Maybe I’m not the ideal father, but at least I’ll give my son an awkward hug – unlike my dad

I may be vague about my children’s birthdays but I am not vague in my affection for them.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

A visit from two of the children – the eldest and the youngest – to Brighton. The youngest is going to be staying here, as he’s in his second year at Sussex University. He’s studying maths; every so often the Lezard genes pop out someone good at the subject. The eldest drove him down. I wait until they’ve unloaded the car before going to the nearest pub, where we play a game of pool, and I keep an eye on the Arsenal-Spurs derby. (I don’t really care much about football, unless Arsenal or England are playing. Cricket, though – I’ll watch a game of beach cricket being played by complete strangers.)

The pub is the kind of pub the developers are trying to turn my local into: that is, one with several television screens, all showing the same thing. However, there is a place for everything, and the pub is awfully near, and the landlady is lovely, and no one beats anyone up for either being, or being related to, a student. In fact, students get a discount. It is, though – how shall I put this? – the kind of pub in which you will find someone, who is not necessarily Mexican, at the bar wearing a sombrero. Well, why not? It’s a Sunday.

As always, it is a great pleasure to see my children, although it would have been even nicer if they’d all been there. They’d gone on holiday with their mother and the man who I suppose is de facto their stepfather, and although I am happy everyone gets on together, I cannot pretend that I was unmoved by jealousy when they sent me photos and videos of them all enjoying themselves, and just because you recognise your own jealousy as ugly and profitless, it doesn’t inoculate you against it. Then I remember that when I’m asked how old they are, I have to stop and think for a bit – in a way that I do not have to do when recalling, say, the release dates of Beatles LPs. (I had to rebuke a friend the other day for reminding me of a programme that was going to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the “White Album”. Tsk, I had to say to her, you mean Abbey Road.) With two of them I can remember the dates but not the years, and with the other I can remember the year but have to double-check the date. So maybe I am not the ideal father. Well, the ideal father would be there.

And yet they are there, in my head: I dream about them regularly, although, curiously, they only ever appear as they were when they were very young, when they could still ride on my shoulders and steer me by holding on to my ears. I take this as an act of kindness on the part of my subconscious, for it is a re-enactment of the last time I actually experienced domestic happiness. I was reading a collection of Eve Babitz’s journalism the other day and one of her interviewees brought me up short with this somewhat banal observation: “All we’re looking for is to wake up in the morning with someone who makes you happy, who makes you laugh and with whom you have great sex.” (You’ll never guess who said that. Give up? It was Jackie Collins.) It’s been a long time since I have had that joy on anything like a regular basis: six years, I think. That’s a long time. Is it that much to ask? Apparently it is.

I do not hold out much hope. Unless something miraculous happens, well, that’s it. It’s not as if I’m getting any younger, or handsomer, and the end of the road is a hell of a lot nearer than the beginning. I’m at the age when you start noticing terrible things happening to your friends, and start wondering when something terrible will happen to you. You begin singing Roy Orbison’s lines from the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care”. It’s awful.

However, there are still the children. I may be vague about their birthdays but I am not vague in my affection for them. When we part, I give the youngest boy a hug. He’s in front of friends, so is a little awkward about it, which itself breeds a certain awkwardness on my part, and we are teased by his sister: “You guys.”

But I think a certain amount of awkwardness is becoming in a paternal hug. It shows that a reluctance has been overcome by the force of emotion. (I think my own father would have died before hugging me; in fact, he did just that, but that was his generation.)

That evening, I lean out of the window after closing time, smoking pensively. A couple of young men, possibly also students, are walking past my front door. One of them looks at me and says, “Fuck me, that’s my grandad.” So I scramble out of the window and chase him all the way down the hill, calling him an insolent whippersnapper, and brandishing my walking stick. Oh, the look on their faces. 

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 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos