A warm ‘thank you’ to those who have been in touch to ask after my Mum. She is currently in hospital, where a sinewy fibre of physical toughness is sticking two fingers up to her emptying mind.
Some readers and friends have shared stories of significant aspects of their relationships with their mothers and fathers. Inevitably, those relationships are unique…..though common patterns and connections constantly assemble and multiply between personal narratives.
Here’s a theory: there can be no meaningful understanding or communication between those who have had straightforward, relatively untroubled, economically comfortable, emotionally conventional childhoods and those who have had complex, psychologically ambivalent, economically stressed, socially unconventional childhoods. There may be all sorts of variables involved, but, unless a lot of good learning happens, the two groupings will scarcely even speak the same language. Such ‘good learning’ is possible, and the key to it has to be the development of empathy.
Neither grouping is better or more blessed than the other. Both gain and both lose.
I am in the second category, so I know it more intimately and subtly than the first group. The presence or absence of unconditional love is the key. The likelihood is that it will be present in the first grouping, though possibly taken for granted. A gift from the universe. If you grow up in the second grouping with the vital added ingredient of unconditional love, then you have powerful and infinite resources of light and dark. A gift from the multiverse.
We can either follow the models offered by our parents or we can react against them. Having been brought up without unconditional love, I made an absolutely conscious choice to build unconditional love into my own being as a parent. There were plenty of other things I wish I had known about, but I was certain of this one elemental, explosively joyful force.
And in the last ten years, after periods of estrangement and many tortuous paths, I have found that I feel unconditional love towards my mother and my father. I would say that my father reciprocates this. I think that my mother has been too ill for too long with a profound obsessive-compulsive disorder to be capable of such a huge change. Perhaps it is also because of the similarities between advanced age and early childhood, but there is a sense of being part of the process referred to in the title of this post…gestating and delivering a rebirth of relationship with my own parents.
It is a process with many nuances. For example, I wrote this poem about 2 years ago.
Bye, Mum. Bye, Dad.
‘Ring us, please, when you get home
just to let us know you’re safe and sound’
stood for decades as your parting refrain,
a ritual nod to ties of blood and common ground.
The perils of the journey once behind me
I would pick up the phone on closing the door –
I could sort myself out, relax, unwind the road
as soon as I’d performed this empty family chore.
Now, if you were dead I could pretend
that you might care enough to still require
my reassurance that I had survived the miles
and had not fallen prey to earth, water, air or fire.
But in your gathering painful numbness,
your farewells no longer make that small request.
How my heart beats for you to ask me this again,
as if your child’s safety might help you rest.
* * * * *
As soon as you’re born they make you feel small,
by giving you no time instead of it all,
till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all.
The worst thing I ever did to my parents was to sit them down and play them John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’. And make them listen to the words. Very carefully and distinctly. Looking back it is a darkly comic scene: on one side of the radiogram the arrogance and insensitivity of youth, fired up by R.D. Laing and the 60s questioning of the role of the family (valid but one-dimensional); on the other side, the intolerance and incomprehension of a couple who found Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ a lyrical challenge.
They hurt you at home and they hit you at school,
they hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool,
till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules.
I was the first kid from my secondary school to get into Oxford University – very much part of a small wave of (mainly) boys from working-class backgrounds who were useful to the Powers-That-Be as token examples of how higher education was diversifying. There are some fine books, films, plays and songs about the painful limbo this inflicted on us: not accepted by the middle and upper classes at university and rejected by our society of origin back home. I still feel the use of the word ‘clever’ as a stinging insult.
No apologies, by the way, for the regular use of the word ‘class’, deeply unfashionable though it may be. It is still a flinty bedrock of a presence, even if the constructions on top of it are more complex and intricate than was once the case.
And younger readers may be wondering what a radiogram is or was. It was a combination of a radio and a record player, enormously bulky by today’s home listening standards. Our’s was an amazing luxury. It was probably bomb-proof and once survived being picked up and slammed down on its back by my father during a parental row about money.
When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years,
that’s when they expect you to pick a career,
when you can’t really function you’re so full of fear.
I had no concept of what university could lead to, and especially no idea of the significance of getting into Oxford. It was, however, a wonderful escape route and much more interesting to me than going into the army or the airforce. I spent the whole of the first year trying to avoid the braying self-confidence of the dominant majority, the public school brigades (for Canadian readers, public in this English phrase means the opposite….public schools are for the wealthy private students). Gradually I found a like-minded cohort of creative misfits and became an ideal candidate for all things counter-cultural.
Hence the ‘Working Class Hero’ confrontation. I never fought overtly with Mum and Dad, but I felt I had been passively finding my own way, and this was by way of a statement.
Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV,
and you think you’re so clever and classless and free,
but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.
John Lennon may have been responsible for a truckload of bland, hippy-drippy placebo music (like ‘Imagine’) but he could also connect with justified anger, intelligent insight and tough humour when he occasionally chose to step outside of his hotel rooms. However, in my parents’ eyes I had done the wrong thing by going to university, let alone all the ensuing politics, sex, drugs and rock and roll. So I think they heard the edge in the song’s voice, felt paralysed by it, and ignored any meaning.
There’s room at the top they are telling you still,
but first you must learn to smile as you kill,
if you want to be like the folks on the hill.
I was trying to explain that I had seen the folks on the top of the hill, and that they were nothing special and that if you had no inherited wealth and were having to fight your way up you had to become someone else, someone inhumane and devious. All that has happened in the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron-Clegg dynasty bears that out…..a parade of ruthless corporate materialism that has created a stifling, toxic culture of self-interest. But Mum and Dad were deferential working-class Tories. I was stupid enough to imagine that hopeful things were happening, but they knew better than to live by anything other than fear.
A working-class hero is something to be,
a working-class hero is something to be.
If you want to be a hero well just follow me.
It’s a truly great song. Not perfect, but exhilarating in its sheer rejection of any comfort zone. Looking back at that scene around the bruised and bruising radiogram, I realise that my relationship with Mum and Dad now has been forged from a lot of unlearning as well as learning.
I unlearn the fears they instilled in me from birth. I unlearn the arrogance of my breakaway years. I unlearn the model of conditional love, of love withheld as a punishment. I learn to appreciate their strengths and their moments of weathered humanity.