THERE were lies, of course. Tommy Burnside was good at those. No, good is the wrong word. He wasn't a good liar, just a constant one.

"My father was a constitutional liar, " John Burnside recalls. "He was himself a walking lie, and I knew that only because he contradicted himself all the time. There is nothing worse than telling lies all the time, but not getting your story right to begin with ... He would tell you one version one night, and then he'd be drunk another night and tell you a different version."

There was violence too, and threats of violence. Harsh words and hurt feelings. Petty cruelties and minor tyrannies; inconsistencies, evasions and drunken denials. There was all of that. A life's worth, you could say. In truth, almost two. Maybe it was Philip Larkin who said it best: "They f- you up, your mum and dad."

John Burnside could tell you. When he learned his father had died of a heart attack - in the pub, appropriately enough, between the bar and the cigarette machine - the overriding emotion he felt was not grief but a sense of relief. His father was finally out of the picture.

The stain of him didn't fade, though. Not immediately. There were days and nights Burnside lost to alcohol, to binge drinking, to drugs and the occasional fist-fight. In some ways, he was very much his father's son, filled as he was with some of the faults Tommy had.

He is more than that now. The 50-year-old is a poet, a husband and a father himself. It's as a poet he's best known - one of Scotland's best and a Whitbread winner to boot - though he also has four novels to his name.

Burnside meets me at the door of his home in west Fife with his youngest son, Gil, in his arms. It seems appropriate given that I've come here today to talk about fathers and sons. Burnside's home - a long, low house into which he, his wife Sarah and his two boys moved last September - is some miles, five decades and an emotional universe away from the house in Cowdenbeath where he spent his childhood.

That emotional world is one he has explored in a new book, A Lie About My Father. It says "autobiography" on the back cover, although Burnside prefers to call it a memoir. It is about more than facts; and sometimes less.

There's a sibling missing for a start: his youngest sister, Elaine, doesn't feature. "She was separate from all this, " he explains. There were also things he couldn't remember, things he didn't want to include. "I tried not to flinch too much at stuff I found shaming - but, nevertheless, there are things you leave out. You say, 'Well, there's not much of a story there, ' but in fact it's too messy."

Burnside, let's state upfront, has written a brilliant book, one that's a world away from any notion of "abuse chic". "The one thing I didn't want to do was write, 'Oh, I was terribly abused and isn't it terrible and hey, I survived, '" he says. A Lie About My Father, it's safe to say, does not do that. It is a cool, potent piece of writing, honest and open - or as much as it can be, given that he also admits: "Some things I left out because I was told in no uncertain terms that I might incriminate myself." At the same time, it plays a subtle, clever game of revelation and concealment.

For instance, there's his elusive, almost cryptic take on his sexual development. Take his description of his adult relationship with a woman called Caroline, who introduced him to "brief moments and fleeting passages of tender, and infinitely suggestive, pain". This was not S&M, he insists - but what it was he paints in the most elusive, most intriguing terms. "There was some blood, there were negligible burns but, mostly, the darker moments were played out in the realm of possibility."

Later, reflecting on the victims in life and in his life in particular, he explains: "The people who got hurt weren't my father or my mother.

It was really nice women who tried to help me, or really bizarre women who fell into my path."

(Caroline presumably falls into the latter camp. It should be noted, though, that the relationship ended when she tried to stab him.)

But first and foremost this is a book about his relationship with his parents, and his father in particular. "When people say today, 'Oh, it's better if a child has two parents, ' it depends on what the two parents are like. I would have been better off if my father hadn't been in the picture. I can honestly say that - and my sister, Margaret, would certainly have been better off."

They f- you up, your mum and dad? John Burnside has written the book.

In his wedding photograph, Tommy Burnside looks a rather slight man, with a smile on his face. "That was him when he was young and still relatively hopeful in his airforce uniform, " Burnside says, looking at the image. "Later on, he filled out more. Like me, he was broad across here" - he indicates his own powerful shoulders - "and he was very strong and very quick. When he filled out a bit, he could be very sedentary-looking. He'd sit in the pub playing cards or dominoes and you'd look at him and say, 'Oh, I could take him.' But the thing is, he was very quick."

And he was a hard man. "He brought the street violence into the house a couple of times. Fighting with his mates. You know what Scottish men are like with a few drinks in them. They love everybody and they want to kill them, more or less at the same time."

But it was his family, not his friends, who saw the worst of him. He knew, his son writes, that the threat of violence was stronger than violence itself. "My father was one of those men who sit in a room and you can feel it: the simmer, the sense of some unpredictable force that might, at any moment, break loose and do something terrible." Now and again, he did break loose. "He threw my sister down the stairs one time, " says Burnside. "Just picked her up and threw her down the stairs. I don't even know what the offence was. Nothing, I imagine."

He could wound with a word too. There was a child before Burnside - a girl, Elizabeth, who may have lived a few hours, a few days at most.

But she remained alive to her father, who constantly evoked her memory in the worst possible way. There can be few worse things for a father to say to his son, I suggest, than telling him he wished he had died and his dead sister had lived. "He did it a lot as well."

Elizabeth, of course, could remain a fond memory - as could Andrew, a younger brother who also died not long after birth. Unlike John or Margaret, they didn't get in the way. "My mother was disloyal for a short time, I think, and she did say once, 'Your dad didn't like having another baby in the house.' It was very, very fleeting - but it was felt, and I thought, yeah, I can see that. The child who died, he could keep that nice sentimentality, but the one who survived became a genuine pain in the arse, a bumptious know-it- all who went around showing off - even though he encouraged me to show off."

At some time in his life, Burnside reckons, his father had been a fun-loving kind of guy, and after marriage and children he didn't know where to put that anymore. Theresa, his wife, kept him in line. "She needed to, and I think he recognised that. But, of course, only an expert would be able to nip in the bud just the things that needed nipped in the bud and let the other things flower. And my mother nipped everything in the bud, just in case. And that's what happens when you marry a gambling, violent drunk. You see any sign of egregiousness as dangerous. I'm sure there were times she nipped things in the bud that were actually joy."

Joy was not too common in the Burnside home - which first took the form of a dilapidated, rat-infested house, then a condemned wartime prefab on the edge of Cowdenbeath near Beath Woods, and then a rented house in Corby in the Midlands, when the family moved south in 1965. The move to Corby, when Burnside was 10, came after Tommy, a brickie's mate (though he said he was a brickie) had a fall at work, 30 feet from a scaffold, fracturing his skull, breaking ribs and puncturing a lung. "There's a photograph. He was very thin and he looked like somebody at death's doorstep. He must have come close to dying."

His wife suggested they buy a house with the compensation money, but that didn't happen.

"He obviously pissed that all away."

Things got worse after the move to Corby.

"After that accident, he just got softer, " says Burnside. "He wasn't as hard as he'd been before. He wasn't as invulnerable. He could still put up a good show, and in most cases he could handle himself, but there was a sense he wasn't invulnerable out there; that somebody might take him as well. If you bring that fear into your home, it affects the way you behave in the house." Tommy had to show who was boss - and he did. Constantly.

Why, you have to wonder, did Burnside's mother stick with him? Why not get a divorce?

"I kept telling my mother to do it. I have this very vivid memory of sitting in a coach with her and we'd been off somewhere, one of those mystery tours. I was about 12 or something and I'd heard about how divorces worked. I said, 'You can get divorced, ' and she said, 'Why do you think I want to get divorced?' And I said, 'Well, you can't be happy, ' and she said, 'I've got you kids, your dad's a hard-working man and we've got a decent house. What's wrong with you?' And I'm looking at her like, hello? Denial was what it was all about."

He writes in the book that he admired his mother from a distance. That's a pretty cool assessment. Did he love her? "I don't know. I think one does in a way, but I think there was a lot of pity in the relationship on my side. I could see what she was going through and, certainly, that coloured things a lot. Also, she wasn't one of those people who was very good at coming forward with affection. So, I would resist the temptation - which is definitely there - to idealise my relationship with her. On the other hand, being inarticulate about her fondness for me and my sisters didn't mean she didn't feel it. She tried to express it in other ways. She would try to teach me things, like how to bake. I can still make a great cake, and that was her way of trying to connect in some way. And she tolerated the most amazing things. We did do a lot of drugs in the house - well, I did. My sister, she mostly drank bottles of port."

As a boy, Burnside had escaped into books and the outside world. He would tramp through Beath Woods "looking for angels". As he grew older, there were other ways to break away, such as drugs and alcohol, although to some extent the goal was the same: a search for something other, something numinous.

The result of a Catholic upbringing, perhaps. "That's definitely part of it, " he agrees. "It's like the priest says: give me a boy till he's seven - or five, or whatever it is - and I'll give you a Catholic, even if it's a lapsed Catholic.

"Of course, I came to the stage - like most of us who have been brought up that way, if they have any smarts - of saying, 'I don't believe this crap anymore.' But at that stage it felt like there was something missing. And that's why I started taking LSD. That put the missing bit back in. LSD was the missing sacrament. You were brought up to believe in this other world and the real holy stuff happens there, not here in this second-rate image of a world. But this is the real thing. And the one conclusion I've come to, that I'd stand by in terms of anything religious or spiritual, is that, whatever there is, it's here. This world is completely full of whatever that is - the numinous, or whatever you want to call it. And if you can put a little microdot on your tongue and, when it dissolves 20 minutes later, you're living in that, then there must be other ways through to it as well."

Burnside was, it's fair to say, a wild boy. "All my friends were taking drugs - it was a cultural thing. But I was always the one that everyone thought was a nutter about it. When I was down in Cambridge [where he went to technical college] I was into barbiturates a lot, mixing barbiturates and booze. I remember being with a friend of mine in a pub and he gave me a little baggie of stuff - 12 pills, I think it was. I didn't stop to count them: I opened the bag and slung them all in my mouth and then started drinking." Unsurprisingly, he had to be told about being carried out of the pub unconscious.

"Maybe I paint a picture that is too much about the seedy and the ugly side of it. But there was also that kind of sheer energy and elan - a real sense of 'I'm alive'.

“I had amazingly magical times as well during that downward spiral. It's like Alice falling down. She's falling down but, on the way, she's seeing all these interesting things."

In his memoir, Burnside talks about how he pursued the pleasure of being lost; of living life as an experiment. But, given that his mother died young - at just 47, from cancer - it's tempting to read grief in there too. Or is that overstating it? "No, not at all. When we're grieving, we don't know what the hell we're doing. Our society doesn't do very well at letting us acknowledge our own grief. I think you should be able to go to court for doing something - not something destructive, but something really silly - and saying, 'My plea is grief.' Grief was definitely there, and not just grief for mother but grief for all kinds of lost things, really. I think there was even grief for Cowdenbeath, strangely enough. That's a new one: grief for west Fife."

At his wife's funeral, Tommy Burnside went around telling everyone his son and daughter had killed her, killed her with worry. Did anyone believe him? Oh yes, Burnside says.

"Let's face it, I was out of my head at the funeral. I had raided what was left of her pain management regime. I just went through and went, 'Oh, this looks good, ' and I thought, well, we're just going to throw them out anyway.

There was obviously something going on in my head, but I did take a few things before we even went to the funeral.

"The thing was, if he could deflect the blame to a handful of people, that was enough. He'd done his job."

Burnside didn't see much of his father in his final years. He fled from home and into a hallucinogenic world of his own. He feels guilty now that maybe he didn't try to connect enough with his father; try to talk to him. The one time he did try to confront him with the damage done, cataloguing his failures in front of his cronies for maximum effect, it was "completely ineffectual".

"He just looked mildly disgruntled and said, 'Aye, you've had your say now, ' and that was it. And his cronies just sat there. They didn't say anything, but they were looking at me like: 'He's an awful ungrateful pup, that one.' So that didn't work really well."

When he was younger, in his teens, Burnside had thought of killing his father. He waited one night, with a knife in his hand, in an alley through which Tommy walked home from the pub. But one of his father's friends appeared too, and the plan came to nought. Would he really have gone through with it? "No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I was out of my head in two senses of the word at least."

In the end, natural causes claimed Tommy Burnside. When it happened, in 1988, his son buried his father's memory. He didn't want to know more about him; he was still getting to know himself. But when he in turn became a father, he did start asking around.

It was his aunt Margaret who told him his father was a foundling. "It's like something out of a 19th-century novel, " says Burnside. "He was left on a doorstep, basically, in the year of the general strike."

Not that Tommy ever told anyone this. He had other lies to tell about his past. He must have had a hard life, taken in on sufferance, never out of love. Perhaps it's no wonder he had so little love to give to others.

It was some kind of explanation, his son accepts. "I didn't stop and say, 'Oh, if only I'd known that, I'd have forgiven him everything.'

“But I wondered how much difference that made to me.'"

From that wonder, a fine book has emerged.

He wishes another one would too. His sister, Margaret, was the one who looked after her father when their mother died; she was the one who always made the effort. "My sister, when she was 14 or 15, she was the best linguist in her year, possibly in the school. She spoke French and German. If she'd been a boy, she would have studied French and German or French and something at university. She ended up living on a housing estate next to the factories, working in a factory with a baby when she was 17, and that wasn't because there was a moral flaw to her character. It was because of all the hell she lived through."

When Margaret was in her early teens, her father found out she had slept with her boyfriend. He called his own daughter a whore. "She was looking for love, " reckons Burnside - love she wasn't getting at home.

"Both my parents, in different ways, let her down. She did all that for my father, and she knows how much damage he did to her, but she still tries to think well of him. She's a very special kind of person. There's almost a separate book there. I wish she would write that, to be honest."

If there is a hero to this story, it is Margaret.

Burnside is aware of his own failings, his own culpability when it comes to his relationship with his father. He was in his late thirties and married himself before he could shuck off some of the traits he inherited from his dad.

He remembers a night some years ago, at Ronnie Scott's in London with his editor, during which he got very drunk and started abusing other people. He's a big man and you imagine he would be a frightening drunk.

The next morning, when Burnside woke up, his editor simply said: "That's some problem you've got there."

Problems, though, are also opportunities.

His father wouldn't - couldn't - see it that way, but Burnside can. "I think that if you're presented with someone like that in your life as a model of malehood, it could be seen as a challenge to invent a better way of being male.

“And I think I didn't take up that challenge for a very, very long time. I spent a lot of my time in my twenties, up to my late thirties, just saying, 'Let's have as much fun as we can. I've got excuses, I have.'

"What Philip Larkin says: it's true, probably. But it's a complete cop-out - and he copped out as a person. It's easy to make excuses: 'I'm a pretty second-rate kind of guy because of this and that and the next thing.' Well, let's try to be a first-rate kind of guy.'"

Burnside is trying hard.

They tuck you up, your mum and dad. Sometimes that's worth remembering too.

A Lie About My Father, by John Burnside, is published by Jonathan Cape

Taken from the Herald Magazine, February 18, 2006