Surrounded by my son’s friends, I relish my status as The Only Non-Boring Father in England

At the end of their degrees, my son and his friends are at a loose end, and he's keen for me, an old wreck, to meet them.

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I have found a new favourite pub in Brighton: the Basketmakers. I love it because it looks and feels just like a proper pub ought to look and feel; because it is a continuation of the Green Dragon, which I have written about before in this column (it’s not in the same place, but the landlord, known as Blue, took it over a few years ago after the Dragon got a bit, well, scaly); and because it has one of those barmaids who have been put on Earth to make it a better and happier place. Her name is Robin, or perhaps Robyn. I have no carnal designs on her: I just entertain a fantasy that she’s doing her job to fund a sideline in literature, whether reading or producing it, and I can supply some encouragement. Maybe she will like the same kind of books that I do.

These days I can’t go to the pub without unease unless someone else is paying for me, at least partly, so the first couple of times I went after everything opened up again I was subsidised by my youngest son, who has a few more days here after completing a maths degree at Sussex. He is waiting for the results of his final exams, and he and his friends are at a bit of a loose end, and he is very keen to show me off to them. He has built me up, I fear, perhaps higher than I deserve, with the result that I have something of a reputation: that of The Only Non-Boring Father in the Country.

Whether I am boring or not is not for me to say. One, of course, should not try to be not-boring. Otherwise one becomes one of those people who introduce themselves and then say “but everyone calls me Tigger”. I read the recent headline of a column written by a notoriously pedestrian columnist and it went: “My number one fear in life? Being boring”, and I thought, Oh, you sweet summer child; how close to self-knowledge, and yet how far.

So twice in the past week, one of them on Father’s Day, I have sat down with a group of 21-year-olds and tried to entertain them. I think I managed all right. One has to make allowances for different frames of reference. 

My son’s friends are a diverse bunch, apart from all being incredibly young of course, but only one of them had done a degree that had a component of English literature, and so I spent a bit of time trying to work out which British writers he had heard of. Harold Pinter drew a blank; Will Self ditto (I had mixed feelings about this); Samuel Beckett a tentative, “The playwright, yes?” Yes, and like Pinter he won the Nobel Prize. 

After a while I realised I was being a bit mean to him and I apologised. The problem was that he looked like the most nervous of my son’s friends, and something evil in me felt a predator’s bloodlust. Luckily, alcohol makes me a kinder and better person than I normally am.

[See also: Time’s wingèd chariot is getting close – I fear I may never don cricket whites again]

I wonder what they make of me, this old wreck whose stories involve equal parts debauchery and foolishness, waving around a roll-up and drinking twice as much as them. Well, none of them actually bolt, which I suppose is good, in a way. I contemplate these young people, their student days now over, wondering what they are going to do with their lives; how long they are going to have to live with their parents; how on earth they will ever pay off their student debts. 

It was bad enough for me, back in the mid-1980s, stinking up my parents’ home for a year, even with a respectable degree from a very prestigious university under my belt. Perhaps these days the young are under fewer illusions than I was.

Earlier today I was met by the poet, publisher, pseudonymous novelist and belletrist Charles Boyle, who had rashly but kindly offered to buy me lunch. Instead of making him take me to one of the two or three high-end restaurants I love in this town, we went to the Basketmakers. The impression I was trying to give was that of someone who was not taking advantage, but I also wanted to see Robin again. She wasn’t there.

Charles handed me some of the latest books he has published, one of them by him. When I got back I started reading it, and it begins with an encounter between himself and a waitress who runs after him because he has left a book behind – one by him, which, it turns out, is one of her favourite books. The name of this waitress is Robyn. Sometimes one is unsurprised by coincidence. Later on, he quotes Coleridge: “With no other privilege than that of sympathy and sincere good wishes, I would address an affectionate exhortation to the youthful literati, grounded on my own experience… never pursue literature as a trade.” Well, it’s a bit late for me, but it is sound advice nevertheless. 

My son got a First. 

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 appears in the 30 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The King of the North

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