Friday, 22 February 2019

Breaking Bad

There is an important, if embarrassing conversation you should probably have had with your children (assuming you have any, can find them, and that you can get them to listen to you) but probably will have avoided. No, not that one – teachers deal with all that, these days, thankfully. I mean the one that, in my case (YMMV) should have gone something like this:
I, the lord thy father, am not actually an omniscient being, demanding and deserving of fear and respect and a propitiatory card on Patriarch's Day. What? No, I know you don't think that, not really, but just stop giggling and humour me for a second, OK? I ... thy father ... that is to say, me ... Look: I might seem old and wise – well, old, anyway – but inside I am still just 16, just a regular little small-town teenage dirtbag, too bright and ambitious to stack shelves, but not bright or ambitious enough to amass fame or money, and saddled with some seriously self-defeating attitudes and inclinations, who was saved from himself by the love of a good woman. And then I met your mother! Heh... Only joking. Seriously, I'm just some everykid whose genes threw a six enough times to help him climb more ladders than his lazy, stupid, self-destructive impulses caused him to slide down snakes. Result! If you can call 40 years of anonymous but useful public service and a decent pension a result. Which I do. Plus, of course, there's you. Double result! That is all. Carry on!
I suppose the conversation would have to go somewhat differently if you were, say, a wildly successful artist, a rock-star, or a prominent politician. Although then it would be even less likely to happen. It must be a massive burden growing up in the shadow of some household name, someone with a carefully constructed myth and persona, the sort of person whose long shade can darken the lives of several generations. Particularly, of course, if that personage's shadow was rarely actually cast within the walls of the family home. Success in this world is usually the reward of ambition, narrow focus, and inflexible egotism, qualities which do not make for a good parent or partner. What a strange fate it must be, always to be tagged as "So-and-So's child", but never having really spent much quality time with old So-and-So. I'm always puzzled when the children or even grandchildren of some grandee like Churchill or Picasso are interviewed about their prominent progenitor, as if there was any way they could have acquired any insight whatsoever into why the old bastard made the choices he did in politics or art. You might as well ask the postman.

Worse, I suppose, you could be a complete blank in your children's lives, leading what is euphemistically called a "chaotic lifestyle", estranged from family and friends, and enduring an abject, lonely, pointless life in a gutter somewhere. In which case, you probably do have a very private, much-rehearsed speech, an apologia refined in occasional moments of clarity and regret, but which no-one will ever hear, or even want to hear. But, for most of us, who have been adequate-to-good parents, it is an important but too-often neglected act of empowerment to break the binding spell of parenthood, like Prospero in The Tempest, freeing your children from the illusory cage of authority that did once invest their young lives with structure and security but which, perpetuated into adulthood, can become a real prison. In the words of the philosopher Gordon Sumner, "If you love somebody, set them free (free, free, set them free)".

This liberation works both ways. You may also need to free yourself from your children, or rather, from their limited, limiting perspective on your life. Which can be quite difficult, if you've worked hard at creating an admirable, flattering version of yourself in the mirror of your children's eyes for twenty years or more. Continuing to live up to that fiction is a prison all of its own. I think my generation has been better at avoiding this trap than our own parents, who – like those retirees whose entire identity had been constructed around work – often seemed unable to recover any sense of themselves as independent beings, once the family-raising phase of their lives was over. Not helped, of course, by having been forced to spend their formative years in uniform, alternating regimented boredom with abject existential terror; that will put a dent in anyone's sense of self. But to set up any kind of mutually-dependent relationship is to prepare a potential pitfall. For example, trying to insinuate yourself into your kids' lives as their best mate, as I have seen some cringe-worthy contemporary parents do, is bound to end badly in the longer term. It also ties your hands somewhat in the short term, when it comes time to administer the punishment beatings.

If you're serious about achieving a really meaningful, full-spectrum, all-round Declaration of Independence, however – not a bad retirement project – I think you first need to know and acknowledge who you really are, which is to say, who you really have been, not some evasive or self-aggrandising semi-fiction. You've done some good things, sure, but what about that other stuff? No-one else need know about your truly grim secrets [1], but – and call me a Baptist-heritage party-pooper if you must – to know who you really are surely means that you must "own" that Bad Stuff, too. And this is harder, these days, than it once was. Shameful secrets and ugly truths have become so much easier to ignore, now most of us have stopped believing in some cosmic surveillance system, able to see into our innermost thoughts, and record it all on eternal, multi-dimensional, uneditable tapes. We forgive ourselves too easily – I was young, I was drunk, I was being ironic, I didn't really mean to hurt you (I'm just a jealous guy) – or, worse, we just pretend The Bad Stuff never really happened.

After all, who's to know? One of the most surprising discoveries of advancing age is that the witnesses to your past misdeeds have either died, forgotten all about them, or even got you muddled up with some other wicked person. It turns out that things that have haunted you for decades, when sleepless at 4 a.m., have passed some natural, attritional statute of limitations. So, relax: none of it'll ever stand up in court. There will be no Day of Judgement. There are no tapes. Although, on the other hand, do bear in mind that there may be some confused person out there who bears you an eternal grudge for something you never actually did [2]. Or might there even be someone you really did hurt badly enough – you were young, you were drunk, you were being ironic, you didn't really mean to hurt them – that they will never forgive, never forget? Even with the passage of time, it seems there is always unfinished business, where the Bad Stuff is concerned.

But if, like me, you are now more or less free of the role-playing demands of the workaday world, have long abandoned your wicked ways, and agree that achieving a full-on Declaration of Independence is a worthwhile goal, here's a thought: maybe now is the right time to get back in touch with your inner outlaws? No, fool, not your in-laws! You know who I'm talking about: all those liars, cheats, cowards, braggarts, thieves, swindlers, and general-purpose bad hats we locked away in the past, and never acknowledge, even though they look so suspiciously like us? Believe me, they're still banged up in there somewhere. You may not love them the way you love your children, but they're still yours, all right, so why not set them free, too? [3]  Don't worry, they're unlikely to stick around: why would they want to hang out with such boring, straight-edge, senior citizens as we've become? (I know, I know: speak for yourself...). But if there's one thing I know for certain, it's that you sleep better if you don't have to listen to those desperados rattling the bars all night.

We're outta here... See ya! Wouldn't wanna be ya! Loser!

1. For example, that vacation job executing turkeys by hand will have to stay between me and Bad Santa.
2. I discovered the truth of this myself a few years ago at a sort of reunion. That wasn't me, honest!
3. How? Well, that's a matter for your conscience, or perhaps your therapist. A few of them, of course, may need to suffer the consequences of their actions: I'd recommend withholding pocket-money.


Martyn Cornell said...

So, Errr. What did they think you had done? Were you able to convince them it was someone else? And who was it really? Great plot for a novel, btw.

Mike C. said...


Far too embarrassing to describe out loud. Ask me over a pint sometime. I'm pretty sure it wasn't me...