Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading the opening chapters of Adam Sisman’s superb biography of John Le Carré (aka David Cornwell) that the topic of fatherhood is lodged in my mind this evening. In those chapters Sisman presents a bewildering and at times hair-raising picture of the approach to fatherhood of Cornwell senior (Ronnie to his friends). It is a picture that involves long periods of absence, sudden, drunken appearances at vital moments, single parenthood, the absence of a settled family home, expensive cars, unpaid school fees, strong opinions about careers, dispatching children on strange errands over international borders, standing for parliament, building a property empire – and more besides. Not bad for 100 pages of reading so far, but what must it all have been like to live through as a young child? ‘Not very easy’, is the answer that comes through in Sisman’s account, which I won’t expand upon further to avoid spoiling the fun of reading it for anyone interested.
I hope my own approach to fatherhood doesn’t share much in common with that of Cornwell senior. I’ve reflected a little on this, this evening, during some moments spent with my own 3 year old son. The scene was the downstairs study, where he’d found me sitting at my desk, after bath-time. He’d come to fetch me to read him his bedtime story – but he asked if he could come and listen to some songs with me at the desk first. Listening to music together is something we did frequently when he was very small – but not something we’ve done very recently. I found it moving that he would want to do this now, and it called to mind some of the hours we’d spent when he was just 1, listening to many Paul Simon and Bob Dylan songs together.
Tonight it was the turn of Billy Joel – and I found on youtube two appropriate-seeming songs which deal with the topic of night-time and being asleep: River of Dreams and Goodnight my Angel (Lullabye). He, listened, transfixed, to both, asking for the second song after the first had finished. He then gave me a hug and asked again for his story. I felt a tear in my eye during the Lullabye. There are moments in a parent’s life when you become conscious of how you are doing for your own children what your own parents did for you – patiently, repeatedly, lovingly – many years ago (even if the memories of their actually doing this now feel very thin…in fact, this very thinness, and the ephemeral nature of one’s memories, somehow make them more moving).
Joel’s lyrics had a part to play in stirring my emotion. Simple, direct and gentle, the following words create a moving effect:
‘Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby
Then in your heart there will always be a part of me
Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabies go on and on
They never die
That’s how you and I will be’.
Family life can feel at times like a subversive experience. Subversive of the market forces against and within which individuals strive to forge lives and careers in our societies, forces which incline people to learn to see and measure each other in terms of competitive frameworks, in terms of productivity, in terms of costs and benefits. Family life can also feel subversive of the priorities of ideologues who would push public discourse and others’ habits of thought and speech in the directions they desire. The love of a parent for a child, and of a child for a parent, exchanged in the quiet of a home, should always cast these economic and political forces in a stark and discomfiting light. The power of the marketplace and the power of discourse may be considerable, but in terms of the human heart, both seem of scant meaning or value when set in context against the unselfish spontaneous love between parent and child, the purity and selflessness of which might better be taken as an organising framework around which to structure our societal values. To the person who finds in this notion only ‘bourgeois’ fantasy, and who is resolutely determined to see love (only) as a ‘political’ idea, I suggest they haven’t yet changed many nappies or read many Paddington Bear stories at bedtime.
There is a brilliant short story by Chekhov, ‘Home’, in which a father speaks to his young son at the end of a day. The story can be read here. It brings to the fore a similar message: one about the depth of feeling a father can have for a son, the sense of time and of generational awareness one starts to feel in relationship with one’s own children, the sense that life in the big picture is moving in tune with economic and political priorities far beyond one’s limited control, but that one can nonetheless find a kind of infinity and precious emotional depth when experiencing love with a child and trying to keep them safe and happy. The hope is that even when one is no longer around, one will somehow have managed to leave a good and permanent imprint of love and protection with one’s child, who will in turn continue to know and feel that bond in a way that no worldly force can touch. Love within a family, like all love, somehow stands outside time, as well as within it.