for an unimpeachable political figure because, unlike so many other politicians, there are no skeletons hiding in his closet. Everything is already out in the open.

“And so I’ve nothing left to hide,” he says, laughing, “I’m an open book. You know, I’ve learned a lot from everything I’ve gone through in my life, but it’s my children I’ve learned from the most. And it’s because of them that, ultimately, no matter what else I turn my hand to, I will never allow F4J to just disappear. Not when there is still so much important work to be done. Look at the statistics. We have a generation of children out there right now growing up without fathers. One in three carries a blade, and because so many girls grow up without fathers, their first relationship with men is invariably a sexual one. As a result, we have the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe, along with an abortion epidemic…

“People will look back on this time and say of maniacal pioneers like me that we were ahead of our time, and its true, we are. This is one fucked-up society we are living in, but we simply cannot afford to lose sight of fathers’ rights or the importance of fathers in the lives of their children, not just for this generation but future one as well.”

“I’ve got three boys who may well go on to become fathers themselves. Do I want them to go through what I did? No, I fucking don’t. I have a duty to help them and everyone else. We all do.”

ENDS

NB Please Note that Fathers 4 Justice was started over a year after Matt had secured unhindered access to his two boys.

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