I’m having another holiday in the garden - leaving the country is just too hard

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I am trying to think of the last time I took a holiday. A proper holiday, two weeks in a warm and sunny place, which means abroad. Somewhere with, at the very least, a reputation for good weather and drinkable local wine. And I’d like it to be in Italy, please.
 
Anyway: last holiday? Not sure. I have a hunch it was Spain, which was a bit of a hairraising experience at first when I discovered, upon being frisked at Luton Airport, that the pouch of tobacco I’d groped for in a dark room before the pre-dawn drive to the airport turned out not to be tobacco at all. This was especially tiresome as I had resolved not to take any risks with that kind of thing ever again when travelling internationally. I was escorted to an interrogation room where I invited the customs agents to look out of the window at my wife, above whose head could be seen gathering the kind of atmospheric disturbance associated with extreme meteorological events. There may have been even the odd flash of lightning.
 
“See that woman over there?” I said. “I am far, far more scared of what she’s going to do to me than anything you could.” I had the pleasure of seeing the officers – one experienced, one young and keen as Tabasco – peering through the door’s small window. It was a charming cameo seen from behind; seen from outside, it must have looked rather comic.
 
After a few seconds’ observation, they turned around. The older one sighed. “Go on holiday,” he said, scribbling on a piece of paper in a pad and tearing it off. “Take this chit. When you come back go through the ‘Something to Declare’ channel and present it.” The farce of what happened on my re-entry into the country need not detain us here but I can tell you that I got to say, “What’s wrong with me? I can’t even get arrested in this town,” without using the phrase figuratively.
 
That would have been, oh, ten years ago, I think. After that, we stayed in the country for our hols because of the financial knock-on effects of having three children. Then we separated and the financial knock-on effects of that are unbelievable. So apart from the odd snatched long weekend staying at a friend’s place in either Paris or Rome, I just sit around in the sun. Last year it rained all summer long, so I sat in the rain instead. It wasn’t the same. But to tell you the truth, it’s not just lack of funds that keeps me from travelling; it’s an inability to organise a holiday. I’ve never done it. Parents, girlfriends and wives seem to have a knack that I simply do not possess. It’s at times like these that I start thinking they should give air miles to people who can’t afford to buy plane tickets, rather than hand them out to people who fly all the sodding time.
 
I have recently discovered that the inability to execute plans to leave the country successfully can be inherited. My daughter has had similar problems and so, because of a scheduling error on her and others’ parts, she is obliged to stay with me and the Beloved in the Hovel for a couple of weeks. It’s all rather unusual. Normally I have the children for only two days at a stretch on alternate weekends, so being a full-time parent for the first time in six years is a little weird. That said, the daughter isn’t a child any more: she’s 18, although she looks rather elfin. But it means I can’t tell her when her bedtime is any more.
 
That said, we do get on rather well. Have done ever since her mother screamed, “She’s you! She’s YOU!” at me after an incident of five-year-old insubordination or insolence. She also seems to have adopted a similar attitude to the various cushions on the divan of pleasure.
 
One evening, I gently remonstrated with her about not applying to my alma mater when making her university choices. I think they like that kind of thing, deep down. “I don’t want to follow in your footsteps, Dad,” she said. I gestured silently at the roll-up in her hand, the full glass of red wine in her other hand, and then, as an afterthought, my wristwatch, which was telling anyone who wanted to look that it was well after midnight. To give her credit, she saw my point.
 
Having a mini-me around the place the whole time does make me wonder a bit about heritable traits, though. Did I stay in bed that late when I was her age? Yes, if not later. But was I as fluent a talker as she is? No: I was shy. And now she tells me she’s arranged a combination of trains and planes to get her to her holiday destination. I could never have done that. Can’t do it now.
It's not only the money that makes going on holiday a nightmare - it's the organisation. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Getty
Show Hide image

A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.