First draft, while the spirit moves.
How did you stop being mine, dad?
How did you walk out the door?
Did I see you do it, dad?
I can’t remember anymore.
I know only that you left, dad,
When I was some ten years old
And I’d have given anything to keep you, dad,
I’d have promised to be good as gold.
But the chance passed.
I know my mother was a pain, dad,
She remained a pain to me,
But I, the child, could not escape,
Couldn’t walk out the door and go free,
Til her death freed me at last.
I had to listen to her words, dad,
Had to learn how she blamed me,
For she’d sent you away, she would often say,
Because you didn’t love me
As you should.
No vitriol with that assertion,
Though she had enough and to spare,
And some of it you might have spared me,
If only you’d been there.
But you weren’t.
What kind of bad must I have been, dad,
That you could not love your first born?
And being so bad as I must have been
What wonder that God had foresworn
To love me?
I believed then, as a child believes,
And I grieved then, as a child alone grieves,
My path obscured by autumn leaves
Whate’er the season.
A darkness in me.
Half a century ago you disappeared,
Vanished, it transpires, in sunnier climes,
Had another son, a daughter too,
And, no doubt, some lovely times,
But I did not.
For half a century I missed you,
Felt an aching absence in my heart,
Missed your words, your looks, your thoughts,
And it broke me apart
Believing in no God, no Heaven,
I know we will not meet again,
That the man who died three thousand miles away
Has left me, till my death day, in the grip of pain
One conviction only, did you – in leaving – leave me,
Which is that it’s okay to not stay,
That it’s okay when you are under pressure
Simply to walk away,
And I have tried.
The night that others dread
Is naught but peace to me,
The silent darkness of the dead,
Offers naught but ease to me.
Yet I can’t get there.
Too many depend
For me to seek the easy end,
And all my life I now must spend
Why did you leave me, daddy?
Another oldie, on the theme of what it is to be a man.
In an echoing, empty subway
I fall back, so as not to be
perceived a threat by she who walks
alone ahead of me.
A second moves to pass me
I step well away to the side
that doubts that might darken her frightened mind
are, as far as they can be, denied.
Through choice would I never strike woman,
through choice would do no woman wrong,
I cannot despise them, nor trivialise them,
perceive women weak and men strong.
I’ll not play ‘It’s a man’s world’ games,
be thus prisoned, pretend to be free,
and the thrusting, assertive world of some men
holds no welcome – nor liking – for me.
If manhood must be one-upmanship –
emotions suppressed to compete,
others diminished one’s self to enhance –
then the prize of the game is defeat.
It has to be hateful, so much to be feared
by those we most need to be friends,
it has to be time to reject, now, those things
on which such a manhood depends.
True manhood must re-write the script,
must open eyes to a new way of seeing
that it matters much less to be one kind of man
than to be fully a true human being.
Black Dog, first draft.
Working on a picture of my ‘friend’. He seems to hang around a lot.
Sick to death of being patronized by insulting television adverts. Sick to death of people shouting (metaphorically) at me on social media, “Buy my book!” “Buy my product!” “Stay at home mom in (insert own locale) earns thousands. Click to see how you could too!”
Sick to death of being showered with shit.
Sick to death of other people’s anger. Of the immigrant-hater, the Muslim-hater, the woman-hater, the gay-hater, the anyone-who-isn’t-me-hater. Sick to death of bible-bashers and Qur’an-quoters.
Sick to death that I can’t just hate them all in my turn. But I can’t. I hate what they do, but can’t hate those who do them. Yet it would make things so much easier. A black dog that bites would be easier to live with than a black dog who simply colors all one’s vision.
Sick to death of fetishized motherhood.
My mother wasn’t a good mother. There, I’ve said it. Not that she didn’t try – I don’t doubt she did. At bottom, though, she was herself too damaged. And the motherhood fetish did its part.
What mattered was not what was actually happening, but how it appeared to the rest of the world. What mattered was not succeeding in being a ‘good’ mother, but in never being perceived by others as a bad one. Whatever might happen she was not to blame. Someone else had to be.
My father did not leave her because she was psychologically damaged. My father did not leave her because he could not provide materially all that she wanted to ‘have’ materially in order to be seen as succeeding. No. He left, she said, because I was born a boy and he wanted a girl.
Succeed and she would praise you, modestly and always as if your success surprised her. Succeed and she would talk up your success, anywhere and everywhere, because your success was hers, your glory – however limited – was something to be reflected in. Be seen to fail – in any way – and she would eviscerate you with her tongue. Be seen to fail her in the eyes of any of the succession of would-be-Mister-Rights who followed after her husband and you would know, in that instant, that for that she hated you.
Never raised a hand to me. Did not have to. She could twist shame and guilt into too many deadly forms to need another weapon.
When my own first child arrived I at least knew how not to be, though more would be demanded of me than was ever demanded of her. My first born was what in older times they called a ‘basket case’. She would never walk, never talk, never so much as crawl or sit up on her own, never feed herself, never grow out of diapers, would never even see my face. I was the only one for whom she smiled though. And I fed her, nursed her, carried her everywhere and loved her as I had never loved any other being.
At the last it was my arms she died in, not her mother’s. Her mother knew it was right that my arms should deliver and feel the last goodbye.
My daughter’s full-time carer, I became her brother’s, my son’s, also. The same terror of appearing a failure to the world which had so informed my mother’s life ate at the soul of my first wife and overwhelmed her. Increasingly erratic, she left and divorced me before her brain gave way and spiraled into insanity.
Of course, no-one was watching me, judging me, as they would have done had I been a ‘mother’. Had I messed up it would only have been what people expected because ‘fathers don’t do this kind of stuff, do they?’ Being a father ‘mother’ was different, despite that the chores and the heartaches were much the same. I had, in that respect, an easier ride than a lot of mothers have.
It should not be so. Being a good parent is hard. Being a bad parent is too damned easy. And being a good parent in an increasingly materialistic and imbalanced world gets harder, in my view, year on year.
Only a fool would drive a car on a busy highway without ever having had a lesson, and even a fool would not find it too hard – I hope – to tell someone, ‘I’m afraid that I may not be very good at this’ and look for help and support. But in parenting it is assumed that everyone has a basic, natural skill set, that bad parents are features of the occasional news article and drama, and that a parent who asks for help or advice is somehow a failure.
It should not be so.
“I don’t know how you can cope.”
They stood by my daughter’s hospital cot and shook their heads. Parents/carers with their own children receiving attention, some for epilepsy, some for infections, some for bone breakages or burns.
She was massively handicapped, had a cocktail of problems that nothing, in the end, but death could cure, and our hearts were broken.
Down in the waiting room, the one place you could smoke then, I listened to a woman rant at her husband about the delay they were having, waiting for a medic to get back to them about her daughter’s broken arm.
A broken arm? Part of me thought. Jesus, what’s that?
And then it struck me. This was her child. There was no scale of bad-to-terrible for her, it just hurt, and hurt and hurt.
She wasn’t making an unnecessary fuss. She was simply grieving.
Though the post seems to have vanished from my Facebook, I think it was the New York Times which posted the question: ‘What is Donald Trump tapping into that other politicians aren’t?’
Initially, it’s not that complicated. He is tapping into fear.
Americans, at present, have a right to be afraid. So have many of us outside the US, and for essentially the same reasons.
We are small creatures in a vast world. We have always felt this since when, in early times, darkness, predatory animals, broiling heat, freezing cold, thirst and hunger were inexplicable to us. Before science – and unhappily since, in many cases – we attributed our smallness and our suffering to gods. The suffering did not change, but the god concept allowed us to think that there was some kind of order out there in the world (since extended to the universe), that we were part of some plan, that we mattered to someone or something that was greater than us. We have always feared our insignificance.
We found – and sometimes still find – the family useful in our insignificance. We find – if we’re lucky – that we are significant to others who are themselves significant to us. If we are unlucky that original smallness and insignificance is made only greater, because there are those whom we find significant who make us feel less so. And if it is bad one of the first things we are going to do is to bully.
Just checking, I find that the antonym to ‘elevate’ is ‘depress’. Interesting. The bully depresses his/her victim through some form of oppression in order to ‘elevate’ him/herself in his/her own damaged self-esteem.
An element of purpose which can be attached to almost any social grouping – perhaps any social grouping – is to establish self-esteem, often through the esteem of others. We play constant games with esteem.
To enhance self-esteem, to elevate it, it is not enough to be a Christian because you believe in Christianity’s tenets or a Muslim because you believe in Islamic tenets. It is better to be a Christian or a Muslim who believes that all other beliefs and believers are wrong, and therefore inferior. The moment we believe that someone else is inferior, it elevates us in our own esteem.
The practice is so much a commonplace that we scarcely notice it. Whether we find the opportunity to depress others and elevate ourselves through our chosen Faith, through the football, soccer or baseball team we support, through our chosen political beliefs, through the grades we or our children got in school, through the status of our employment or even the fact of our employment – for nothing is quite as satisfying to the working insignificant as despising those who are unemployed.
The practice is also fundamental to nationalism. By an accident of birth I occasionally regret (oh to have been born in Sicily!) I am English/British by nationality. Being English it is kind of expected that I should be ready to joke about Scottish parsimony, Irish stupidity or Welsh sheep-shaggery. None of these things are true, yet every one is based on a concept of superiority, an idea at some time locked into the psyche, that we are more generous, more clever and more discerning in our sexual habits than other populations. They all embody bullying, the depression of others to elevate ourselves, and the key – as I’ve said – to the cause of that bullying is our own fear of insignificance.
Of course, those who already have a strong sense of self-esteem do not need to indulge in such bullying behavior and, even if they’re not entirely sure what the cause is they tend not to like it. But we are all probably guilty of it to at least some small extent.
Yet the truth is that even if we have fairly good self-esteem we cannot but be aware to some degree of our insignificance in the scheme of things. We are vulnerable. And in America in particular, but elsewhere too, this is a growing and dangerous issue.
As families can build or demolish self-esteem, elevate us or depress us in terms of our sense of significance, so can the larger family we refer to as ‘society’ and the smaller groups or societies within it to which we belong.
We understand that being excommunicated from our church, black-balled by our club, rejected by a potential employer at an interview, having our stories or paintings rejected, being rejected by a partner or love, may have a practical effect, often an economic effect, but we also know, surely, that it has an effect on our self-esteem. It reminds us of our insignificance in that larger scale of things. It reminds us we are vulnerable.
We know, surely, that being unemployed lowers the individual’s sense of self-esteem. We know that poverty does the same. We know that being a victim does it. We know that the indifference of others to us, does it also.
And this is the state in which millions of people live.
This is why, in a long ago study by a Scottish university, it becomes clear that people read the news sources which support their own beliefs, why they are resistant to having those beliefs challenged. To be wrong is not only to be wrong or mistaken, it is to be less, to be inferior to those who are right.
As an internet troll or a demagogue, I have to be right in order to sustain my damaged sense of self-worth.
America today is a dysfunctional democracy. It has outgrown its systems. It is a family, metaphorically speaking, in which some members are eager and willing to succumb to gluttony whilst others of its members go hungry. Its young men, like our own, have fought, suffered and died in wars which had the putative objective of improving life, liberty and happiness yet which in real terms seems to offer its present citizens no more than they would have had in 1916.
Confident in wealth and power, the higher ‘classes’ of the United States (and elsewhere, though elsewhere doesn’t have Trump) are quick to assure the lower orders that the elevated are there because ‘the cream rises’. Well, too much cream isn’t good for you. They will also aver that ‘anyone can get where we are if they try hard enough’, not recognizing that cream exerts no effort in order to float and that they themselves have often ‘gotten’ to the top through no real effort of their own, building on wealth that was left to them, producing nothing of worth. Shit floats too, rather as Trump’s current elevation seems to demonstrate.
In a world where commercial powers have greater strength than government, in which governments have repeatedly failed to check the growth of these crucially undemocratic and un-transparent organisations, the ordinary citizen is aware on some level that he/she no longer has a voice.
Government has become not that which does things for them but that which does things to them. Voters are less participants in this democracy than victims or potential victims of it. They are increasingly alone, increasingly insignificant, and that lies at the heart of it.
What Trump promises is essentially what all demagogues promise, what Hitler promised, what Kim Jong-un promises and what all right-wing politicians promise – that if he or they are followed, he or they will lead them to a position of superiority, that he or they will grant them self-esteem by enabling them to look down on others.
It has worked before.
And this is why good healthcare, good education, housing, jobs and so many other things need to be driven by government. The re-distribution of gross inequalities in wealth is not merely about spending power; it is about a government proving to its people that each of them, individually and collectively, has worth.
I return, perhaps wearier than when I left.
I became suicidal around the age of ten, as I have said. My mother’s disposal of my father because – he avers – he could not earn enough to please her, required me to obtain his signature to a document that would formalise the end of their relationship, the end of a relationship I did not want to end.
Lest others should think I too easily accept that my mother made this choice, rather than my father, I can point accurately to the fact that she cast aside no small number of subsequent suitors for similar reasons. In particular she met a man called Dennis, one of the loveliest human beings I ever met and whom we knew for no little time. Just thinking about him for a moment tugs the corners of my mouth towards a smile. She quit him, she said, because he wasn’t ‘ambitious’ enough.
Many years later, after the death of the wife he’d met after breaking up with mum, we visited him at home. He was dying at the time, though I don’t think we knew it, and he was exactly the same man I remembered. Only now, however it had been come by, he lived in a ‘lovely house’, had his own car and all those other things that my mother truly valued. One could see in her eyes and in her face how bitterly she repented of having ‘let him go’.
As to my dad? I loved my dad. I still do, though he’s dead now. I still ache inside with the awareness of his absence, with the awareness of the life we could have shared and never did. I feel my daughter’s absence in the same way. They are part of the same pain, part of the same void, the same longing for what cannot be.
The God Squad promise we will be reunited. I do not believe it.
Around ten/eleven years old I was a gangling, shy, nervous, bespectacled child, afraid of the dark, wetting the bed. I remember very little from before that time, mere flashes in the darkness.
Perhaps I’ve said it already – these spontaneous chapters are an odd way to write a biography, I guess – and I apologise if I repeat myself, but my mother told me she had ‘sent my father away because he did not love me enough’. Me, that is. His first-born.
To that she added, as I’m sure I’ve said, that I came into the world after the first occasion that alcohol lowered his inhibitions enough for him to engage in sex with her.
My father, she said, did not love me. Whilst she told me that she loved me herself I never really felt that she did, only came after a long time to the realisation that she loved me as well as she was able to. It was a very long time though.
And if my own father did not love me, so much did not love me that he was prepared to leave his wife and son behind in order to leave me, and if my own mother never loved me without condition, why should it surprise me that my prayers to God went unanswered?
The answer was simple. I was unlovable. By anyone. By anything.
I learned that the closest resemblance to love was something that had to be earned. I had already discovered that my mother’s love could be lost – my father had lost it. If she could send him away then, surely, she could do the same to me? And in truth she did once tell me that she had had the opportunity to ‘send me away’ too, that it had been recommended that I be placed in care so that her marriage might survive.
I doubt, now, that that reflected any more than an idea she might once have had, but passing thoughts, even brief conjectures drawn from a diet of Coronation Street, could and did gain weight with her when she was in that frame of mind. Or maybe it was true, and if it was I rather wish she had sent me into care. I wished it when she told me and wish it still.
Love, then, had to be earned. How was that to happen? Comics, movies and stories – including the great ‘Christian’ story – told me that love was earned by sacrifice. We remembered Christ for giving his life, we remembered our war dead for giving theirs, I wept for Kipling’s Gunga Din and Disney’s ‘Old Yeller’ dog, whose death was brought about by sacrifice.
My father was leaving us, leaving me, my mother and my younger brother. If I wasn’t there to leave, perhaps he would come back to them, perhaps they would be together again as a family, united in whatever grief they felt, forgiving each other. A good enough reason to die, I thought.
The attempt obviously failed.
If being unloved felt a burden, it was little less so than being unliked. Twice in my life I have had a friend – one my late daughter and one a lady who will be reading this. That’s as close as I get.
I had something like a friend at Beech Grove. I don’t remember much of our interaction, but I will never forget how it began.
The front door gave immediate access to a ‘living kitchen’ and faced another door which would lead to our ‘best room’ (the room one never really went into but which was intended for receiving guests). My mother and father were standing in the space between the two and I nearest the front door, so it was I who responded to the knock.
On the doorstep was a young man of a similar age to myself, wearing almost knee-length shorts and, if my memory serves, a flat cap. I can’t remember his facial expression, though I feel it was non-committal, the look of someone on an errand who thinks they may be turned away.
“I’m Victor,” he announced; “Arta cummin arter laike?”
Bewildered I turned to my mother, said something about a boy and his making reference, apparently, to a ‘lake’. She and my father smiled, being of Yorkshire stock and I was informed that he was inviting me out to play. “Arta”, it transpired, was a contraction of ‘Art thou’, “cummin” needs no translation, “arter” his contraction of ‘out to’ and “laike” a genuine Yorkshire alternative to the word play. Shortly afterwards we were “laikin’ art” together.
I knew Victor for some time but only a single memory sticks out. We were ‘laikin” on a bomb-site which was not a bomb-site other than in name but an empty plot remaining from civil demolition. Under foot was the gravelly detritus of the operation and, standing at a distance from each other, we began picking up small stones, taking turns to throw them at each other. They were not thrown with force or with intent to cause pain, merely a kind of exercise in marksmanship practised against our gladly volunteering bodies. That was, at least, until Victor picked up a large fragment of red chimney-pot and threw that instead, splitting my head open.
I don’t think that terminated our friendship, but I really don’t recall.
Victor went to the same school as I, but he had all the advantages. He wasn’t particularly bright, was of small-to-average build, patently poor and local from birth. I was tall, bespectacled, intelligent and not able or wise enough to hide it, had a very wide vocabulary and spoke with the army accent my father, who had aspired to be an officer, had encouraged.
By definition of the tribe I joined my speech was ‘posh’, and that inevitably meant – to them – that I came from money. It wasn’t true, of course. But to that difference was added my height, on account of which I already stooped in order to make myself less visible, my National Health spectacles and a remarkable incapacity for anything related to sport or PE.
Cue the first day of entry into the school and some total stranger running past me towards the school doors and punching me in the abdomen as he went by. I doubled up in agony, but the physical pain was nothing in comparison to the unhappy bewilderment I felt that anyone would choose to inflict such a blow for no reason and upon someone they did not know in the slightest.
It happened again not long afterwards, although on this occasion I was on what felt like the long walk home. It was a downhill walk between two stone walls. Invisible behind one lay a stretch of ‘Private Property’ whilst beyond the other a large area of ‘allotments’ (small tracts of land on which the allotment holders grew fruit and vegetables for their own use) stretched down to the main road.
The youth running by punched me in exactly the same way the other had. They may have been the same person, I really didn’t and don’t know. He continued on his way and, in pain and misery, I did the same.
The path we had followed led to a junction, the main road passing up by the allotments and down towards the town, a sweetshop on the near corner, and the road up to Beech Grove stretching uphill opposite. Crossing the road I saw the youth who had hit me enter into another sweetshop on one of the many streets that ran off the uphill road and I progressed up the hill to home, leaving him behind.
It is odd, when I think of it, for the roads involved seemed too long then to allow such a time scale, yet the fact is that I got home, was interrogated by my mother as to why I was in such misery and then dragged by her down to the corner sweetshop before the other child had concluded his business there.
In the shop she demanded of me if this was the boy who had punched me and I answered, honestly, that yes, it was. She then demanded that I hit him.
I was aware of the shopkeeper as merely an onlooker, of the frightened child I faced and of the fury of my mother – not that he had punched me but that I had a) cried as a result and b) had done nothing in retribution. I was aware that my mother by my side tilted the balance of power steeply in my direction and I knew that it was unfair. The boy’s offence was to inflict pain on a stranger. I was being told I must reciprocate.
I don’t entirely recall what happened, but I know that I did not hit him, that I couldn’t. I know that I was bewildered by this willingness of others to inflict pain on strangers – she knew the boy no more than I did – and I know that she excoriated me for my cowardice.
She was wrong, I was right, but it was only one of many similar hurts.
“Big boys,” she clearly believed, “don’t cry.”
Atop this particular rise I stumble and fall down the slope in a tumble of memories newly or freshly awoken.
“Your dad’s gone, Richard. It’s up to you to be the man of the house now.” Freely translated that means, “Your dad’s gone, Richard. It’s up to you to carry whatever adult responsibilities I decide appropriate to inflict upon you whilst at the same time I will continue to treat you entirely as a child when you do anything that I don’t like.”
There is an addition to my height, spectacles, manner of speech and so on that I think I have not yet mentioned. I was born with a form of club-feet. Around the age of 14 it would lead to my being hospitalised and treated surgically in order to prevent the condition worsening, but at 10/11 years old it was being treated with exercises I constantly forgot to do and two strips of leather fixed under my shoes to exert upward pressure beneath the arch. I was also regularly visiting a Child Guidance clinic because of my ‘anxiety disorder’ – an anxiety disorder for which my mother had first referred me to specialists when I was all of four years old.
In truth, I guess, she was the problem, whilst received wisdom about child development made it mine.
The orthopaedic issues gave me something, I think, to which I could attribute my clumsiness and lack of sporting ability. It could at least be seen to be a source of some of the unworthiness I felt and for which, in this instance, I couldn’t hold myself entirely to blame.
The so-called ‘metatarsal bars’ beneath my shoes, supervised exercises and visits to the Child Guidance department took me often out of school. This did not add to my popularity, nor did my consequent exclusion from most sports and PE activities. My successes in anything related to art, English and History also rather failed to go down well.
I must have been attending the Child Guidance clinic at the time I first tried to take my own life, unless there was a second attempt that I don’t now remember – and it’s possible, even though it seems unlikely. They key fact in the memory is that I was very popular with the Child Guidance folk. We were given a weekly mark for our presentation, our involvement in the games and tasks we were set, our manners, behaviour and so on, and mine were always 9 or 10 out of 10. One week, without explanation, my mark was 1.
As my mother fetched me away I expressed my bewilderment at this apparent diminution of regard, this punitive score. “That will be because you tried to kill yourself,” she told me, going on to say that not long before that time my attempt at suicide would have branded me a criminal (for the theft from the Crown of one of its subjects, I later discovered).
The attempt had not been discussed at the Guidance session and to this day I do not know if what happened occurred because of that suicide attempt. I do know that I was told it by her and believed it, that in trying to remove myself, in trying to sacrifice myself in order that I might both end my own desperate unhappiness and contribute to the restoration of the rest of the family I had done something selfish, wicked and criminal. I had not yet reached my 11th birthday.
My father was in the British Armed Forces, for a spell among the 17th – 21st Lancers and later in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers. Among both the ‘Death or Glory Boys’ (The 17/21st, famous for being part of the charge of the Light Brigade) and REME his labours somehow involved draughtsmanship and tanks. I’ve never made the connection.
He was too late for the charge of the Light Brigade, of course, and enlisted just a fraction too late – being too young – for World War 2. I fancy that he did not enter the forces until a year or two after the war had ended because by the time he was first posted to the British Army of Occupation in Germany the initial cornucopia of black marketeering had been stopped up. In one of my few contacts with him he did suggest that it was this which first rather pissed-off my mother, since he was not able to supply her with all the extras his and her predecessors in occupation had enjoyed. My mother, he was to allege – quietly, kindly and after many years of a successful second marriage – always had her eye upon what others possessed, was determined to be one of those Joneses with whom everybody else sought to keep up. It is not a perception that jars with my memory.
He was a handsome man and, by the time I met him, a sergeant. He liked dogs, as I do, drew and painted, loved photography and other creative endeavours, as I do. I loved him. In the sixty two years of my life I received one greetings card from my father, not counting anything that came from ‘Mum and Dad’ so long ago that I can’t remember, and that card arrived shortly after we first made real contact some thirty years after his departure. In terms of colour, message and design – in every way imaginable – it was precisely the card I would have chosen.
I was around ten years old when he left.
According to my mother she ‘sent him away’ because of the way he treated me. I was not, somehow, she said, the son he had wanted, the rumbustious, ‘normal’ boy my younger brother was. According to my father, he left after returning to a cold, empty home once too often whilst my mother was visiting a married man she had taken a fancy to and to whom she was constantly comparing my dad. Jim had a car and a nice house, a mouse of a wife and three daughters whom he raised – like Pip in Great Expectations – very much ‘by hand’. I never saw him as anything but a thug and a bully, but he was clearly in some particular way successful.
I never really questioned that we spent a lot of time at Jim’s house, but then I didn’t know that my father was coming home from work to our own and finding it empty.
Not seeing my father for long periods was something to which I was accustomed. He was a soldier, often posted away on tours of duty, was engaged in the ‘police actions’ in the Holy Land and in Cyprus. To the latter we went with him.
So I really saw my father perhaps five years out of the ten that he was officially part of my life.
A flame is flickering somewhere, I catch glimpses that are only glimpses of that past. I remember particular gifts – die-cast Dinky armoured vehicles, a fire engine with working hoses, a bazooka that fired ping-pong balls. I remember the bottle of coke and the bar of chocolate I would usually wake up to when mum and dad had spent the previous evening at the Sergeant’s Mess.
I remember an apartment in Germany, an apartment with a serving hatch. I seem to recall that the building formed a square with gardens in its centre, though that could be a mistake, but I do remember that you could get from the front of the building to the gardens by way of an underpass. It was shady there when the sun was out and the kids from the block collected there despite the smell of the garbage bins stored there.
I got into trouble there, though I don’t recall any serious consequences. I was found there, with a host of other children – probably between about 5 and 7 years of age – and we were all discovered naked. We were enjoying our skins, I know. I have no darker recollection of it and remember it, if anything, fondly.
I remember the barracks in Germany, a vast parade square full of tanks, tank transporters and bren-gun carriers, and I remember the last bugle call that would sound as the dark descended. I remember the parties, meeting St Nicholas, goody-bags of chocolate, nuts and fruit, and the day St Nick arrived in a sled that was really a much-decorated army Jeep, driven by my father.
England and civvy life would always pale in comparison.
My father decided to leave the army, ostensibly because of the difficulties he would face in developing his career since officer rank was unavailable to him. My mother, brother and I returned first to a house he had acquired, the only ‘through’ terrace house in a street of back-to-back cottages, set in an estate which, it transpired, was a byword for crime and criminality. I can’t say I noticed that much.
Our immediate next-door neighbours were an Irish immigrant family, comprising a very large mother, a father I cannot recall and three very well-grown sons. What they had for Sunday dinner, I was told, depended on the luck they’d had at the betting shop on Saturday, and not one of them could string three words together without an obscenity being one of them. I liked them.
Mother was not, I gather, best pleased at being dropped into this particular low-rent area.
It had its eccentricities. The only through house (having both a back and a front door) as I have mentioned, Number 3 Beech Grove did not have a bathroom. Eventually we had a gas-geyser water heater installed, along with a bath, in the front living kitchen. I can’t see it in my head, sadly, though I could position most of the furniture even if it is now invisible. The increasingly ubiquitous ‘telly’ was there, the inevitable arm chair and sofa adjusted to keep it in view.
The absence of a toilet in the house was its biggest bugbear. Beech Grove was a cul-de-sac, the tarmac street flanked on both sides by straight rows of flat fronted houses and closed off at the end by a brick wall surmounted with shards of glass embedded in cement. Walking straight up that street would bring one to the last house in the terrace and, just around the corner, a row of wooden- doored privvies. There were gaps between the bottom of the door and the ground, and knot-holes enough in the doors to make one fearful of someone watching, especially at night. Permanently in the shade of the gable ends of the terraces, the row of lavatories was always pitch-dark at night.
I hated the walk to the lavatory. One passed every doorway, every front window, and anyone and everyone who saw you therefore knew where you were going – a thing I found intensely embarrassing by that time. When it snowed the street became treacherous, when it rained the walk necessitated a drenching. When it was dark it was terrifying to the child I was.
A star shell bursts. I remember. It was from that house that my father departed. It was from that house that I went to the first school I remember going to. It was in that house that nightmares really began to invade my sleep.
The son of Adam that I believed myself then to be, though I could never understand why my Father in Heaven seemed to pay no heed to my prayers, I had learned that I was naked and had learned to be ashamed.
I know there was one occasion long before Beech Grove when, too young, too inexperienced even, and travelling too far, I crapped myself on the way home. A glancing, sideways-striking shiver in my shoulder tells me as clearly as any visual memory what my mother’s reaction was to that.
I remember being home alone at Beech Grove one evening and too terrified of the lonely darkness to walk up the street to the lavatory without knowing there was someone nearby and when my mother returned she saw a dark spot – a tiny spot – of urine on my grey pants which my fear-compressed bladder had not managed to retain. I do not remember what she said, but the eviscerating, contemptuous, despising tone makes me shudder a little even in recollection.
We were at Granny’s house – my father’s mother’s house – when I rushed forward one evening to greet my mother as she came home from Heaven-knows-where. My brother and I were in Pjs, the striped flannel pyjamas of the time which tied at the waist and had no ‘fly’. As I reached out to her, it seems, the pyjamas gaped.
“You’re too old for that, now. That’s disgusting. I don’t ever want to see that again.”
That may or may not be a verbatim quote, but it is near enough. I discovered there was a part of me to add to the functions in me of which I should be ashamed. Odd, now, that the flame flickers and I seem to think that my shame pre-dated this event. We were in Cyprus, which must have been before that, when my tonsils erupted and – the security situation being dangerous – I was transported with my mother in the back of an army ten-tonner and under armed guard to hospital to have the tonsils removed. The nurse stood me on the bed to undress me and my embarrassment was boundless.
In Cyprus, too, a bomb was thrown through our kitchen window. Deliberately or not, it was thrown when we were out, but it was an anti-personnel device which makes it kind of personal.
I was around ten years old, as I said, when my father walked out of Beech Grove for the last time. Having, as she subsequently said, ‘sent him away’, it seems a little odd now that she should also recall going to his mother to ask her to intervene and send him home. Allegedly Granny responded; “Well if he’s not welcome with you, he knows where he is welcome.”
It was around this time that I first recall having a bed-wetting problem. Eneuresis is the medical term, in English. The name scarcely matters. Sodden sheets mattered, even more especially if and when the bed was not your own, and more still if you were not the only occupant.
It would cause me problems at school, but perhaps I will save school for the next time, should there be one. It’s around this time, however, that I remember the nightmares. In one I was chased by a giant, blue-spotted white dog, in another I walked into a school lavatory and found nooses hanging everywhere. In one in particular I would find myself hanging from a cliff top by my finger tips in a howling gale, crying out for help to my father who stood some distance away and who did not hear me.
It’s around this time that my mother found us a ‘council flat’ and despatched me to visit my father so that he could sign the papers that would secure the property for us. It seems it was my task, age ten or so, to go to my now hostile granny’s home and get my father’s signature to validate, in a sense, the break up of our family.
It was many years later that I discovered that it was that particular day on which I first made an attempt on my own life.
‘Don’t you have any real news to report?’
‘Kids should be free to choose.’
‘Bloody political correctness again.’
‘Not more feminist crap!’
Expressions like those, though not exactly those. I don’t have the words in front of me and it is in the nature of this sort of junk to be unmemorable.
Remember, no-one has said parents should be demonized for letting their little girls wear pink or play with pink plastic horses, and no-one has proposed a ban on the use of pink and blue in toys and packaging. They are suggesting it is something we should think about.
I have thought about it long and hard. When my first child was expected about a quarter century ago I looked very carefully at what was even then a debate and decided any child of mine would be positively encouraged to play with toys of any ‘gender identity’. She didn’t live to play with any, but when her brother came along I built for him a toy washing machine and a cooker, as well as buying him the routine boy stuff. I have to report that playing with a toy washing machine did not make him particularly receptive to the idea of learning how to use a real one when he was old enough.
But it’s not as if the choices parents make are the only influences on our children. Indeed, if our children are judged entirely as the results of our own choices alone most of us would rightfully be condemned as lousy parents. As it is we do not control the larger part of their lives. We can give them love, should give them unqualified love, but we can’t actually prevent them from absorbing the world around them, however horrible it may sometimes be, from the media, school, from the vicissitudes, often, of the disasters in our lives and our relationships and the ever-changing, all-knowing specialists in childhood.
Why expend energy, and the time when I should be abed, writing about something as trivial as the pink and blue debate?
Because they may – and I believe do – impact on the childhood formation of gender identity. Twist the common-sense arguments as you will, the fact is that the boy who goes to primary school with a pink backpack or lunch box is going to get hassled for it by kids who have fully absorbed that ‘pink’ is a girly colour.
Michael Morrones, a native of North Carolina, is in hospital, with I believe suspected brain damage, after trying to commit suicide as a result of bullying and harassment. The ‘justification’ for the bullying? He’s a fan of ‘My Little Pony’.
I can hear the words they used without ever having seen them described anywhere. One of them will be ‘gay’.
We live in homophobic societies, intolerant of difference of so many kinds, in societies where women equally qualified with men rarely earn the same money, in societies where many women have learned to assume that the Barbie Doll body is an ideal that they should sweat and paint themselves and diet to attain, despite that if they did attain it it would kill them, in a world where tough, intelligent, strong women are often defined as unwomanly and where gentle, loving men are most often regarded as freakish wimps.
Anything that might contribute to bringing this about ought, surely, to be looked at very closely.
‘Good Bless’ Michael.
Going scarcely skin deep any place where women post it is too easy to find women of all ages who are unhappy about their bodies and their appearance, too easy to find women who have been brutally assaulted by assertions that they were ugly and/or fat.
I hate this. I don’t want to be a part of anything which supports this. I want to make quiet war on this – quiet, at least, to begin with.
I want to know what the words pretty, beautiful and attractive really mean, how they have arrived at their meanings, and if they mean today what they should.
According to recent research – I regret I’ve lost the original source – beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It appears that if you take a photograph of a woman considered beautiful in one particular culture and show it to people in a completely different culture they will still select that photograph when asked to choose those they consider beautiful. Overwhelmingly, those images are of the kind of women who make up the bulk of Western movie stars, which is no encouragement to those who are under or overweight by perceived norms or those whose faces are scarred, distorted or simply variant from them.
The same program showed how photographs of monsters – including Frankenstein’s and I forget which others – could be printed large and placed in a baby’s cot without the baby abreacting to them. This, it was claimed, is as a result of there being a certain balance within the face on the image. Babies see at first imperfectly and what registers initially upon their perception is a kind of shadowy mask to which pretty much all faces conform. This mask, it is argued, is what determines our perception of facial beauty from babyhood onwards.
Facial beauty, it appeared, was not ever in the eyes of the beholder. And facial beauty is only part of the question. Babies don’t know slim mums from big mommas.
The word ‘beauty’ troubles me. It’s a word we can assign to a landscape, to a lamb, to a dog or a squirrel, to a land or seascape, to a voice and music, to a single flower, to a child, to an image of emotion.. None of these, for those of us who are (I would argue) of the majority are things which awaken sexual desire.
So is beauty a non-word? Have we set limits to it that should never have been set, or have we failed to set limits that should be set? If so, why, and how do we get away from it?
There are things which some find sexually attractive which don’t immediately respond to the things that (arguably) most people would consider beautiful or, indeed, sexually inspiring. For me these include the artificially hyper-inflated breasts on women who otherwise fit the perceived ideal of the majority and, equally, hyper-inflated bottoms. Some men – and presumably some women – appear to be drawn to partners who are not so much overweight as severely and clinically obese.
There are extremes, and they work for some. So what is it that determines the majority view of what physical beauty is?
Perhaps one of them is a long, long history of association of physical attractiveness with ‘good’?
Okay. I rather fell in love with an actress, Jenny Agutter, when first I saw her in a movie called “The Railway Children” (1970). It has always alarmed me a little that the the character she portrayed was ‘under age’, though in fact she was around 18/19, a year younger than myself. The body she revealed in “Equus”, a film I never saw, but did see in Roeg’s “Walkabout” was ideal, her face lovely, her voice charming. I was bedazzled from the first and I remain so. But to Jenny Agutter – whom of course I do not know – I attributed the qualities of her characters. I think this is something that we do, and that it always comes as rather a shock if we discover that the actor whose characters we admire turns out to be personally less than admirable.
The ‘good’ girl in The Railway Children and the beautiful innocent in Walkabout was the persona – the very attractive persona – I have carried in my perception of her through all the intervening years. It is much the same persona of her character in the recent ‘Call the Midwife’.
The fact is, of course, that I do not know her. I do not know what her voice is like in conversation. I do not know what the quality of her conversation is, how witty she is, whether she is prejudiced or intolerant. I do not know if her ‘beauty’ is more than skin deep. But there remains for me an association.
Think of all the positive images of females in movies and literature and they are all essentially the same in conforming to certain ideas of ‘beauty’. Look up Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Polyanna, Juliet in any movie version of Romeo and Juliet, the heroine in Shakespeare in Love, Wonderwoman, for that matter. Anyone a woman might want to identify with, anyone a man might want to desire, is represented in every case according to the same ideal of ‘beauty’.
We’re not just talking images here, though, or at least not in a two-dimensional sense. What is reflected in most of these characterisations is ‘good’, a personality you would choose to be with, a personality you would choose to be.
Beautiful villains are rare and, even when we encounter them, they are not entirely irredeemable – I’m thinking Margaret Lockwood or Faye Dunaway in “The Wicked Lady”, for example – but villains, the people we would not want to identify with or be – are either (in popular perception) fat or ugly.
Cue Billy and Bessie Bunter, any villainess created by Roald Dahl and depicted on screen. The Dursley’s in Harry Potter feature a fat brat of a son and an overweight father, the dumpy Dolores Umbridge and the aunt Marjorie who is inflated to grotesque ‘fatness’ before she floats up into the sky. Witches are a by-word for ugliness. Even the fairy tales of pretty much everyone’s childhood portray the wicked and the stupid as fat, ugly or both.
There are those who would argue that negativity towards people of a particular appearance is ‘natural’. Historically, however, the ideal body shape does not appear to be a constant. Is it possible then, that the hostility towards people of particular appearance is learned, steadily and by an unrealistic negative association?
And if it is learned, shouldn’t we change it?