Like any good father, I’m an example to my offspring – of how not to live

I get on with my children so well perhaps because they are grateful to see exactly what they should not do in order to have a rich and happy life.

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Back in London, with the boys. One of them is heading off to Amsterdam to see his sister. The other one remains, revising for his exams. I’ve never seen anyone revise so diligently. I certainly never did. Well, I must have done, a bit, because I got decent results (apart from two of my three A-levels. But I blame one of those on a terrible teacher and the other on the way the English A-level seemed at the time to be deliberately designed to put people off literature).

But I could never do much because it was May. May was when my birthday happened, and in those times birthdays were something to look forward to. The blossom would be out; a cherry tree bursting with the stuff was right in front of my window. Spring would be settling in, and the Test Match season would be starting. In those days, you could watch every ball on TV. Radio 3 was given over to commentary. My mother grumbled but she was ignored. There was nothing more important than the cricket. 

I pause to look at my youngest’s room. There’s something funny about it, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Oh, wait a minute.

It’s tidy.

How did that happen? I’m told a cleaner comes in once a week, but this isn’t her day. I look at the bed. It is made. True, beds are easier to make than when I was his age – we had sheets and blankets instead of a duvet (I imagine anyone under 40 reading this will have no idea what I’m talking about, and will have to Google “sheets and blankets”) – but this looks made to military standards. If they have duvets in the army. I don’t think they do.

“Bloody hell,” I say. Sometimes the apple does roll some distance away from the tree.”

He laughs at this. We get on, him and I. He is pretty self-enclosed, I must admit. But when we speak, conversation flows freely. I suppose he relaxes with me because I have sympathy with how he feels. Or empathy. The one time I’ve seen him miffed with me was when I had been unable to go to a parents’ evening at his school. He has told his fellow pupils stories about me, and one or two of them have even had them corroborated by reading this very column. As a result they were all very keen to meet me, on the grounds that I was unlike any father any of them knew. (The one about the accidental weed-smuggling incident at Luton airport remains the benchmark, according to them, and will be hard to beat.)

This was all very well while I had a roof over my head. Now that I live a vagabond and wretched life, my happy-go-lucky irresponsibility doesn’t seem such a great policy. Wretched: from Old English “wrecca” meaning an exile or stranger, and “wreccan”, meaning to drive out or punish. I might have mentioned this before, but I used to call my offspring “wretched child” when they had done something demanding a mild but affectionate rebuke, like spilling something over themselves, or outsmarting me in reasoning.

Their mother didn’t like it, but they cottoned on pretty quickly what I meant. If I call you “wretched”, take it as a sign that I like you, probably quite a lot. But who is the wretched one now? (Incidentally, may I take this moment to acknowledge the correspondent in this magazine who, a couple of weeks ago, said I should not mock those who leave school at 15 to get a job at Asda? He was quite right to rebuke me, but in his describing me as a “toff” I think he is somewhat wide of the mark.) And that definition, lurking in the word’s past, of “one pursued” – that’s really worrying. The only thing pursuing me is at least one of the Fates, and why they’re after me is anyone’s guess. I suppose there could be any number of reasons now I come to think of it, but I haven’t done anything that bad, have I? I suppose it’s like one of those parking fines you ignore, which then goes up and up and then, before you know it, the bailiffs are driving away in your car.

The strange thing, as it always is, is being back in the family home for a bit. Look at me now, being someone who can’t even afford a caravan, but look around this four-bedroom house, which I once bought, with the help of a little inheritance and a pair of decent wages. (Now my correspondent really will think I’m a toff. I’m not. I am déclassé.) It is mind-boggling to think that I am the same person. I’m in quicksand, struggling to keep my nostrils above the ooze.

I wonder what example that sets to my children. I get on with them so well perhaps because they look at me and are grateful to see exactly what they should not do in order to live a rich and happy life. And it is almost certainly why my youngest is working so hard. 

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 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family