Monthly Archives: September 2014


It’s no more a miracle than eating food and a turd comin’ out of your ass…

Bill Hicks on childbirth

I’m starting to think the late, great Bill Hicks got it wrong. Childbirth is a miracle. And children are, too. Or my son is, at least. I laughed at the time, sure. After all I wasn’t the target. I was no sentimentalist like the bright eyed and bushy tailed newbie parents he lampooned, and he had a point, right? ‘There’s too many fuckin’ people in the world. Someone needs to say that…’ And I was glad it was Bill. To my mind, teetering as it was on the cusp of adulthood – it hasn’t stopped teetering yet – kids were like bad news on the TV. It happened alright, just to other people.

And now it’s happened to me, I’m back in the grip of childlike wonder. As a boy I’d gaped at textbook pictures and TV documentaries filmed in utero, agog at conception, a scene from inner space. In my febrile pre-teen imagination, it seemed utterly alien. Not hostile alien, not deep-space-stomach-bursting-humans-must-die-alien, but unknown nevertheless, wondrous and shockingly beautiful. Something from nothing. A Big Bang no less cosmic for all it’s incalculable frequency.

Soon of course, the mechanics of reproduction became apparent, and not through textbooks or the BBC. And in the wake of physical and sexual – if not mental and emotional – maturity, soon I, too, like Bill before me, was ‘wiping entire civilisations off of my stomach with a grey gym sock’. Nothing miraculous about it, quite the opposite in fact…

Leo’s eventual arrival, along with my simultaneous separation from his mother, was as tumultuous as a planetary collision and as the debris coalesced and our orbits realigned I found myself happily revolving around him, and once again in touch with the awestruck child inside me.

His very existence owed a deal to fortune. The timing couldn’t have been tighter. After seven months of trying, his conception coincided almost exactly with his mother meeting her new partner James. There’s a significance to that I’ve long since given up trying to unpick. That coincidence, entirely unbeknownst to me, accounted for the odd ambivalence in Ellie as the test brought the news, a fluctuation in her that registered with me immediately. Leo was on his way, but it felt like a ghost had entered the room. Another presence, someone other.

When, three months into the pregnancy, that presence finally revealed itself in the person of James the task at hand, even as the world swum around me, was to establish whether or not I was in fact Leo’s father. Cue tortuous phone conversations, consultation of dates and reassurances from the GP. Leo had been conceived only days before his mother’s life changed. My final act. I’d been only days from a life without him, and possibly a childless future. A parallel life now, of course, a life unlived, but one I can still catch a glimpse of on occasion. It’s the only reminder I need that Leo is miraculous.  For the remaining six months there was very little sense of the miracle to come; the day to day wore in even as the seismic shifts between myself and Ellie played out.  Any youthful fantasies of introducing myself to Leo as he grew inside her remained just that, as the space between us grew.  I knew full well Ellie was conducting her new relationship away from home and across the city – and indeed at home when I was away – and could not bring myself to talk to him when she asked me to.  What game were we playing?  How was I to act?  When she offered me her belly to feel him curiosity swayed me, but I reached out as a gynocologist might have done.  The gesture was automated; informed by interest but joyless and robotic.  All intimacy between us had evaporated, leaving me artless and clumsy in my own home.

But as I stop to consider Leo, the miracles stack up. Putting aside his conception, sadly miraculous in itself for so many less fortunate couples, what were the odds that, of all the bars in all the world, I’d walk into the one his mother worked in back in 2001? For that, indeed, was how we met. What then the odds of compatibility, never mind the lightening strike of love, intimacy – all of which seem chaotically random when you’re on the outside, however naturally they fit when you’re part of a couple? And the odds of our own respective existences? The chances that my own parents, both perhaps anxious of being left on the shelf, should run into each other in fifties London, or that two divorces would pave the way for Ellie’s parents to cross each other’s path and start again?

The existence of humanity is, in itself, a miracle of almost ludicrous magnitude when one starts to unpick the clusterbomb of coincidences that facilitated our rise. That this hunk of rock we’re still struggling to value should find itself snug in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of a star of just the right size, power and age to enable the creation of exactly the atmosphere required to help cook up the primordial soup and begin the evolutionary journey to us, a species capable of music and mutually assured destruction, Bach and bombs.

All coincidence, of course. Even the creation of the universe itself may be best understood as nothing more than coincidence. The right quark in the right place at the right time. Why, after all, would we describe anything as miraculous when it’s already happened, when it’s fact, when we can reach out and touch it and it’s and all we know? But if we are simply the products of maths, that’s a realisation that has limited appeal to our innate sense of story and our intuitive feeling that we’re special. In turn, that sense of our own specialness is challenged by sheer weight of numbers. We’re back to Bill and overpopulation. How can we believe in billions of miracles? Surely it’s counterintuitive…

And shrinking the scale once again, what else would I say about my own son, other than ‘he’s a miracle?’ Even if I can’t see it in the faces of all the other kids in the playground, even if they’re blobs in buggies to me, what else would I think of him? When you’re 44, innocence is a miracle. And when you can see, however fleetingly, your father in your son’s face, when that father wreaked havoc and the boy before you is bursting with all the possibilities of life, then it’s a miracle.

We forget that we’re miracles, each and every one of us. It’s necessary, even – a defence. But having a child weakens that defence, and sometimes I wonder if we’d be better off remembering – lifting the scales off our eyes, as it were, choosing love over hate just as Bill Hicks exhorted us to. He never had kids himself. He left too soon, returning to his parents home to die aged only 32. And he didn’t mean it, of course. By telling us our kids weren’t special, he was simply asking us to open up our tired eyes. He knew just how special we all are. He put it better than I ever could, ‘…the eyes of love …see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now… Take all that money we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.’ Amen.

For myself, as I sit on the edge of the sandpit with the all the other mums and the dads – pushed to the sides of our lives, as Philip Larkin had it – pushed out of my old life, out of my old future, and into this new life with nothing between me and the stars, a glimpse of the miraculous helps light the way…

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Now if you’re stuck for a while consider our child
How can it be happy without its ma and pa
Please stick together
Come on, come on let’s stick together

You know we made a vow
To leave one another never

Wilbert Harrison (with thanks, of course, to Bryan Ferry)

‘Bastard’ is an awful word. However casually lobbed, however worn through overuse, it retains nonetheless its capacity, if not to shock, then certainly to hurt. ‘You were born out of wedlock’ may not be the direct translation running through the mind as it’s uttered or received, but the clarity of its barbed meaning remains… ‘you don’t belong‘. It’s not a word, so much as a weapon. By 2016 half of all British children, my son among them, will be born ‘out of wedlock’. The phrase itself, not quite yet the anachronism it deserves to be, reeks of institutionalised prejudice. But 2016 will be a significant milestone all the same and if it proves a tipping point, if we see finally that our children are to be prioritised over the institution and not vice versa, then there are grounds for optimism.

We came so very close to marriage, Ellie and I. Suitable venues, mostly large rooms above pubs, had been scouted, registry offices duly approached. Were it not for the lack of a disposable grand or two at the right moment, we certainly would have made the leap. Not that it seemed a leap to us, rather a natural progression. I don’t think we had any illusions about the importance of marriage per se, for ourselves or within society at large, other than it being a private and public declaration of commitment. And love, I suppose. Yes, there was that. That, and a good excuse for a party. We may have had some guiding notion of the proper sequence of things, some unspoken sense that it was live together, travel together, buy a flat together, have cats together, watch box sets together, get married, have kids. It needed to happen in that order, somehow.

The sudden arrival of a new love in Ellie’s life, like a deus ex machina, changed the course of the traditional plot irrevocably. And, I see now, for the better. Though we’d spoken of kids from the off, and never as a possibility but as a certainty, our eleven years together suddenly seemed an illusion to me when, three months into her pregnancy, Ellie decided her future lay with James. It was as though we had awoken from the dream. The reality of co-parenting lay ahead. Now, as the aftershocks fade, the proper sequence of things is simple. Leo comes first. And that’s it. And that’s as it should be. Marriage – theirs, or even mine, will be the icing on the cake. Certainly not the foundation.

If that sounds in any way like a simplification, it’s because it has to be. If the day-by-day remains at times a struggle, from my own point of view at least, the basics stay in place regardless. We have a child. As we sat in the kitchen amid the ruins of our own relationship with Leo three months inside her belly, like state leaders at a summit drawing up the accord that would see him through into the world, Ellie joked over tea that one day we’d be guests at each other’s weddings. I didn’t laugh, and it remains to be seen. Meanwhile as parents we’re travelling in parallel, gliding along like icebergs with very little on show to each other bar what’s necessary. Who knows what lurks beneath.

At present Leo revels in my undivided attention on one the side and bathes in the glow of their new love on the other but I wonder how important it might be for him, ultimately, to see the two of us together? Heaven forfend he should want to see us reunited, as the more naive among my male friends were convinced might inevitably be the case – as though this were a Disney rom-com with only one palatable outcome, however circuitous the route. No, he’ll need to make sense of his own story, to see the central protagonists sitting around the same table from time to time at least.

All this raced through my head during a recent handover, as Leo threw himself from one of us to the other, oblivious to the sterile space between us, propelled by joy and a love that sees no division. ‘MUMMEEE!!’ ‘DADDEEE!!’ I couldn’t help but note how curious it was that, given we all share the same space only fleetingly and at irregular intervals, how natural it seemed to him. Perhaps it was a relief? I found myself hoping, as I fastened down the Velcro straps on his trainers, that this joyful outburst wasn’t induced in some way by the uncommon triangle we made.

I’m outside of the real triangle. They form the trinity – Ellie, Leo and James, the family in the foreground with their respective extended clans populating the backdrop, delighted by the child that’s swung into their twin orbits. Either I’ve learned not to envy this or I’ve simply adjusted down through the days to a tableau that is, after all, invisible to me. Either way I’ve come to cherish the dynamic of my own immediate family – me and him. Largely free of the claustrophobia that two years ago I feared might envelop me, we enjoy in the main what can only be described as ‘quality time’. The cheap Americanism serves here as this really is a rare privilege and the movie moments, shared by us both and remembered by me alone, are coming thick and fast. No, really. But that’s another piece.

Those stagey performances around the table may become more naturally and richly inhabited in time; one can only hope so. On Leo’s second birthday – hosted on neutral ground at his grandmother’s house – I rarely escaped opening night nerves, failing to find the lines. Dry mouthed and marooned on the sofa, a stranger in a house in which I was once family, I watched on, partly with a kind of morbid curiosity, as Leo flitted between me on the periphery and the family at the centre. Every word from my mouth felt stilted, my voice as foreign to my ears as if recorded and heard on playback. The love and the tenderness I held for him as he turned two could find no natural expression and I yearned for escape, and a time when it could be the two of us once again. But time brings change with it, and there is plenty of time yet before gaps within his world become evident to him.

He’ll know his parents as wonderful individuals, but as individuals, two component parts however cooperative. The idea of us ever having been together will be illusive, impossible – and unpleasant – to grasp, the stuff of prehistory. But such is the sex life of any parent to any child. Though the mysteries of what lies between us may yet animate a febrile imagination. You don’t miss what you never knew, of course. But you may wonder. I never had grandparents. Nothing was lost. But as a child in a world generously populated with grannies and grand dads, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, ‘what if…?’ As a couple we’ll be tucked away in Leo’s hinterland, and whether or not he turns around to look will be up to him…

Marriage may be in sight for Ellie; I’ll wish her well though doubt I’ll be in attendance. As though I’d be invited. For myself the prospect remains entirely conceptual, an oasis for now, as much the shimmering mirage as a house or a mortgage. The strain to preserve marriage for its own sake, and with it the sacred cow of traditional family life, the denial that there could be anything beyond it, can lay waste to what it seeks to defend. That was the unfortunate experience of my own childhood. I have at least the opportunity to get the order right this time; to raise and cherish a child and to build a foundation for him. I’ll put being a father first for now. In the meantime I’ll expect the unexpected, and should marriage ever find me I’ll take it for what it is – not an institution, nothing upon which to build a society, not a reason to legislate against the single parent or those who choose another way, just a chance to look her in the eye and say “I love you” in front of a lot of people.