Yesterday was Father's Day, and today would have been my mother's 92nd birthday, so naturally I've been thinking about them both. No matter how happy your upbringing was -- and mine was very happy, in the main -- there inevitably comes a stage in your life when you realise that your parents were less than perfect, and may even sometimes -- whisper it -- have been idiotic or irresponsible. As Loudon Wainwright III put it in that great tearjerker Your Mother and I, "your parents are people, and that's all they can be". Crazy people, maybe. Well, the past is a crazy place, and that's where they met.
All fathers are weird, I think; it's a weird job, believe me. Though it was considerably more weird back then. It took me years to realise my father was, under his easy-going manner, a wary, frustrated man. You could never quite take him at face value, particularly when he expressed an opinion or made a joke. Often, when he said one thing, he meant quite another, but he was so fond of certain well-worn ironies that you would eventually not notice their intended obliquity. Take bourbon biscuits. I will now never know whether his pronunciation of "bourbon" as "berben" in the American style was one of his little jokes, or a slightly mistaken bit of Besserwisser one-upmanship. Whatever, within our family "berben" was the Authorized Version. So I will never forget the day one of my partner's parents requested a bourbon biscuit, pronounced slightly pedantically in the full-on French manner, and I got a severe, spluttering case of the giggles. Thanks, Dad.
Until you could spot and step past these multiple barriers of irony, he would keep you at a safe distance. Few people ever made it through, and as a consequence he was a man with few friends in adult life. In fact, in retrospect, it seems that this was a feature of male adult life in general. You simply stopped having friends when you acquired a family; to have friends was somehow juvenile. The oddness of this didn't strike me until I was well into adult life myself. When he died, admittedly at an advanced age, I couldn't think of a single living person to invite to his funeral not related by blood. I understand this is not uncommon, and there have been cases recently where social media appeals were made to recruit potential mourners for some lonely old man who died with no friends or relatives left in the world.
Of course, there were reasons. Like most of his generation, he had left school at 14 despite abundant academic ability. In the 1930s it simply cost too much to stay on at school beyond the statutory leaving age. That was tough for him, I think. He was easily bright enough to have managed university, but that was so far out of the question, socially and financially, as to be unthinkable. Then, after just a few years of apprenticeship and employment, he was required to spend six prime years of his life in the systematic limbo of active military service, with the occasional enforced descent into the chaos of active military hell. By the end of the war, he was pushing 30. Not exactly past it, but no longer young in those days.
Now, a conscript "citizen" army teaches good men the arts and habits of "dumb insolence" and a passive-aggressive, veiled hostility towards lesser men given unchallengeable disposal over their lives. You do what you're told, sort of, but make sure in the doing that the teller realises you think he's an idiot, quite possibly by sabotaging the outcome by following the letter, not the spirit of your orders. Anyone who seeks an explanation for the craziness of industrial relations 1945-1975 need look no further. After the war, back in civilian life, ambitious and able men of my father's age found themselves blocked from significant advancement at work; at first by those very same lesser men, with their schooling and their connections, and then by a more highly-qualified, leap-frogging post-war generation, for whom free higher education came up with the rations, as they would have said in the army. After rapid promotion from the shop floor, Dad spent his entire working life in the lower reaches of middle-management. Again, this was typical for that frustrated generation, and a resigned, sometimes cynical, self-defending irony was the natural response. The genius of someone like Spike Milligan was to find another, new and more creative way forward.
But I suppose the main culprit was what sociologists would call the "performance of masculinity". Dad's generation was locked into possibly the most constricting, mutually-policed version of maleness ever known in Britain. Any scope for flamboyance, emotionality, self-expression, or any other suspiciously feminine forms of behaviour was strictly channelled into acceptable modes of dress and conduct. The gulf between the pre- and post-war male was very, very deep, and rarely crossed. Even a good, intelligent man like my father found the post-68 appearance, behaviour, and beliefs of his son hard to accept. Which, I suppose, was the point.
Now these guys in the photo below are performing their masculinity really well. But that little one at the front is pushing it a bit with that tie... And isn't that suit a bit ... Italian? Ah well, he's just become a father, and that'll soon sort him out.
Burma Reunion 1947