With mothers like this

To Houston, in honour of Patrick Swayze

Just in case you were getting excited, the only link between this post and the late, loved Patrick Swayze is Houston (he was born there). No extra Swayze info here, I'm afraid. (Although, saying that, I did particularly love this from Whoopi Goldberg on Swayze's passing: "I believe in Ghost's message, so he'll always be near.")

Anyway, reading this blog post from Gwen (of Gwen and Her Men fame) of the Houston Chronicle is physically painful. I imagine poor "Josh" whimpering in his bedroom in Houston as his mother strides around town . . . wait for it . . . trying to find him a date for the prom.

"What about that one girl . . ." I start. I mean a girl that I saw at his eleventh-grade orientation last year. She'd passed us in the hall and had seemed really sweet and cute and smart to me. Totally high-school-girlfriend-worthy. Not to get all gross and Oedipal here, but she'd looked like a nicer, more well-adjusted version of me at that age. When I saw her, I immediately pointed her out to my son. "Look at that girl! She's cute! You should date her," I'd said at the time.

Oh GOD.

And then:

Josh is a handsome boy. I'm not just saying that because I'm his mother -- I've had it confirmed by independent sources, and I've seen the looks that junior high girls give him at the mall. He's tall and he lifts weights in his room at night, when he thinks we won't notice. And he's a snazzy dresser, thanks to my guidance.

Gwen, do you realise what you are doing? There is a picture on your blog. This will mean your son's friends will identify you as his mother. This will mean that he will be mercilessly taunted for the rest of his days. Not finding a prom date will be the least of his worries. And stop dressing the poor boy, for heaven's sake. You use the word "snazzy". This means, by definition, that letting you anywhere near the wardrobe of a 17-year-old boy is going to result in some kind of fashion crime. Gwen, leave him be. And stop watching him weight-lift. Seriously.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder