Monday, 28 December 2009

Sledge & Shakespeare: Polonius's Precepts and Other Advice for Children

Having advised that a lot of advice about how people will behave in terms of relationships can be gleaned from soul songs, I was reminded of an activity that the woman who lives in my house has been carrying out for the benefit of her son.  He is currently 8 years old meaning he is only 5 years from being a teenager.  Given that the advice from schools and the media is that discussions about sex begin with children from the age of 8 onwards (he has already found the delight of rubbing himself up against furniture and has crushes on characters he sees on the television) it seems apt that over the past year she has been assembling guidance on how to live as a teenager and an independent adult.  I noted a recent radio report about a hostel for homeless people aged 16-18 and one of the staff said that to help the young people to find and keep a home they trained them in how to cook and to run a household budget.  I would hope that in most houses this kind of training was going on from 13 if not from 11 onwards.  At 8 the boy in my house can already make toast, cook omlettes and prepare hot chocolate as well as simple emptying food preparations such as making cordials and dishing out cereals.  I suppose when so many adults have huge debts and the extent of their cooking skills are limited to microwaving a ready meal, they have little to pass on of much use.  I also remember overhearing a 19 year old woman saying she was looking forward to leaving home so that she could escape the fresh vegetables and fruit that her mother kept forcing on her and instead eat 'proper', i.e. processed food.  So I acknowledge that whilst you might teach a child good things whether they pay any attention to them is another issue. 

I have been draughted in to provide the sexual aspects from a male perspective.  Given that I did not have sex until I was 34, I imagine I am not best equipped for this.  However, knowing I was a latecomer, I did read a great deal and took advantage in the mid 1990s on all the programmes late at night especially on Channel 4 about how to do 'good' sex.  I certainly know women are all different and each is sensitive in different parts of her body (sometimes changing at different times of the month) and that the sex they generally want is not the kind you see in pornographic movies, which is often very focused purely on male pleasure, especially the fellatio followed by ejaculation into the woman's face.  While some women are happy to carry out oral sex usually this is on the assumption they will get the same in return and certainly they do not want to be showered in ejaculate, yet this is the image that is all too common in what young men watch. 

Though I sometimes squirm when I read advice from the USA because of the very confused moral stance there which is often about appearances than actual practical existence (I read one book which was supposed to be about coping with break ups but kept suggesting that if marriage was not on the cards then the woman should break a relationship anyway; it would not accept that an unmarried relationship can be a very good one and so drew attention from when you should break up, for example, when abuse is involved), but one piece of advice that I will pass on to the 8 year old in time is 'if you don't feel comfortable telling me [i.e. female partner] about it, then it is cheating'.  Saying that, men should be more confident about talking about non-sexual interaction with women.  Of my 14 employees, 13 are women.  There is nothing there I should be ashamed about, but I need to talk to them on the telephone and via email, and want to be able to do that without my girlfriend getting suspicious.  The same concern came up when I had genito-urinary problems, she would not listen to the causes and just assumed it must be a venereal disease, even though, aside from her, I have only had one sexual partner and that ended in 2003.  Building trust takes a long time and men have to realise they are not judged on their own terms they are judged by the last few men the woman had a relationship with (which clearly all came to an end) and what happened in her friends' relationships.

Anyway, the woman in my house (I am beginning to worry that is becoming a phrase like 'her indoors' was in the 'Minder' television series (1979-94; 2009)) was laying down various lessons and principles that she has learnt in her life, having an alcoholic boyfriend, moving continents, running a pub, being a child minder and a single mother as well as day-to-day domestic stuff like cleaning and cooking which to so many young people, especially boys, seems a complete mystery.  While at university I was stunned at how incapable many other students were.  I knew I was not as adept as friends of mine who had been in the Scouts or trekked to remote areas with their families and, in particular, seemed poorly equipped to deal with the emotional aspects, but at least I could cook healthy food and clean and iron my clothes unlike many others.

Back to the thread.  As soul song lyrics are often overlooked as a source of guidance in terms of relationships I was reminded that other lines can help you out that people tend to forget and this brings us to Polonius, a character in William Shakespeare's play, 'Hamlet' (1603).  He is a rather silly, aged (well probably middle aged given the age of his son Laertes, just starting university) aide to the Danish royal family.  In Act 1, Scene 3 (lines 55-81) he gives advice to Laertes, laid out below.  Now, I have read commentaries which see this as satirical writing from Shakespeare regarding 'homespun wisdom', see Jem Bloomfield's article:  I would contest the satirical aspect.  Shakespeare was a skilful reader of human character and behaviour which is why his plays are still so highly regarded four centuries later.  'Hamlet' is very much about the relationship between grown-up children and their parents and step-parents.  Whilst most adult children are not walking round considering whether to kill their step-father in revenge, a lot of the play is actually about mundane difficulties between parents and adult children.  Ask any divorced/widowed mother who has remarried when her children are adults about the challenges that she faces from those children and you will see parallels to Gertrude in 'Hamlet'.  The fact that their parents are having sex with whoever, let alone someone who is a stranger to them, is something that many adults find difficult to ever accept.

Thus, even if Polonius is silly at times, and he is generally well meaning and protective of his employer, Gertrude, what he says to Laertes, I believe is a good checklist for people going off to university today.  Given that 42% of UK 18 year olds are now going into higher education, these are lines that need to be wheeled out a bit more often.  This is the text:

There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character.
Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade.
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be; 
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. 
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Now, I do not agree with all of this.  I would certainly say that young people should speak up and express their opinions.  I also think that we should censure bad behaviour of others because otherwise they simply get away with it.  However, complaining in the UK has become a pastime as well as a daily activity and maybe it needs some tempering.  Not rising to the bait from men wanting to provoke a fight, is very tough, but we need more of it.  Spilling someone's drink in a crowded bar or simply your gaze looking over someone is no excuse for people to end up in casualty and with criminal records.  I would say these days, walk away the moment any trouble seems to be appearing.  In debate and intellectual discussion, which these days seems very rare given the demands from parents for students simply to be taught to complete the exam, certainly be adept and be well informed.  We have too much physical contesting in our society and too little intellectual.

The warning about clothing is interesting given our fashion conscious age (in many ways no different from the Elizabethan period, though with far fewer options for men).  I read of how so many students now look like clones because even before they arrive on campus they have been instructed on social networking sites what clothes they should wear.  I guess this is the Goth in me creeping in, bemoaning that every student is now in jeans, all the men in hooded tops and all the women in Ugg boots.  Students have to realise that their standard of living will be lower than that most have enjoyed at home.  They will wear fewer changes of clothes, live in poorer quality housing and have more mundane food.  Of course, many now live with their parents, and I think that is bad, they must make a break from the family home if they are to become true adults (this problem applies to people not becoming students too, the ridiculously high cost of even rented accommodation in the UK means many cannot move out until their mid-30s and I feel this is a big contributor to the juvenilisation of adult behaviour in the UK leading to so much debt, violence and other crime).

Other elements I support very strongly.  If you talk to anyone who has been to university you find that they still have friends from there decades later.  This may decrease as people tend increasingly to go to their local university and live at home, so are likely not to lose touch with local friends.  However, there is the bond of shared experience that can be as strong for friendships as say, serving in the armed forces together.  However, the percentage of people who will become life long friends compared to those you will meet and may become acquaintances is very small.  A lot of people have agendas and you can be forced into lots of corners by people who want something even if it is just not to be lonely.  Often the concerns out-strip the real hazard. People are very suspicious these days of anyone who seems remotely religious because they suspect they have an ulterior motive of seeking converts.  However, as advised here, tread carefully and check out people before they designating them life long friends (they might not want this anyway).  Saying this, I know two couples who met in their first week at university, still married 22 years after that.

The thing about borrowing is crucial.  Debt is seen as a fact of life now, especially for students who are compelled to incur thousands of pounds of debt to even begin a course.  However, there is different types of debt and the charges on a student loan are very different from a bank loan let alone credit card and especially store card borrowing (bringing us back to the gaudy clothes).  Certainly loans between individuals is an area that you have to be careful about.  Doing part-time work before going to university I had already learnt never to lend anyone any money that I could not afford to lose; I wrote it off the moment I handed it over and treated it as a bonus if it was ever paid back.  This means you have to refuse people and when I did that, their true character often appeared, one colleague simply then restrained me and stole the money from my pocket, which fortunately meant him being kicked off the job (one of the advantages of working in a petrol station with full CCTV coverage). 

As Polonius (i.e. Shakespeare) notes, borrowing money yourself disrupts friendships and also can lead you not to face up to the reality of your situation.  Being at university simply in terms of food and accommodation (including the innumerable utility bills) is very expensive, especially given what landlords and utility companies are allowed to get away with.  Then these days there is computer equipment (and do not forget the specialist software which you will be compared to buy, usually at reduced rate, but not typically free) before you even get on to the gigs and the beer and the odd play or movie and possibly a trip away somewhere.  Keep a real check on outgoings, but do not do like me and note down every time you buy a beer in a notebook, it makes you unpopular.  Assume money taken from a cash machine is lost to you.  Keep receipts from grocery shopping.  Pay as much as you can in cash as you are far more conscious of what you are spending than if you do it buy card, especially when around the shops.   I know companies try to compel you to put in standing orders, but instead try and do individual payments, (I do this with my council tax still) as you will be reminded, each time you pay, of how much is going out.

About being true to yourself, this is a life long mission and something very few of us achieve.  In this society you get very little credit it for it, we get much more for presenting ourselves as something/someone else.  However, if you want a genuine intimate relationship this is the area in which you certainly need to know yourself and be able to communicate it clearly to your partner.  A key worry is that your flaws will put them off, if that is the case then they were not worth having.  Going away from home, especially into higher education is when you can learn about yourself, what your sexuality truly is, what times of the day you work best, what food you actually like and what food is actually good for you, what kind of people you like to be with (not simply the ones you are dumped into the same space with) and you are likely to meet people from countries you have not even thought about and people with very different views (and with very similar views) to you on a whole range of things and not just religion, politics and football, but everything you can think of.  Sorry, I have spun off into very Polonius like mode myself now, I guess it is an affliction of the middle aged not to want people make the mistakes they have seen made so many times before.

Overall, then, I think that there is a lot of good advice out there and when the 8 year old in my house reaches 13 he is liable to be bombarded with a strange mix of Sledge and Shakespeare in the hope that some of it will penetrate his ipod-filled ears and he will be at least a little better equipped for the adult world than the bulk of young people living in the UK seem to be.

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