We are sure that our father's last words, as he slumped on the floor, were "that's better"

Last Tuesday evening I realised with extreme alarm that although I was sitting as usual in my Posture-Wise chair, there was something about my attitude that might readily have been mistaken by a casual visitor for slumping. It was a frightening realisation.

To explain my extreme terror of slumping, I have to go back to Boxing Day 1995, when, after the relatively recent death of both my parents, I got together with my two sisters and my brother for an earnest discussion about the ways in which our adult lives had been adversely affected by our socialisation.

My elder sister began the proceedings by observing that our almost pathological lack of sociability must in part be attributed to the inordinate amount of time that Father had passed in the backyard shed. She'd calculated that during one six-month period of her adolescence, he'd spent three times more waking hours in the shed than he had in the family home. There'd even been that wholly unfortunate incident when he'd collapsed with a minor stroke in the shed on a Saturday morning and not been discovered by anyone until late on Sunday afternoon. My sister could still vividly recall the appalled expression on young Dr Harcourt's face when he gently asked my mother why my father had been lying there for so long and she'd told him, with the patience of someone explaining big-bang theory to an Alabama creationist, that "he always spent his weekends in the shed".

It was impossible to exclude the role played by sheds in our formative years. But my brother was quick to point out that, while we must have been affected by our father's long-term occupancy of a space too small to accommodate anyone other than himself, that did not readily explain the other family curse: the behavioural syndrome that we all now refer to as "That's better".

According to the doctrine of "That's better", every single activity undertaken in the world is a chore from which one must instantly seek relief. No matter how intrinsically pleasurable the enterprise - putting the final touches to a watercolour, visiting the local cinema, completing a Jane Austen novel - it is only ever undertaken in the certain knowledge that its conclusion will be marked by an even more favourable state of affairs - the "better" of "That's better".

And that is where slumping comes in. "That's better" made sense as a statement only when accompanied by the sort of slumped, inanimate posture on the couch so often compared in these televisual days to that which might be adopted by a large potato. Not that our family needed to wait for television. We happily slumped in front of the radio and the radiogram. We slumped immediately before and after meals. We slumped in front of priests and social workers. We even found solace from the guilt associated with slumping by opting for another slump.

My brother's graphic account of this unfortunate familial trait was deeply disturbing. But I believe that the real reason why my sisters and my brother and I now insistently spend all our leisure hours sitting bolt upright in straight-backed chairs was the death of my father in a nursing home in Wales. The sister who reported the death told us that Father had been found "slumped" on the floor in an apparently relaxed position. He was still alive when she entered the room, and appeared to be trying to say something.

No one in our family has ever doubted that the phrase he was trying to summon in those final dying moments was: "That's better."

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?