Ronnie's ex-pupil, Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry. Photo: Scott Gries/ImageDirect
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One hundred years of Ronnie: at a centenary birthday party in Spennymoor, County Durham

Swimming, war and teaching Bryan Ferry: as more of us see our centenary, one man shares his story.

Ronnie is shaved, dressed and waving as the staff wheel him into the room. Houdini was still climbing out of straitjackets the day Ron was born in Spennymoor, County Durham, back in February 1915. Kafka was proofreading The Metamorphosis for publication. Asquith was about to be replaced by Lloyd George as prime minister.

Life in Spennymoor wasn’t easy. The ironworks had closed, along with a number of pits. Less than 10 per cent of houses had indoor toilets; most human waste went in with the ashes. By the 1920s the town was deep in depression, but Ron was lucky. He lived in one of the bigger houses. His father was a tailor whose children were always well dressed. And he was bright. In 1933, the year the SS led a torchlight parade to mark Adolf Hitler’s election as German chancellor, Ron went to nearby Durham University.

Soon after, he met Alberta – Bertie – who worked in M&S. They married in Houghton-le-Spring. But then came the war. Ron was deployed to the Cocos Islands, a strategic location for intelligence-gathering in the northern Indian Ocean, 7,246 miles from Spennymoor and his two young children. He ran the library and lived off English sausages. At night, land crabs took over the island. As his fellow soldiers were demobbed, Ron found himself the last to leave. He was alone in his tent for weeks. The war never left him.

Back home, he taught mathematics. One of his pupils was Bryan Ferry. “A bit sure of himself,” Ron says, “but always impeccably dressed.” Another of Ferry’s classmates was Howard Kendall, who took Everton to Cup glory in the 1980s. Ron still has people come up to him now – men and women, similarly stooped and ageing. “You won’t remember,” they say, “but you taught me geometry in ’53 . . .”

Retirement in 1976 brought a little leisure time. Ron and Bertie took full advantage of the package-holiday boom. They became sunlounger-lizards, always just back from the Med with new leather coats and photographs taken by Spanish waiters. Bertie died in 1995 with Ron in the chair next to her. He showed little visible emotion when she passed – public expressions of feeling by northern men are a more recent phenomenon.

He liked to swim every day at the public baths in Hetton-le-Hole until he hit 90, at which point he quietly griped about the “pensioners” – two decades his junior – who would gossip at the shallow end.

Ron’s in a residential home now. He forgets things – people’s names, which order to put his clothes on. But he never forgets the war. He never forgets Bertie. Last month the Department for Work and Pensions called his daughter-in-law, Dorothy, to confirm his approaching centenary so that the Queen could send her customary card. A rare occasion, Dorothy thought. Not at all, the DWP representative said: 5,000 cards go out every year and the figure is rising. In 1915 life expectancy for men was little over 50 but advances in medicine, diet and exercise have changed all that. The DWP calls again the week of the birthday, “just to check”.

The home is helping host his party. We’re all here. Ron’s children, Geoff – my father – and Pauline, over from Spain. Grandchildren; three great-grandchildren, too – people who may live to see 2110. The Office for National Statistics estimates an average life expectancy of 96 years for the next generation of newborns.

Ron is happy. He’s enjoying the attention. I ask him what he thinks of the future. He smiles. “I’m thinking of going back to work next year,” he says.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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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.