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.
‘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?