When Father papered the parlour
You couldn't see him for paste
Dabbing it here! dabbing it there!
Paste and paper everywhere
Mother was stuck to the ceiling
The children stuck to the floor
I never knew a blooming family
So stuck up before.
Soon dad fell down the stairs
and dropp'd his paperhanger's can
On little Henrietta sitting there
with her young man,
The paste stuck them together,
as we thought t'would be for life,
We had to fetch the parson in
to make them man and wife.
- Robert Patrick Weston and Fred J. Barnes
The family gathered today for Christmas, that is to say, son, daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter. I remember when I first contemplated the idea of being a father. There were three models, four if you included God.
One model was my own father, about whom I wrote in Reel and elsewhere, a mystery, but secondary to my mother, the soft distant hill behind her volcano. Secondary also in the sense that I got to know him second, and best after she died. He never seemed to me a figure of power, more an absent provider and whatever status he might have enjoyed at work meant nothing at home.
Another model was the stern Victorian pater familias, ruling with a rod of moral iron, and his alter ego - Hyde to his Jekyll - the drunken bully to be feared and to be overcome or escaped. I knew this Jekyll and Hyde only through literature and the imagination. He seemed real enough as an idea and as a nightmare. He was a probability we were always feeling lucky to avoid.
The third kind was the comic Pantaloon, a kind of diminished, incompetent male of the sort that papered the parlour as above. He was, by unconscious association, henpecked, impotent, more pitiable than contemptible. His emasculation was part of his fatherly job description. Joseph the carpenter appears in the Nativity then vanishes. The woman's son is conceived by God. The human figure can get stuffed.
There was potentially a fourth model, a kind of white-bearded benevolent patriarch surrounded by dozens of squabbly children, served on by a bunch of kindly squabbling women, muttering wisdom and blessings, producing multi-coloured birds as presents for his children on special occasions. But then this actually was God so it doesn't count.
There was something shameful in fatherhood, I suspected, something almost unbearable. The first and third kind were related in their diminution, a diminution so drastic it was almost deathly. This was the one Tommy Cooper sang about in 1961:
Daddy came home from work tired
His boss had been driving him mad.
The kids were all shouting, the dog bit him too
His dinner was nothing but boiled over stew.
I guess it was then he decided
Up to the rooftop he'd go
He was about to jump off when
The kids started howling below
'Don't jump off the roof, Dad
You'll make a hole in the yard
Mother's just planted petunias
The weeding and seeding was hard
If you must end it all, Dad
Won't you please give us a break
Just take a walk down the park, Dad
And there you can jump in the lake
- Cy Coben
A touch melodramatic possibly, but I sometimes imagined my father might feel like this. This father was the shadow on the stairs and in the parental bedroom. Fathers were not romantic lovers, not adventurers of the passions. Passion was what they could no longer afford. Adventure was what they should not attempt. Responsibility and the diurnal routine of providing meant passion had to be discarded. The best they could aspire to was Walter Mitty status, daydreamers of the time when it might have been possible to follow a male course of life.
I don't imagine any man grows up with the ambition of being a father. That comes or does not come, though it has been a source of shame - a curse - when it did not come. It is not accorded honourable estate in public discourse. There was no such thing as The Good Father, the best you could be was a good-enough father. Fathers in advertisements generally are incompetents, like the Pantaloon. With a great deal of training they might, just, become good-enough fathers.
But the course of human life entails procreation and the perpetuation of the species. Few couples, I imagine, make love with this as a primary consideration, but we know it to be a central part of human affairs. So we had children, children out of passion - and they are wonderful children - and, like most men, I suppose, I learned to love them as they grew, meaning I grew more and more attached to them, so much so that the attachment became an ache - one of the essential meanings of life. And as they grew through adolescence into independence and adulthood, I felt something of the expected personal diminishing, if only in feeling less necessary, less useful. Fortunately I had, and have, my resources and enjoy the same aching love from C as I feel for her. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the ache from the various definitions of love.
Does that make me a good father? I don't suppose I am any of the possibilities I had considered in my youth, and I don't quite know what would make me good.
It comes back to something I first thought many years ago, when I first became a father. I considered the possible paternal models and what harm they might do to my ambitions, primarily to my ambitions as an artist. The enemy of promise was the pram in the hall, wasn't it? And didn't one need to experience the wilder, more unruly passions in order to know life as it should be known?
But then, I thought, human life was this, wasn't it? It was the whole, proper cycle as the world knew it, and if that was the cycle then I would go through it, because if I couldn't write out of that, if there was no poetry in it, then poetry was somehow beside the point. Then I'd rather be a human being than a romance. And so it happened I became a father, and so it is we are here, and though I am less useful in one sense, maybe in another I am not altogether useless, if only to say - look, here is the arc of life, and here is my position, and see, it's bearable. It is partly the ache that sees me through. In effect, the ache has been the poetry.
This is from Reel, a memory of my father in my early childhood.
My fathers, coming and going
Moustaches and grey homburgs: our fathers were
Defined by properties acquired by chance -
Or by divine decree. Standing behind her
In rooms, on stairs, figures of elegance,
They came and went in a murmur of soft voices,
Objects of bewilderment and romance.
How many of them on the premises?
Some worked twelve hours a day in an office
In the city, some placed bristly kisses
On our brows, some would simply embarrass
Us for no particular reason. Their age
Was indeterminate. They would promise
Anything befitting their patronage.
Were all these fathers one? And was it you,
My father, who pushed me in that carriage
I can’t remember now before time flew
And took her away as it will take us all?
I feel myself flying. It’s like passing through
Clouds in an aeroplane in its own bubble
Of air, a slightly bumpy ride down
Towards a runway as we rise and fall
Above the brilliant lights of a big town.
So there's the runway, and there are the brilliant lights, and I'm on the plane somewhere looking down. Good enough, I say.