Remember the Big Society? It was the big fluffy idea that blew in stage right with the Coalition then blew off stage left like so much tumbleweed before anyone could get a handle on what it might possibly mean. A proposed integration of free market ideology harnessed to the workhorse of social solidarity, in case you didn’t get that first time round, and all dependent on a spirit of voluntarism. Thank you Wiki. So that’s DIY governance as opposed to governance by the people you voted for (or not) to govern, a little like serving yourself in the supermarket instead of having someone there whose job it would be to serve you. It was a plan that turned out to be neither particularly big nor especially social, but the team that brought you the Big Society were not to be deterred and have been hard at work ever since on their next major production, the Tiny State. But despite all this, and the irrationality of austerity to boot, the Coalition have still managed to stumble upon two bright ideas in five years that might enhance the prospect of greater social cohesion. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.
The first was David Cameron’s personal declaration of war on the barriers to adoption of children in care. In 2012 there was, in his view, ‘no more pressing’ concern for government. Up until the end of last year the campaign enjoyed sustained success, seeing an apparent 60% rise in the number of children finding loving homes since its introduction. Though the campaign has stalled in recent months, following concerns regarding a raft of ‘sloppy’ applications and a rush to adopt when in many situations other solutions might better apply, the Prime Ministerial mission to remove previously pedantic and often insurmountable obstacles facing would-be adoptive parents remains admirable.
The second prominent member of the Coalition to trip over a good idea lately is a less likely candidate as he’s not so much an ideas man as an ideologue – Ian Duncan Smith. His outriders in the DWP are piloting men only relationship classes which will run in tandem with regular antenatal courses. The stated aim is to save children from the near-certain fate that the DWP’s research points to – more likely at sixteen to have a smartphone to hand than a father.
We know that politicians, particularly those on the right, have long looked to the family unit as the fundamental building block of social cohesion. But the nuclear family has long since mutated and evolved, in a great many cases, into something far more flexible and resilient. It’s widening its gene pool, if you like. Sadly many politicians, yes particularly those on the right, have yet to fully grasp this.
IDS and his merry band of social engineers are focusing with surgical precision on the father in a shift away from the traditional mother-centric model that, ironically, comes at a time when more and more men are involved with childcare in any case. And though it is still framed very much within the context of strengthening the family unit of yore beloved still of Westminster, it signals at least a recognition of the particular importance of a male parent beyond the tasks he’s historically been charged (or charged himself) with – hunter-gathering, or more latterly breadwinning, barbecue-lighting, roast-carving, broken toy fixing, handing down lore, crashing about in the shed to no great effect on Sundays, swearing in the cupboard beneath the stairs, etc,…
There can be nothing more catastrophic for a boy than the father he’s afraid of, or the father who simply doesn’t care. Better then that the father isn’t there at all. In the case of my own father, it was difficult to know whether he was there or not. He lived among us, the evidence was irrefutable. There was the drinking, incessant and not one drop in his lifetime truly savoured, shared or enjoyed, just an ongoing isolated act of inoculation against life that infected all those around him, repeated joylessly and robotically until self-medication segued into self-destruction. The squalid outcome, dad sitting dead in an armchair at 60, seems now to have been inevitable. Though it lacked a single defining action, it was suicide all the same, only passive rather than proactive. Rather than resolve to take his life, he simply let it go.
Then there was the rage. Seismic, fuelled by fear and loathing, hurled like a weapon and always shocking as though new no matter how often it came upon you. You forgot it, you pretended it never happened while praying it wouldn’t happen again. Then it happened again. And again and again. When it possessed him the air thickened and congealed and the walls of a small suburban house shrank and wrapped themselves around me. There was no escape – this was what happened, ‘this was your father’. Often there was a perverse twist. To be shouted at or chastised for some perceived misdemeanour was one thing, but to be threatened with crucifixion, to offer just one example, was quite something else. ‘I’ll crucify you’ – that was the shrapnel that stayed in the wound, and sometimes when my boy dandles on my lap and thoughts of my father filter through three decades on, those words can still play in my mind’s ear, and I can feel a deep and unsettling bewilderment that a father could ever have directed those words at his son.
As he slid into his fifties and I trod warily into my teens his anger dissipated. Where once it had gorged on itself, it now lay dormant, sodden with alcohol and thankfully less flammable. I grew out of the fear, for with age came a recognition that his anger was nothing more than a volcanic expression of impotence. And once he saw that I knew that, the game was up, and the chasm between us widened. But an undertow of shame took hold as he tipped into steep decline, a shame that deepened with each of a succession of incidents as a private hell was dragged out into the open. There were numerous disappearances and he would frequently be found blind drunk on neighbours or friends doorsteps. He was caught shoplifting in the local Sainsbury’s when it was the only way left for him to get whisky, following a naive attempt to confiscate his money. I once saved him from choking in a pool of his own vomit. The fact that it was ultimately pointless to do so still jags. For a faltering teenager these disgraces were impossible to digest, so I hid them from myself and from everyone else, too. I would go to great lengths to deter friends from visiting me at home, and only one ever succeeded in meeting my father.
But still you would cling on to whatever could be salvaged from the wreckage. It was better than facing the truth, that one of the two people responsible for your wellbeing was actually a threat to it. Each Wednesday at 9.00 we would watch M*A*S*H together. For 25 minutes sandwiched between instrumental takes of Johnny Mandel’s ‘Suicide Is Painless’ the distance between us would recede just a little, and a narrow window onto my father’s inner life would open up. The BBC had wisely dropped the American laughter track, and prompted by his snorts and guffaws I began to glean the subtext of a richer and more complex world, the world of the adult. Amid the young lives lost, the wise-cracking and the cracking up, the unrequited lust and the quest for the perfect vodka Martini, I realised I was yearning for what wasn’t there, reaching out to hold a hand that wasn’t offered.
That weekly observance and two trips to the match to watch my beloved Liverpool play in London marked the extent of our endeavours in bonding. The weeks of anticipation curdled inside me as the side that conquered the eighties stumbled to uncharacteristic defeats on both occasions. Maintaining a silence of convenience as we sat among the home support – my father refused the away end, leaving me with a wait of a few more years before I hurled myself among that happy heaving throng – I couldn’t help but feel the results on the field were confirmation that our outings were somehow ill starred, and in among the denizens of a hostile Stamford Bridge I certainly didn’t feel safe.
There was a reckoning before he died. Though I’d been spared the brunt of the physical violence he’d meted on older siblings, our relationship, such as it was, jerked continuously from one stand-off to the next. In his last months, with my mother now dead and with some sense in me that his descent was gaining irreversible momentum, I sought an answer to the question that chewed on me, ‘do you care? do you love me?’. These confrontations were in the main like a dance, a choreography of distance observed warily by both parties. I was, I see now, afraid of losing control, and fearful also of showing how much it mattered. And on the one occasion I wouldn’t let him walk away, when I pressed home my insistence, we tussled and in the struggle to remove his hand from my throat I pushed and he fell backwards to the floor. As the back of his skull connected with the linoleum covered floor, I heard a sound like the flat thud of a poorly inflated basketball on an indoor court. It was a dead sound with no trace of an echo, it simply lodged in my gut as the low whirring whine of the fridge filled the kitchen.
And there I was, on my knees beside him, whimpering for him, in thrall to a father who cared nothing for me, and praying that I hadn’t killed him. After a moment he stirred, stood, composed himself and walked out, as though after an afternoon nap in his armchair. There was time for one last dance, and finally I got my answer. ‘No’, came the reply. ‘No, I don’t care.’ And I could see that it was true. Something had receded from within him, finally. What little light there had been of late in his eyes was gone, and the words were delivered in a flat monotone, a simple statement of fact from an automaton. There could be no answer. It was my turn to walk out.
That hand clamped around my throat is still the only physical contact with my father that I can recall. Now, I can barely get my son Leo in or out of his pyjamas for the cascade of hugs. That last dance in the kitchen left a blank space that was filled in over time with drugs and alcohol, but mostly with anger. With Leo it’s now brimming, finally, with love. My inheritance had been a debilitating shame and uncertainty. There was a gap of twenty-two years between my father’s death and the birth of my son. It took twenty-two years to see what was blindingly obvious, what I’d hidden from myself for all that time, that the presence of a good or even decent father is transformative.
Whatever the outcome of the DWP’s pilots, I feel compelled to applaud Ian Duncan Smith. That’s a strange feeling, but there’s little doubt in my mind that, whatever the shape of the family, the bond between fathers and sons might be the glue that’s missing in society. There’s a wayward emphasis on the need for ‘positive role models’ when we talk about those most likely to be listless or gravitate towards gangs – a society that’s looking towards footballers or musicians to carry the torch is getting something badly wrong. Let them set an example, but a continuous male presence from the get-go that isn’t corrosive is a decent start. The role models need to be in the next seat, not on the pitch. And let’s not kid ourselves that problems of male identity are confined to those sections of society that are, unfortunately, most likely to produce fodder for street gangs. A pack mentality that’s fuelling an alarming and dangerous attitude towards women is in evidence on campuses across the UK and the States. That’s an altogether different demographic, but away from those examples and across mainstream society the restrictive male type, a compound made up of the usual constituent parts – beer, sport and sex – still holds the centre ground. Meet the new lad, same as the old lad. It’s a straight jacket that many are silently squeezed into, and they need to speak up.
It’s a curious state of affairs. There was a time when stereotypical male culture seemed to face a challenge from within, when Lennon reconstructed himself, put away the lad and placed a woman at the centre of his universe, and Bowie like a chimera challenged and upended every preconceived notion of what a man could or should be. With some exceptions, men we might admire or aspire to have melted away from the magazine covers to be replaced with the women we’re told we want.
At the more extreme end of the spectrum, crises in male identity can be of grave danger. Perhaps it’s stretching things just a little, but I’d suggest we might be a step closer to freedom from the threat of jihadism if every Al-Qaeda operative or ISIS-inspired zombie had enjoyed the benefits of being carried around in a papoose by his daddy. But to those young men who find themselves shunted to one side, puttering around the periphery of mainstream society on a pizza delivery bike, adrift and without purpose, it’s clear that death can hold more meaning than life. They’re prey to the morbid siren of martyrdom and ripe to become fodder. Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian, was onto something when she described ISIS as a kind of ‘homo-erotic death cult’.
And while there’s growing evidence to suggest that young women are not mere groupies in these organisations, indeed it seems they are playing key roles, what’s beyond doubt is that ruthless and well-funded people with clear aims are seeding a message of hate to capitalise on the insecurities of the marginalised male. We can’t discount the importance of economics in this either, but in the absence of a hug from dad, a positive role model close to home, or some conduit for channeling testosterone and a deep seated yearning to belong into something more imaginative than a headlong rush into a personal apocalypse, then gangs on the street or viral networks of terrorists can only ever swell in number.
As strongly as I’d advocate equality of opportunity for both men and women, I’d be tempted to see an experiment in global role-reversal in which over a period of, say, a decade, men got domestic while women got busy establishing a kind of worldwide gynocracy. I think I’d vote for that. We mightn’t get to Utopia within ten years, but by tweaking the micro-model we may see a macro-benefit and I’d hazard a guess that the planet might just be on the way to a more peaceful and prosperous destination.
I estimate I’ve changed my son Leo’s nappies around 3,000 times now, and while I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it every time, I’ve been aware with each wipe of his bum of a kind of incremental strengthening of the bond between us. I’ve fed him, bathed him, dressed him, brushed his teeth and comforted him, read to him and hoisted him up onto my aching shoulders on countless occasions. I’ve gone days at a time with him in my sole care and each time I’ve been dimly aware that, in terms of bonding, all of this has been just as valuable – if not more – to his wellbeing and our relationship as a kick about in the park at the weekend. I’d recommend it.
Globally, nationally, domestically, the relationship between father and son, or sons and their male carers, is the link in the chain which, if strengthened, can be of lasting benefit for all. Any initiative, at whatever scale, that brings that prospect a little closer to reality is to be lauded. Society might be about to get a little bigger…