Friday, 8 February 2008

Not Forgetting and Not Forgiving 1: My Parents

The British poet Philip Larkin (1922-85) wrote the following poem (beloved of bloggers it seems) in 1974:

This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

The reason why I thought of this poem was that my father turns 70 next month. In his middle-aged years he always said he wanted to take a pill on his 70th birthday and to simply fall asleep and die so that he was no longer a burden on society. I think this partly stems from the burdens elderly relatives in his and my mother's family inflicted on him in his 40s and 50s. As the date approaches, statements he has made seem to indicate that he may follow this prescription. Now, regular readers of this blog will know that it is one of my beliefs that we should do nothing to stop someone who wants to take their own life. It would be hypocritical for me to intervene and anyway there may be nothing I can do, especially if he is determined. What I did realise was that I had no emotional regrets about his imminent departure from the world. I have selfish regrets that a source of income and of woodworking and electrical skills will be cut off, but beyond that I simply feel numb about the occurrence.

Throughout my teenage years, probably in common with many people, between bursts of thinking about killing myself, I plotted how I would kill my father. Before I go any further I should emphasise that I was never sexually abused or physically abused. However, I do blame him very directly for screwing up a large chunk of my life. I am certainly not as forgiving as Larkin is. I believe part of his actions were getting back at his own father who always favoured his younger brother in terms of support financially and otherwise. My father was rarely violent towards me though he kicked me right across a room when I was about twelve and he threatened to cut off my ears off with a kitchen knife when I was sixteen and we were wrestling over it. (even now he is physically stronger than me), but I think that incident stemmed very much from his misreading the situation and thinking me threatening to take my own life was aimed at threatening to kill him to somehow win my mother from him. It was only later that my plans against him crystalised and they were only ever for my own sense of revenge and had nothing to do with my mother.

The ways in which my parents, especially my father, earned an undying hatred (and I call it so accurately because even 20 years on it is as strong as it was at the time and I envisage it never burning out) is because of how they undermined my life leaving it distorted probably for ever more. It was really not until I turned 34 and a woman proved willing to sacrifice her happiness on my behalf that I really came of age. I had been kept back from maturing properly into an adult by the psychological burdens my father put on me.

The first element is not going to seem shocking, but it was the way I was free labour for my father. He owned one third of an acre (about 0.13 ha) on which he grew vegetables and I cannot remember a weekend when I was not forced to weed or water 'the land' as he called it. There were bushes to clear and lawns to mow and fruit to clear up, jobs for every month of the year in the cold, the hot, the rain, whatever. He grew a vast range of vegetables and every kind of temperate climate fruit available at the time. Each Summer and Autumn there were things to be harvested. Once we had exhausted the crop from this source it was out into the woodlands to pick buckets of blackberries and rosehips. Then it was backbreaking work picking up innumerable sweet chestnuts from the floors of other woods. I know self-sufficiency was popular at the time, but I simply felt like a serf. I received my board and lodging and some pocket money, but was never paid for this incessant year round work. Refusing to work or treading in the wrong place on 'the land' or dropping or spilling something all resulted in bed without dinner or a smack (still legal in the 1970s). When friends were out on their bicycles or at the park or playing board games or listening to cassettes, I was out there serving one man's empire. I have an intense loathing of any gardening to this day and will go nowhere near it.

The second thing that I despise my father for distorting my life with was mock examinations. I lived in a county that had scrapped the so-called 11-plus examination (taken at 10, which chose which school children went to at the age of 11, it is still used in Kent and Buckinghamshire) even before I started school. However, this did not stop my parents sitting me down in examination room conditions to incessantly do mock 11-plus papers from at least the age of 9 onwards. I found them difficult (they had IQ test questions as well as the usual short essays and mathematics you expect on entrance papers), especially the logic problems and the mathematics, both skills I quite lack. However, the fact that I might find them impossible was never taken into consideration. In my parents' view I only did badly on them because I was lazy and did not apply myself. This treatment was worse than the gardening as the room I had to do the tests in looked out on the road and I could see my friends cycling by to the park while I was stuck indoors. There was absolutely no point doing these mock examinations. I went to the local state secondary school at 11 anyway and you had to do no examinations to get in there. I did reasonably well and see no benefit from doing hour-upon-hour of these tests. I blame it on some high expectations of my parents. I know I said disappointment is the highest form of flattery, but I wish they had simply taken a more realistic view of my abilities and not inflicted these useless tests on me, that gained nothing except making me loathe them even further.

You may note that I have shifted from 'him' to 'them'. My father was the clear instigator of all the activities I mention here, but my mother was a clear accomplice. It maybe she was frightened or she believed in what my father insisted upon. However, if he had adopted a more humane line towards me I am sure she would have gone along with that too.

The element of their behaviour which caused me greatest difficulty was the humiliation. Now, I know that all parents embarrass their children at some time or another, but it does not usually form the basis of sustained action. I had always felt to be an outsider in my school. Everyone in the area was well off, but we lived in the 'wrong part of town', we lacked the consumer items most people had, I had a strange name and had never been baptised. All of these things were aspects pupils ridiculed me on, but I could resist those jibes. What totally undermined me was the humiliation from home which began around the age of twelve and led to stress-related illnesses and made it almost impossible for me to operate in the adult world until many years later. For some reason my father decided that the way I spoke sounded like 'the hooting of an idiot child' and that the way I walked was like that of an 'imbecile' or someone who was mentally handicapped (as the term was in the 1970s). I was constantly reminded of these deficiencies in public as well as criticised incessantly about them at home as if they were something I could alter and was refusing to do so. Attempts to walk and stand differently to avoid such criticism simply led my mother demonstrating that I walked like a woman trying to defend herself from being raped! You can imagine what that felt like to a boy in his teenage years. Most people lack self-confidence as a teenager and are self-conscious of their appearance. I am not an attractive man and am clumsy, so to be constantly told by your parents that you look like someone who has such difficulties makes you feel there is no point. At school I would simply hide in the school library all the time so as to avoid going into the playground. Seeing a victim (and my parents blamed me for making myself that victim when I was beaten up in a public library) I became the butt of jokes and the 'Laurel and Hardy' theme would be whistled whenever I passed. Ironically, it was only my ability to overcome the stress-related illnesses that I began to suffer that won me any standing at school (though of course not at home where I was clearly blamed for these illnesses).

Once I left home, I had no confidence that anyone could find me anything more than a replica of the elephant man and I simply threw myself into work and hanging out in libraries until they closed, as a refuge. I tried to eat myself to death by bingeing on cakes and then I tried alcohol, drinking until I could stomach no more every night of the week. These things dulled the pain but did not kill me. To some degree it was planning my revenge on my father that carried me through and slowly I was able to develop my own identity as something worth people's time, but it took years. How I wish we had had blogging and chatrooms back then, it would have been less isolating. The only real escape was into cakes, beer and the fantasy fiction I wrote.

My life has been many times better than that of people who have suffered sexual and physical abuse and I believe they are the real courageous ones in our society. I have thought with time that I would find forgiveness of my father, but a quarter of a century has passed and I feel the anger no less strongly than when I left home. I do not think I have the capacity to forgive him for how difficult he made my life, especially personal relationships. If you entirely strip away every iota of someone's faith in themselves they have absolutely no basis that they can interact with other people on more than a superficial level. My memory is failing as I have commented before, and as I cannot offer my father forgiveness, he may get forgetting out of me, but surprisingly (or maybe not) the incidents are still very raw in my mind and whilst many other things have faded from it, these stay there very clearly. I have no idea what motivated him to behave the way he did, I never really cared. I would have preferred an absent or oblivious father to the one I got and I will not mourn his passing.

As for the rest of us, as usual, I return to the kind of sentiments Larkin outlined at the start and I am thinking of making my motto:

'Get out as early as you can/And don't have any kids yourself.'

Wise words.

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