Educate your sons.
Whenever he told colleagues of his plan to leave work to care for his children, a stunned silence fell momentarily over the conversation. Most were surprised by his news, and some of the men openly sceptical. Caring for your children, isn’t that your wife’s job? Now that he was no longer one of them, the company of men, they addressed him differently, more slowly, as if he had suffered a heavy blow to the head or was having a nervous breakdown. He wasn’t sorry to be leaving and suspected few would be sad to see him go, for he had always felt like the odd man out around the office. First the Bartleby-like cynic who distanced himself from their lobbying work. Those who knew him best were aware he had long harboured a desire to disappear from the world, and they acknowledged that leaving might make him happier, however briefly.
Since becoming a father, he had become increasingly incapable of tolerating the friction between his home life and his work life, personal philosophy and the demands of the role, or specifically, the sector he had yoked his career to. His employer’s expectations would never match his responsibilities as a parent, the love he had for his wife and young children always overrode the requirements of his role, and the bullshit characteristics of the job, the presenteeism, the arbitrary power structures, and the obtuse human resources procedures which made him feel useless and invaluable. Powerless. Invisible. Perpetually unhappy. After years of suppurating cynicism, on his way out of the door he made a public statement which he hoped would make him feel heroic, but which had the precisely the opposite effect.
In the event, the manner of his departure, maximum self-immolation in the Jerry McGuire mode, left little chance of a return. He had not simply burnt his bridges. He had obliterated them. He had written a letter, but it was no ordinary letter. It was a letter which caused the colour to drain from the face of the charity’s incoming chief executive, It’s a bit of a FUCK actually, a letter which was published in a trade magazine with a circulation list of approximately 60,000 (online audience = c100,000) on the morning of his employer’s high-profile fundraising event at City Hall, the day before his planned last day at work, an event which, rather than face the music or be forced into contrition before the Board, he had fled from like an errant child, switching off his mobile phone and leaving work without saying goodbye to those colleagues who had made his time at the organisation tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, and who almost certainly spoke of him in damning terms once he was gone.
He had intended to leave his job on better terms and with a glowing reference, but that was before The Letter, written and sent impulsively and without forewarning his wife, who had reluctantly agreed to him leaving work in the first place, a letter so abrasive in tone that it guaranteed that he would never be able to ask either of his former employers for that glowing reference, should he be fortunate enough to find another job in the future. When he delivered the news of its imminent publication to his wife, her face fell momentarily, before she regained her composure and wrinkled her forehead in sympathy, and told him, It’ll be okay, and We’ll survive, even when, by her own admission years later, she had been terrified. She was a good friend and a wonderful wife, too good for him in fact, as undeserving of his behaviour as he was undeserving of her love.
He wasn’t overly concerned about becoming a househusband, as he had always viewed himself as being sufficiently domesticated. Growing up, his parents were fastidious about running a tight ship financially and taking care of their property. If you look after things, they’ll last longer. This, along with Cleanliness is next to Godliness, had been drilled into him from an early age. His mother cleaned constantly, compulsively, and following her example, creative pursuits always gave way to domestic demands. Disorder made him anxious, unable to focus. Though more relaxed about dust and detritus than his mother, outside the office his home life felt like one long to-do list. He hoovered and dusted and swept and wiped. Changed the bed and scrubbed the bath and hung out the washing. Emptied the dishwasher. Cleaned the windows. Mowed the lawn. Kept up appearances.
His father had done little to help his mother around the home. For his father, labour consisted of that which could be physically observed and financially rewarded. Cooking, cleaning and caring for his children were not considered work. Renovation work, yes. Fixing taps, cleaning gutters, yes. Domestic duties, no. When his mother left him and his brother in their father’s care, she often returned to find them in bed, with his father reading the newspaper, at peace. His father worked fourteen-hour days on site or at the office, late at night and even at weekends, and believed he would do whatever he wished with his limited free time. Once he insisted she find someone else to help with his eldest son’s birthday party as he was playing golf. Eventually he burnt himself out and was hospitalised with acute pneumonia in his mid-thirties, and after his brush with death, he slowed down a little, but not enough to re-balance their marriage.
On his birthday, his wife had given him a book by The Guardian’s Weekend columnist Tim Dowling, How to be a Husband. At that point in their marriage, he believed things were going fairly well, but evidently he was mistaken. At the beginning of the chapter titled ‘Fatherhood for Morons’, Dowling wrote, You may wonder what kind of father you are going to be. Don’t worry: you are going to be your father, more or less. Not likely, he thought, determined he would change nappies and read bedtime stories and prepare feeds, care about his children and tell them that they were loved.
From the very beginning, he threw himself into fatherhood with his customary lack of common sense. On the first night at home with their new son, the boy woke in the early hours in some distress. He rose before his wife could and lifted his son, writhing like a cat in a cloth sack, from the Moses basket and carried him through to the spare room, where he quickly ascertained the problem. A tiny smear of tar-coloured excrement, meconium, had become stuck to his son’s bottom. As he attempted to wipe away the meconium gummed to his tiny scrotum using a wad of cotton wool dipped in cold water, the mewling child screamed and urinated over his sleep suit.
In the coming months, when his son woke early for his morning feed, once his wife had finished breastfeeding, he would carry the boy downstairs and lie him on a blanket and would watch him kicking his legs in the air, making small sighing noises, contented and carefree. As that first year progressed, he changed his son’s nappies, dressed him and prepared his bottles. In the evenings he and his wife split the bathing and bedtime story ritual. If he heard his son cry, he would rush to him, stroke his soft, warm head and calm him with soothing tones. After placing his son in his crib to nap, he would first play him Satie’s Gymnopédies, Chopin’s Nocturnes or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on the small stereo in his room, lullabies he hoped would become rooted in his unconscious.
Later that year his wife transferred two months of her maternity leave to him, and the three of them spent a blissful first Christmas together, the days drifting by in a post-natal daze of having little to do other than tend to the needs of their infant, and be kind to one another.
Two years later, their second son was born. To their incredibly good fortune, he and his wife now had two happy, healthy boys. Overnight, everything changed. Caring for one small child on his own was just about manageable. Caring for two small children was akin to juggling two water balloons filled with wet shit with one hand tied behind his back. Every day brought a new configuration of unanticipated calamity. Inexplicable tantrums. Explosive diarrhoea. Nocturnal vomiting. Nothing had prepared them for the onslaught, the sheer relentlessness of the daily routine. The irregular sleep, the near-permanent fatigue, the inescapable odour of excrement, the heightened state of irritability at everyone and everything, particularly one’s spouse. The physical and financial inability to do anything other than feed and clothe and be present in the lives of his children.
Before his second son was born, he had worried about the effect this would have on their relationship with their first son, and his relationship with his sibling. Those first two years of parenthood had been unnaturally calm. Bucolic, almost. He hoped that becoming a househusband might bring about a return to those days. Hours of play with his children, followed by long naps and plenty of time for reading and writing. He was still supposed to be researching and writing his PhD thesis. If he could find a few hours each day to work, then he would be able to make steady progress.
He knew from caring for his children outside his time at work that most essential child-rearing tasks could be undertaken in a half hour. A further half hour could be allotted to activities related to work, rest or play. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all took a half hour. Bathing his boys and reading bedtime stories. Trips to the park, play around the house or in the garden took in excess of an hour, but very rarely two. Far from being mechanistic, it enabled him to map out his day and fit his work in around his children.
The flaws in the system were self-evident. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. In the first week after he left his job, his wife found some supplementary work as a dresser at London Fashion Week. It was a financially lucrative job, but physically demanding. Each morning they rose and breakfasted as a family, then his wife would depart for work, leaving the boys in his care until late in the evening. Some days she was out of the door before first light, on others not back until almost midnight.
In that first week, the settled routine he had envisioned was quickly obliterated by the complexity of getting his eldest son to nursery each day, a ludicrously problematic process. A few months earlier, he and his wife had registered their son at a nursery the next street over from their former home. Rather foolishly, they then moved to a new house a couple of weeks before he was due to start at the nursery. Every afternoon they had to drop their son at the nursery in their old postcode. The nursery was close to the home of their childminder, who had cared for their son since he was a baby and who continued to collect him from nursery while he and his wife were at work. They had worried their son would miss out on a nursery place if they tried to move him to one closer to their new home, which as it happened had been moved to a temporary site which was as far from their house as the other nursery.
Because they didn’t have a car, and because the local bus service was so infrequent as to be virtually non-existent, taking his son to nursery each afternoon involved a round trip of almost three miles, a half hour on foot each way, pushing an erratic second-hand buggy across several south London locales renowned for their elevated views over the capital. They were always late setting off, because one child or another had refused to eat his lunch within the half hour he had optimistically set aside for the purpose, or else had soiled themselves at the point of departure.
To begin with he pushed both children in the buggy, the youngest in the chair, chugging on his lunchtime formula, and the eldest stood on the buggy board at the rear. His eldest son who was always reluctant to go. Being three years old, he was still napping in the afternoon, and once or twice he arrived at the nursery to find his son had fallen asleep on the protective hood of the buggy, before gently waking him and leaving his groggy little boy in the care of the nursery assistants.
After pushing two children through the streets of south London in the first couple of weeks, he transferred his eldest to his micro scooter and pulled him along using a leash wrapped around the its handles. He had pictured the child happily scooting on the level sections of the route, lessening his endeavour when they reached one of the many hills, but instead, despite his cajoling, his son clung to the buggy on the hills and on the flats.
When he did manage to convince his son to scoot freely, they were still required to avoid slow moving elderly couples, rampaging shop-mobility scooters, parents or childminders with multiple children advancing along the pavement in some disarray, impatient joggers, mobile-distracted teenagers, wheelie bins strewn across the pavement awaiting collection or return to their driveways, looming lampposts, inevitable crops of dogshit, and a selection of kerbstones, loose flagstones, tree roots, pebbles, sticks and twigs that jammed into the wheels of his son’s scooter and sent him sprawling painfully, tearfully, onto the pavement.
When he got home, if his youngest son was still asleep in the buggy, he might get half an hour or more to work on his PhD. If his youngest son woke up at the nursery, as he was wont to once perambulation ceased, or particularly when he was being carted down the steep run of steps from street level down to the nursery building, or even once back at home, parked in the narrow alley beside their house, where a change in the atmosphere or gentle breeze playing upon his face might wake him, and for that hour and a half between arriving at home and having to set off to collect his son again, he wouldn’t be able to work.
Sometimes his son, on waking and finding himself strapped in his buggy, would erupt with the righteous rage of the falsely imprisoned, and calming him usually took a half hour. Then he would put him back in the buggy and set off to collect his brother.
Come evening, once his children were in bed, preparing and consuming dinner with his wife, home from work, took a further hour. After that, he had two hours to work on his research. Then another half hour to read before sleep. If he made it past the first page before his eyes closed. Sometimes he and his wife made love. Sometimes they didn’t.
Many years before, he had caught the end of a TV screening of Mr. Mom, an early John Hughes vehicle for a young Michael Keaton. As he watched the film, he thought it would be fun to be a stay-at-home dad, even though the premise of the film, a standard fish-out-of-water concept, suggested otherwise. After being made redundant from his Detroit car plant, engineer Jack Butler, played by Keaton, becomes the primary carer for his young children when his wife Caroline, played by Teri Garr, returns to work. As a young father, Jack struggles with the most basic household chores and childcare duties. Loses his children in a supermarket. Battles with apparently self-aware domestic appliances. Treats a dirty nappy like a nuclear clean-up. Becomes engrossed in daytime soaps. Plays poker with other housewives. Fends off the advances of an amorous divorcee.
As a househusband, Jack finds his masculinity and social standing are drawn into conflict with his status as former breadwinner. Early in the film, Jack and his wife attend a corporate party hosted by Caroline’s boss. Once there he is goaded by his wife’s boss into competing in an obstacle course race, an annual event devised to reaffirm his status. His employees know that they must throw the race. However, Jack, his ego already bruised by the boss’ comments, is determined to win. As he closes in on the finishing line, with victory in sight, Jack realises that crossing the line first could have repercussions for his wife’s career, and their family’s financial security, he throws himself to the ground and allows the boss to win. At the end of the scene, when Jack leaves the frame, he is accompanied by his children, who celebrate their father’s loss as a victory, reinforcing this paradigm shift in the movie. Its alright to be a loser, the movie says, so long as your kids love you for it. By losing, therefore, Jack wins.
If only it were that simple. Later in the movie, Jack takes Caroline something to eat as she works upstairs. By now Jack is sporting a shirt and beard which looked to have been modelled on Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American folklore, and a symbol of the masculine frontier mythos. Caroline immediately takes him to task for letting himself go, a perhaps ironic reversal of the pressure placed on mothers to return to their pre-children figure. Take a look at yourself, you’ve really thrown in the towel, Caroline chides, to which Jack replies: My brain is like oatmeal. I yelled at Kenny today for colouring outside the lines. Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them. I’m losing it. By winning, Jack loses.
In a later dream sequence, possibly Freudian, he imagines Caroline shooting him for reciprocating to his flirtatious neighbour’s advances. Not long after this scene, which we might read as the narrative’s crisis point, normality is restored. First Jack casts his lumberjack shirt onto the fire, bidding farewell to his slovenly interim persona and masculine delusions. Then, Jack’s employers accept they made a terrible mistake and offer him his old job back. And finally, Caroline tires of working in advertising, and returns to her children. Everyone loves a happy ending.
Mr. Mom was an early foray into feature script-writing by the late American filmmaker John Hughes, inspired in part by a weekend spent caring for his children without his wife’s assistance. The film bore many of the magic realist motifs which were a hallmark or Hughes’ work, and an early treatment of the male Kidult trope that he and others such as Richard Linklater and Judd Apatow would profitably mine for box office receipts. By the time Hughes died from a sudden heart attack in 1998, he had successful redefined the coming-of-age teen movie market, co-authoring and sound-tracking the formative years of countless Gen Xers, sensitively essaying their segue from childhood and adolescence into the anomie and disappointments of adulthood.
As a late Gen Xer, born in 1979, Hughes’ film had merely coloured his own consciousness, rather than overtly remoulded it. He missed most of the classic Hughes movies of the 1980s, being too young for the likes of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller and Weird Science. Later Hughes movies, by contrast, were humorous, if increasingly saccharine, explorations of paternal masculinity and its relation to childhood. The Great Outdoors. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Uncle Buck. Home Alone. When Beethoven, the family movie about a big dopey St Bernard, was released in the mid-1990s, Hughes’ career appeared to be on the wane. After his death, his coronet as the friendly, benign uncle with the uncanny ability of mapping the emotional terrain of young people passed, for a time, to Pixar’s John Lassetter, whose game-changing animated movie Toy Story came out the year after Beethoven, severely compromising the market for live-action kids movies almost overnight.
By then, he was too old for Hughes’ child-focused films. It wasn’t until much later that he understood the genius of Hughes’ early work, his distillation the permeable boundary between adolescence and adulthood, through the tropes of teenage identity, platonic love and social status. Hughes’ vernacular was unmistakeably American, like Mall culture in celluloid, yet it was irresistible to the transatlantic yearnings of his own angst-ridden adolescence. In his late teens, he finally watched The Breakfast Club, and watched it over and over, almost obsessively, for much of that year, until he could quote from it at length, even though he had no one to quote with, as none of his friends had the remotest interest in it. The script zinged and the sentiment soared, and he fell ever-so-slightly in love with each of the characters and the actors, who were already a decade into their careers by the time he caught the film. When he showed the film to his friends at university, they rolled their eyes in dismissal, and he turned it off.
The Nineties and Noughties were not kind to The Breakfast Club Brat Packers. All endured career lulls as they struggled to transition from teen pin-ups to serious adult actor. Formerly Hughes’ muse, after turning down the lead in Pretty Woman and Ghost, Molly Ringwald moved to Paris to study and act in low-budget French films, acting sporadically for the next two decades, while becoming a novel-writing, literature-translating, agony aunt polymath in the process. Judd Nelson’s movie career fizzled out after St Elmo’s Fire. Hall’s stalled after a spell in rehab for alcoholism, and when he returned to the screen, he had lost his boyishness, bulked out, made himself into a man via bobybuilding. Sheedy’s promising career lapsed into substance abuse and a well-publicised addiction to sleeping pills, before a brief redemptive return as a drugged photographer in High Art in 1998, the same year that Hughes died. Success at an early age is far more difficult to handle than failure, Nelson later remarked.
Of The Breakfast Club cast, only Emilio Estevez managed to make meaningful work in the Nineties, the profitable consequence of having a father and sibling already in the business. Then, like the others, he too disappeared.
Michael Keaton knew something of disappearances. Though critics such as Roger Ebert derided Mr. Mom, the film made him a household name, his performance notable for early flashes of the comedic persona later seen in movies such as Beetlejuice and The Dream Team, both of which he saw as a teenager. While many critics highlighted his performance as an alcohol and cocaine addict in Clean and Sober, released the same year as Beetlejuice, as his finest work, in commercial terms his career peaked when he was cast, much to the annoyance of die-hard DC Comics fans, as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s production of Batman. A less successful sequel followed a couple of years later, and after walking out on the second sequel in pre-production, his career never really hit the same heights. A string of mediocre movies followed in the late Nineties, followed by several unmemorable outings in the Noughties. By the end of that decade, he was back in the press, talking up the possibility of doing a Beetlejuice sequel.
It wasn’t until 2014, when he was cast as Riggan Thomson, the protagonist in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a washed-up Hollywood actor trying to shake off the ghost of his superhero past by staging a Raymond Carver production off Broadway, that Keaton’s career regained any kind of traction. In fact, Birdman, to all intents and purposes, was written about and for the actor. When Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu originally conceived the film as a single shot in a theatre, in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, he did not have a specific protagonist in mind, but once he and the other screenwriters had concluded the script development process, they believed that there was only one actor that could play Thomson. When Iñárritu first approached Keaton, the actor reportedly asked if the Mexican auteur was making fun of him. His failed career. Sensibly, rather than taking offence, he agreed to do the picture in less than 30 seconds.
While the movie is a phenomenal cohesive work and a highly-theatrical ensemble piece, with exceptional performances from all involved, casting Keaton elevated Birdman from an intellectually-interesting picture to the level of high art, adding a further layer of metacinematic reflexivity to the picture’s postmodern apparatus. The casting of other actors either against type (Zach Galifianakis as soft-hearted agent Jake), or to emphasise traits in their character (Ed Norton as ultra-talented, arrogant, script-altering buffoon Mike Shiner, who was dumped out of Marvel Studios’ The Incredible Hulk franchise for allegedly being all of those things) added to this metacinematic frisson.
The central narrative thread within the movie is not whether Riggan’s Carver play will go ahead, but whether Riggan has a right to exist under his own terms, away from the Birman identity which has brought him fame but damaged most of his personal relationships, the double bind that haunts him, plagues his every waking moment. The past intruding upon the present.
It's important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me... To me... this is - God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You're doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it's over. And let's face it, Dad, it's not for the sake of art. It's because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you wilfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.
As Riggan argues with his cast members, agent and daughter, rages against his alter-ego and displays apparently authentic moments of supernatural power, which may or may not be hallucinatory flights-of-fancy, the film invited the viewer to speculate upon the depths Keaton was prepared to plumb for Riggan’s disintegration, including running through Times Square in his underwear, looking like a turkey with leukaemia. I don’t exist, I don’t exist, he murmurs during one stage performance, lines he repeats just before the bloody denouement, after which he disappears from his hospital room, his face surgically reconstructed, in the movie’s enigmatic, moving conclusion.
Commercially successful and critically lauded, Birdman won several awards, including the 2014 Academy Award for Best Feature. Keaton himself was nominated for numerous lead actor awards, winning several which placed him firmly back in the A-list firmament. The next year he was cast as The Vulture in Marvel Studios latest Spider-Man reboot, Homecoming. Back where he belonged. Above them all. Everyone loves a happy ending.
Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) begins with an epigraph:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
He had long been familiar with Raymond Carver’s poem ‘Late Fragment’. There was a ambiguity to Carver’s words, and he couldn’t decide what Carver’s feeling of being beloved referred to. Was it platonic or romantic love? Godly love? The love of his second wife Tess Gallagher? Of his children? The feeling of self-transcendence, of elevation to a sublime spiritual state? Of self-knowledge? Self-love? Or was it, more prosaically, critical appreciation, the cultivation of a readership who appreciated his art, that his work and his name would endure, that its reputation would transcend the temporal limitations of his ontology? He couldn’t decide. Perhaps it was all of them. Perhaps none. That the poem had been chiselled into Carver’s gravestone accentuated the ambiguous close of Birdman.
Now he thought of another poem he had first read many years ago, like that of Carver, by the Beat poet Gregory Corso, the youngest member of the Beat Generation’s inner circle. Corso, whose poems he had pored over and pinned to his wall when he first moved to London. When he read both poems, he had no designs on becoming a parent, and simply assumed, due to his incompetent attempts at wooing the opposite sex, that he would never become one. Corso’s poem always stuck in his mind as his first encounter with literature by a male author which directly, and apparently without irony, addressed the male Messiah complex, what others referred to as toxic masculinity, others the patriarchy, a term he was only beginning to comprehend.
‘She Doesn’t Know He Thinks He’s God’ was taken from Corso’s 1960 collection, The Happy Birthday of Death.
He is God
John Rasin is God
He stands by the window smiling
Watching a child walk by
‘I am God!’ He screams. He knows
His wife taps him on the shoulder.
‘John the baby is sick will die
His fever is up. Get a doctor.’
John Rasin stands as though he were dead
With the health and freshness of life
Exaggerated in his deathness
He stands a man stunned with the realisation
That he’s God. He is God!
His wife pleads screams stamps the floor
Pounds her fists against the wall
‘John the baby will die!’
Corso had been abandoned by his mother as an infant, left in the care of Catholic Charities in New York, where his garment-maker father found him and placed him in a foster home. Corso’s father had been abusive to his mother and told his son as a child that his mother was a prostitute who had been exiled back to her native Italy in disgrace. Corso was regularly beaten in foster care, and again on the rare visits from his violent father. During this time, he received a putative education through the Catholic church’s parochial school system. When the US entered the Second World War, Corso’s father brought his son home as a means of avoiding the draft, but when he was drafted and sent overseas, Corso became homeless, living on the streets of New York, sleeping in the subway in winter or on the city rooftops in the summer. He was eleven years old.
The young Corso was a survivor. Imprisoned several times as a teenager, he had the knack of talking himself out of situations or ingratiating himself with those who could offer him protection. He was first taken under the wing of a powerful Mafiosi while in prison, and then, after his release, by an infatuated Allen Ginsberg, then a student at Columbia, who found a twenty-one year old Corso writing poetry in lesbian bar in the Village. Possessed of a compelling streetwise vernacular, rebellious authenticity and the gift of the gab, Ginsberg and the other Beats, Burroughs and Kerouac, adopted Corso as one of their own. Later, when the autodidact Corso was bumming around Harvard copping a free education, he managed to convince dean Archibald Macleish not only to let him stay on campus, but to make him an unofficial poet in residence.
Decades later, Corso found his estranged mother thanks to the detective work of the filmmaker Gustave Reininger, who was planning a biopic of the Beat poet. Corso’s mother, Michelina, explained she fled the city after being brutalised and sexually abused by his father. Being unable to support herself and her son during the Depression, she left him in the care of the Catholic church. She started a new life in New Jersey and remarried, never revealing she had a lost son to her new husband. Corso and his mother were reunited on screen for Reininger’s film, rebuilding their relationship for just a few months before Corso was diagnosed with the bowel cancer which would claim his life at the age of seventy-one.
Corso’s negative thoughts on fatherhood were cemented in another poem included in The Happy Birthday of Death, ‘Marriage’:
Yet if I should get married and it's Connecticut and snow
and she gives birth to a child and I am sleepless, worn,
up for nights, head bowed against a quiet window, the past behind me,
finding myself in the most common of situations a trembling man
knowledged with responsibility not twig-smear not Roman coin soup--
O what would that be like!
Surely I'd give it for a nipple a rubber Tacitus
For a rattle bag of broken Bach records
Tack Della Francesca all over its crib
Sew the Greek alphabet on its bib
And build for its playpen a roofless Parthenon
No, I doubt I'd be that kind of father
Carver’s own death from cancer, of the lung, at the age of fifty, followed decades of alcohol abuse and heavy smoking. Like Corso’s parents, and like his own, Carver had married young, becoming a father at nineteen. Both he and his wife Maryann worked to support the family, with Carver working initially as a delivery man, janitor, sawmill worker, and library assistant, and his privately-educated wife later taking jobs as an administrative assistant and high school English teacher, saleswoman and waitress. Lower-middle class occupations. Keeping the family afloat. Strangers within a doomed marriage. Like characters in one of his stories.
At the outset of the marriage Carver wasn’t writing, or indeed drinking, but both began in earnest when he enrolled at Chico State College in the early Sixties. He started drinking heavily in 1967, the year his short story ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ was published and he moved with his family to Palo Alto in California. Carver’s life up to that point reads like a list of missed opportunities and silly mistakes. Studying half-heartedly, working occasionally, moving his family from town to town, all exacerbated by his ever-increasing inability to lay off the drink. While incapable of holding down a job, he proved himself capable of putting pen to paper, enjoying modest publishing success. By the early Seventies he was no longer writing, but simply drinking. The short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976 at the height of his dissolution. A minor miracle given the circumstances.
Carver’s wife Maryann put her own career on hold to care for their children so her husband could intermittently study, work, write, and drink. She packed fruit at a supermarket for two weeks to buy Carver his first typewriter. Few people remember that when they talk about Carver being a literary God, or the progenitor of contemporary short fiction, or while they pore over Gordon Lish’s edits to determine which of the two men was the true author of Carver’s stories. None of this would have happened without Maryann standing in a supermarket placing apples in a paper bag, and later propping up the crumbling edifice of their marriage. In the narratives of notable authors’ lives, their nearest and dearest, the first wives and spectral young children, are always reduced to bit-part players.
Maryann Carver put her husband through college. She stood by him when he had an affair with Diane Cecily in 1972, after which he ramped up his drinking and physically abused her, including smashing her over the head with a wine bottle when he thought she was flirting with another man at a party in 1975. She dropped out of her PhD and drove him to his teaching classes at the University of California when alcoholism overtook him. After he was hospitalised due to his drinking, three times between 1976 and 1977, she helped nurse him back to health.
In 1977, Carver stopped drinking and started attending AA meetings. That same year, he met and fell in love with the poet Tess Gallagher. In 1982, Carver and Maryann finally divorced, a lag of five years from learning of his latest and last infidelity, as if she was still holding out for that belated reconciliation. I never fell out of love with him, she later wrote in her memoir. By that time, Carver was someone else’s problem.
Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live. I would meet him five months after this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through the characters and actions of his stories and poems.
What do we talk about, when we talk about love?
No sooner was his youngest able to walk than he wanted to scoot like his elder brother. He wasn’t remotely ready for a scooter, but it was no bad thing, this determined push to go mobile, as it meant that ditching the travel pushchair that had become the principle mode of child transportation after they sold the Bugaboo to a young Polish couple. The flimsy canvas and steel contraption had the nasty habit of tipping over backwards whenever additional weight was placed upon the handles, specifically otherwise-innocuous objects like his camera or the change bag, resulting in whichever child was strapped into it being flipped backwards and left lying prone, and at an inverted forty-five degree angle. It had caught him out several times, almost braining his children by dashing their head against the pavement. Now consigned to its new home in the loft, he was glad to be rid of it.
As much as the pushchair was a source of stress, that was nothing next to his youngest’s erratic scooting, which terrified him to the point of mania. Like a three-wheeled heat-seeking missile, his little boy seemed preternaturally drawn to danger, and persistently strayed toward the deep fissures and irregular bumps and uneven paving slabs that lent the streets of south London their character, and which inevitably brought him crashing to the ground. He quickly learnt to take hold of his son’s scooter and use it like a miniature Segway, leaning over and manipulating the handlebars to slow his approach to any obstacles, moderate inclines or fellow pedestrians which might prove hazardous. In so doing, he discovered that lumbar pain brought a new level of discomfort to his already vexed existence.
School drop-offs and pick-ups were indubitably the most taxing times of the day, a confluence of social anxiety, inconvenience and fear that his youngest son would be trampled in the stampede of marauding parents and oblivious older children. In principle, the primary school he and his wife had chosen for their son had established a carefully-honed system for the picking up children after school. In fact, there were two systems at work. The first was a finely-tuned framework designed to prevent the abduction or escape of children from the school’s grounds, and the second was a carefully prepared clusterfuck, a perfectly-calibrated regime designed to create maximum chaos and anxiety among those collecting children.
Under this symbiotic regime, parents and carers were to wait outside the school grounds until the bell signalling the end of school was sounded. Once it was sounded, a small electronic gate would be remotely unlocked by the reception staff, enabling parents and carers to enter the school grounds. Once through the gate, they were to proceed to their child’s classroom, where the teachers and classrooms assistants would hand their children over to them. A simple, effective plan. However, as there were almost five hundred children at the school, every afternoon an equivalent number of parents and carers assembled outside the gate. If the gate didn’t unlock immediately, this was enough to trigger a growing ripple of annoyance among the gathered throng. If the gate didn’t unlock at all, this ripple of annoyance built to a crescendo of impatient clucking and tutting.
If the gate did not open, a member of the reception staff would have to walk down from the school building and manually open the gate. As the gate was only large enough to allow one person through at a time, it created a significant tailback of twitchy parents. By the time the first parents and carers had collected their children and returned to the gate, there was still a large crowd waiting to get through. This created a bottleneck, and a stand-off between the respective groups, those with children and those without. Arriving early lessened the inconvenience, but in arriving early he might find himself being drawn into conversation with another waiting parent, something he wanted to avoid at all costs. There were some parents he did want to talk to, but their children were in different classes, and they were often through the gate and away by the time he’d managed to collect his son.
Once the gate was open, he and his youngest son, who was still groggy from been woken from his nap, would make their way to the allotted spot where they would take receipt of their fatigued and grubby offspring from the teaching staff. Now there formed a micro-throng of parents in front of the teaching staff, each being eager to retrieve their child and get away as quickly as possible. He would stand to one side with his youngest and wait for the least patient members of the crowd to collect their kids, then move forward to greet his son, who each day greeted him with the query, Where’s mum?
After dropping his eldest at the primary school at the end of their road, he and the youngest had the day to themselves. On Mondays and Wednesdays they went to a playgroup at the church around the corner from their home. St Michael’s and All Angels. A modest, modernist building in London brick, the gable end facing the street, with high windows lining the side walls. Without stained glass, it was more like a chapel than a church. Inside, a small area of the nave had been cordoned off for the playgroup. There was a large sofa and a couple of careworn rugs for the smallest children to sit on, plastic chairs around the perimeter, and a kitchen with a kettle and tea and coffee for the adults. Occasionally the vicar came in to say hello, his friendly manner and soft voice almost enough of an inducement to pop along one Sunday morning. Almost, but not quite.
The playgroup was run by a no-nonsense childminder called Kath, a tall, slim woman with a knotted pony-tail and a commanding voice, who didn’t suffer fools gladly. There was always a couple of other carers, Shelbie and Karen, two large and loud south Londoners, each with a retinue of pre-schoolers and a particularly laidback approach to minding them. The other parents were mainly mothers. Another south Londoner whose daughter had red curls and a blood-curdling scream. A woman with a dark bob who had adopted two orphaned male twins from India. Her gym bunny friend who had a suspiciously-enduring cold, and her little boy who threw spectacular tantrums. A blonde woman with her mini-me daughter in pigtails and pink onesie.
Very occasionally there would be another father there. Whenever there was, he and the other father would circle each other, as if sizing up their claim to the territory, before one of them felt compelled to break the ice with a genial, if guttural, Alright, mate? They might chat on and off for a half hour or so. After that, he would never see the father again. It was better that way.
Monday was his favoured day, as the playgroup was almost always half empty. When they arrived, his son would immediately make a bee-line for one of the Cozy Coupe plastic ride-in cars, of which there were two, a police car and pink princess, but his son had already worked out that the other boys wanted to sit in the police car, which had more bells and whistles, and wasn’t bright pink. With his son safely behind the wheel, he would go into the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee, before retreating to the same quiet corner each week, away from the rest of the group, close enough to overhear their conversations but not so close that he would have to participate. There, he would try to crib some notes for his research, while keeping half an eye on what his son was up to.
Wednesdays were the exact reverse of Mondays. On Wednesdays, there being no other playgroups in session that morning, every exhausted mother or carer in the entire postcode threw themselves at the doors of the church, as if upon the mercy of God himself.
If Mondays were the perfect balm to a long weekend of frenetic child-focused activity, Wednesdays were like the uncontrolled aftermath of a failed anthropological experiment. Mondays were a morning of quiet reflection and contemplation, Wednesdays were Mondays were a shaded glade in a undiscovered forest, Wednesdays were an inner city tinderbox, the collapse of society in microcosm. It was on a Wednesday that the son of one of his neighbours menaced the other children, stalking each one in turn before creeping up behind them and scratching their faces with his fingernails. Kath, the ponytailed childminder, told his mother off, and he didn’t see either of them at playgroup again.
On Wednesdays, the playgroup would become dangerously overcrowded, with children squabbling over toys, treading on or falling over one another, crying at length and soiling themselves while their parents or carers were distracted. Wednesdays always infuriated Kath, and she took great pleasure in turning people away once she deemed the playgroup full, her mouth set in impregnable defiance, impervious to the pleas of desperate parents. Nevertheless, the playgroup was still far too busy, and if had he been running it, he would have bolted the doors shut once the Monday regulars were in. One morning, the playgroup was already at capacity when two unfamiliar carers appeared at the door with seven pre-schoolers, all different ages and all in varying states of dishevelment and distress. The nannies steered the children to the centre of the room, took a seat on the sofa, made a cup of tea and ignored the children at their feet for the next hour.
On Wednesdays, he rarely left his son’s side, ushering him through the cacophony of noise and rapidly escalating conflicts, much as he tried to keep him from crashing his scooter. Now that there were three or four older boys vying for control of the ride-on cars, he kept him out of their way, consoling him with a story from a gnawed picture book or by fashioning a train track out of several mismatched pieces. Sometimes they built a tower out of imitation Duplo, aided, or hindered, by another child.
His son seemed contented, more contented than the other children at playgroup. Now fully mobile, he was still speaking in toddlerese, able to enunciate only a few words of nonsense. But was happy in his own little world, much like the enclosed space of the car. Safe in his plastic cocoon, he would pootle around the floorspace at leisure, watching what everyone else was doing. A nascent form of anthropology. Reserved in his interactions, he refused all the fruit offered by the childminders at communal snack time. Only very occasionally could he cajole him into joining in with the messy-play or craft activities. Even when he did, his son simply wanted to spread glue using the small white plastic spatulas supplied. Once he had to place something on the liberally-daubed globules of glue, he lost interest.
Instead, he took greater interest in the collective tidying sessions near the close of playgroup, as it meant he could push a broom around or sweep shredded paper into a dustpan. The tidying session was followed with half an hour of half-heartedly singing nursery rhymes. ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’, ‘Ten Little Monkeys’, ‘Zoom Zoom Zoom’, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. By the time they reached the grand finale of the Oke Cokey, his son had dispensed with any pretence of participating, and was instead running around the nave or climbing on the pews, while he was left to dance with the other carers and children.
Mothers chatted with ease, arranged playdates or went out for drinks. Fathers did not, and while caring for his son and working on his thesis both required long periods of enforced solitude, he never proposed a meeting up with any of the fathers he knew. Perhaps he should have, but the thought of sitting in a park discussing their children’s behavioural traits, or past careers, the obvious conversational start points for people with little in common, left him feeling lachrymose. Besides which, he didn’t particularly like other people’s children. Given the choice, he would rather spend his mornings alone with his son, either at playgroup or at the shabby local library run by septuagenarian volunteers, even though when it was just the two of them he yearned for someone to take him off his hands, for just a few hours, so he could work on his thesis. No matter what he did, there was always something else he would rather do.
Speaking to the mother of the twins, he learned that her partner was unhappy in his career as a recruitment consultant. As her earning power as an executive assistant was greater than his, she was planning on going back to work, while her partner would stop work to become primary carer to the twins. Once she returned to work, he met her partner at playgroup once or twice. In business casual attire, he looked uncomfortable. After a while, he and the boys started missing the sessions. When he next saw them, in their local park, he noticed that the recruitment consultant was wearing loose clothing, jogging bottoms and a hoodie. He had huge bags under his eyes, and the beginnings of a beard.
Throwing in the towel. Letting himself go.
After the birth of his second son, Sean, by his second wife, the artist Yoko Ono, John Lennon withdrew from the music business to become a househusband. From Sean’s birth in 1975, to his re-emergence with the album Double Fantasy in 1980, the former Beatle, one of the most famous men in the world, all but disappeared. Speaking in Tokyo in 1977, he declared, We have basically decided, without any great decision, to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside of the family. During this time, his creative energies were completely focused on looking after son at their large apartment in the Datoka, an imposing Gothic-styled edifice overlooking New York’s Central Park.
Prior to Sean’s birth, John had been on a booze-soaked, two-year hiatus in his marriage with Yoko, a period the musician dubbed his Lost Weekend. After discovering she was pregnant, Ono, who had suffered three miscarriages since they married, informed her husband that she would only proceed with the pregnancy if he agreed to care for the child. After Sean was born, each day John rose at six am care for his son, establishing a safe, stable and caring environment for him. John would later say of Sean, he didn't come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I've attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. He didn’t write or record a single song for almost five years. What he did instead became the subject of some conjecture.
Hagiographers like Philip Norman glossed over the last five years of Lennon’s life, but for speculative and unscrupulous biographers the silence invited scurrilous interpretations of his absence. After Cynthia Lennon’s tell-all memoir A Twist of Lennon was published in 1978, Albert Goldman’s The Secret Lives of John Lennon established a micro-industry for character assassinations of the late rock star. Published a decade after Cynthia’s memoir, Goldman’s book alleged that John Lennon was an antisemitic, schizophrenic, epileptic, anorexic, bisexual wife-beater, who spent his reclusive years nursing a cocaine addiction in the Dakota while a retinue of hangers on cared for Sean.
Two other biographers continued Goldman’s systematic demolition of the St John ‘peace and love’ mythos. In 1992, Lennon’s personal assistant, Frederic Seaman, published his own memoir The Last Days of John Lennon, which depicted a perma-stoned occultist under the spell of his domineering ‘Mother’ Yoko. This was followed, almost a decade later, by Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, a fictional imagining of John’s time at the Dakota which was drafted from his journals, letters and other ephemera, which the dutiful Seaman had pilfered and passed on to Rosen after the musician’s murder. While Seaman and Rosen’s books corroborated some of Goldman’s allegations about John’s Howard Hughes-style existence and Yoko’s ruthless management of her husband’s business, and extramarital, affairs, none could agree which John was the true one. Seaman was sued by Yoko for the theft of John’s possessions and was compelled to apologise in court for his libellous allegations.
Becoming a househusband was a relatively novel enterprise in in the 1970s, one which seemed to acknowledge feminism in its pursuit of shared parental responsibility and non-traditional masculine identity. It was a radical statement, one intertwined with the sexual politics of the decade, although it was perhaps an option available only to the fortunate few. The salacious accounts of John’s last days in the Dakota cocoon undermined these declarations of domestic contentment and marital bliss by suggesting they were a projection, a self-masking by John and Yoko which reaffirmed the former Beatle’s mythic, or saintly, identity while it cemented the couple’s multimillionaire status. This married with the narrative of John as an unrestrained egotist, if not entirely with his being the victim of Yoko’s manipulation. In his book, Rosen proposed that John knew that his sudden disappearance in the late Seventies would, perversely, make him more visible, and in so doing confirm his cultural power. Tragically, this assertion was confirmed by the global outpouring of grief following his murder.
It is no small irony that John’s becoming a househusband was a complete reversal of his first, failed attempt at fatherhood, and it is feasible that his decision prompted Cynthia’s penning of a score-settling memoir at the tail end of the Seventies. Julian, John’s son by Cynthia, had been born in October 1963, at the height of Beatlemania. In an echo of John’s own childhood, his first son endured the kind of peripatetic paternal interest that had caused some of the former Beatle’s chronic neuroses. Theirs was an uneasy relationship, played out under the camera’s glare, characterised by long absences, paternal cruelty and short-lived moments of reconciliation, a reflection of what James Herzog defined as father hunger. Whenever he thought of their relationship, he saw that picture of John, Yoko and Julian at the Rolling Stones’ Rock n’ Roll Circus, Julian sat on his father’s knee like a sullen marionette, a velvet-jacketed ventriloquist’s dummy. A couple of years later, after leaving The Beatles, John sang, in God, a self-exorcism and refutation of his musical and philosophical past, I just believe in me / Yoko and me / and that’s reality. Difficult to imagine what Julian felt when he heard those lyrics.
It is tempting to view John’s commitment to Sean’s care as atonement for the mistakes he made with his first son, but that would be to ignore the complex, inconsistent nature of Lennon’s personality. Having denied Julian affection and understanding while still alive, after his death John left little to his eldest by way of a bequeath. Julian sued the Lennon estate and was awarded a substantial sum, which he subsequently used to buy back items he had given to his late father, but which the estate refused to return to him. Due in part to his difficult relationship with his father, in later life Julian declined to get married or have children, stating in an interview, I want to know who I am first. When one considers Julian, one thinks of a little boy waiting for his father’s permission to get on with his life. On the 20th anniversary of his father’s murder, an embittered Julian issued a statement on his website accusing Yoko of manipulating his father and frustrating their attempts at building a relationship.
When he was twelve-years-old, he happened to see Julian perform at the Radio 1 Roadshow in Newquay. He was holidaying with his parents and brother in the town that summer, and the children’s entertainer took a gang of them to join the large crowd gathered on the bluffs near Fistral Beach. After being treated to Simon Mayo goofing around with Cathy Dennis’ backing singers, someone in an oversized Bart Simpson bodysuit danced to ‘Do The Bartman’, before a nervous-looking Julian was invited on stage and interviewed by Mayo, standing awkwardly with his acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, after which he pretended to emote into a microphone while his song played over the speaker system. He looked, he thought, profoundly lonely up there on his own.
The song Julian mimed to was ‘Saltwater’, his lachrymose, ecological protest ballad and top ten single back in 1991, the opening bars of which recalled the Mellotron intro of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. The banal lyricism and its plea for universal transcendence echoed, somewhat inevitably, Lennon’s most famous solo record, ‘Imagine’, the foundation of the Gospel According to John. We are a rock revolving / around a golden sun / we are a billion children rolled into one. As an act of ventriloquism, the lyrics sounded not unlike those his father might have written, but they lacked the precision and bite of Lennon Snr, if not the sincerity, or indeed the hypocrisy, of the earlier record. Here perhaps Julian was staking his claim to the ‘peace and love’ ethos that his father failed to show him. God is a concept / by how we measure our pain, Lennon sang on the eponymous song on his debut album. Julian might well have said the same for love.
Back then, he knew enough about The Beatles to know the difficult history of Julian’s early life. Choosing to enter the music business as a teenager had left Julian in a double-bind, promising little more than a lifetime of comparisons to his father, and a career as a one-man tribute act to his music. ‘Saltwater’ certainly wore its influences lightly. There was an argument, uncharitable perhaps, that ‘Saltwater’ was only a success because of its imitation of his late father’s work, and for being released twenty years after ‘Imagine’. It was unarguably the high point of Julian’s musical career. After that record, he all but disappeared from public consciousness. When Sean followed his half-brother into the music business to embark upon a successful career of his own, he was fortunate that Julian had already fought all the difficult battles for him. While Julian’s music was met with commercial and critical indifference, Sean’s was met with acclaim. In art, as in life.
No one understood the decision he had taken, the new existence he had made not only for himself, but for his wife and children. It was a selfish move, crippling them financially. His PhD was little more than a vanity project that would do little to aid his precarious state. His parents were puzzled, if not bemused, and the first time he saw them after leaving his job, his father asked him what it was like to be retired. When they tried to send him money to make some essential repairs to his new home, he sent the money back to them, with a handwritten letter explaining why he couldn’t accept it, and they seemed more offended that he hadn’t accepted it than if he had kept it and simply frittered it away.
He had failed on their terms, according to their rules, but not his own. Now his terms, his rules, were no longer important. What was important was that he had two young children to care for, and he was unsure if he could do it. When he grandly announced that he was quitting work to care for his children, he imagined himself like the male seahorse or the ocellaris clown fish, nurturing his offspring as a pure expression of paternal responsibility. One of his eldest son’s favourite films was the Pixar animation Finding Nemo, a touching if fanciful exploration of the co-dependent dynamic between two anthropomorphised clown fish. He wasn’t a male seahorse, nor an ocellaris clown fish, only a fool incapable of facing this new reality he had single-handedly created, the product of his impetuosity, his indignation, his masculine rage. I just believe in me.
For the moment they were reliant on savings to pay their small mortgage. His wife’s wages as a part-time librarian for all other outgoings. They were fortunate to have savings, but they had no money, no disposable income to speak of. They stopped eating meat almost altogether, and instead subsisted on the same basic meals, the same pasta and rice and pulses, soups and stews and steamed veg. Each week he would push son’s buggy to the local budget supermarket to buy their supplies, returning with it loaded with enough food to last them a week. It wasn’t until they were living hand to mouth that he recognised what he had done.
Because they had no money, he retreated to a hermetic existence, separated himself from friends and family and former colleagues. He simply wanted to be left alone. Kierkegaard wrote, the greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. By leaving work he had hoped to release or realise a part of himself that had remained dormant while he had been at work, but in fact a part of him had vanished when he left his job, the part of him that provided for his family, the part that met everyone else’s expectations of him as a father, and he sensed, correctly, that now it was gone it would not come back. Something had erased itself, shrivelled and withered, and around that absent part was left a layer of scar tissue, invisible but painfully tangible, that was no more him than a piece of desiccated, discarded skin.
What replaced it was arguably fundamentally more important. Time with his children. Time watching them grow and develop and change from infants into small boys. Time nurturing and comforting and attending to their desires and demands. Time showing them how to confound expectations. Time teaching them how to fail. Showing them how to disappear. Helping his youngest take his first steps. Building Duplo with his eldest. Fancy dress and finger-painting and trips to the playground. Lifting them from the bath and drying their hair. Keeping them safe from harm. Being a good-enough father. His blessing, and his curse. His victory, and his defeat.
He was still using cocaine. No less frequently, but in smaller quantities, with less intensity. Much of the time he was able to keep clear of it, but every now and again his cravings got the better of him. Anything might trigger the urge to consume cocaine, if he read an news story about it, or had a deadline to meet, or if he was listening to a particular album, if the sun was shining or he was feeling down in the dumps, then he would scrape together the funds to satisfy the urge. Cashback from his supermarket trips. Borrowing from money set aside for his university fees. Raiding the children’s piggy-banks. All paid back later, as if nothing had happened. He knew he had a problem, but knowing he had a problem still wasn’t enough to make him stop, not when he was still able to fulfil his paternal duties with a mind fuzzed by the drug, if the house was kept clean, his research done.
At times he could be unnecessarily cruel to his children. Once he made his eldest walk all the way home from nursery in tears for scooting too far ahead and not stopping when he commanded it. In the aftermath of those moments, he felt a raw shame, like a naked flame upon his face. Then he held them, clung to them, told them that he was sorry, that he loved them. At night he stood over them in the darkness of their room while they slept and felt stricken by love, by grief at the inevitability of their growing old, those two small boys with their blonde hair and blue eyes and raspy voices, made in his own image, his short-tempered, melancholic, over-exuberant, drunk, drugged, indifferent, perpetually inconsistent self, the self with which he was, at all times, at war.
It was a bright and clear spring morning on the day he went to see Inside Out with his wife and children. They caught the London Overground service from Sydenham to Surrey Quays, riding the hybrid line with its continuous carriage and orange and brown seats that resembling an abstracted landscape by Anni Albers. The Sunday morning streets of south east London were cool, wet and woozy. He enjoyed the quirks of the line on weekend mornings, though the journey at times felt like returning to the scene of a crime.
His wife and eldest son usually sat together, his eldest absentmindedly sucking his thumb and running a car up and down the patterned seats, while his youngest gawped at the other travellers from his pushchair. He often sat by his youngest son, or if the carriage was more crowded stood by his chair to shield him from the obtrusive tendencies of the metropolitan crowd. He delighted in driving the pushchairs directly towards the assisted seating area, deliberately dislodging anyone who had the temerity to sit there.
That morning it wasn’t busy, and they were able to make the journey together. He watched his children in their nascent individuality. Patted his wife’s knee for reassurance, to check she was still there. Perhaps he was nursing a hangover. A not uncommon condition on the weekends. Three days on, four days off. Not that his drinking was a problem. He was always careful about that. No, his problems lay elsewhere.
At Surrey Quays they disembarked, and he carried his youngest son, still in his pushchair, up the short flight of stairs to street level. His wife followed with their eldest son and his scooter. From there, it was a short walk to the cinema complex on the nearby retail park. Once they arrived, they bought their tickets, ushered their bipedal eldest son into the screen and sat in the front row. It meant for an uncomfortable viewing experience, being bombarded by the hyperreal animated images and the Dolby THX audio system demonstrated at unnecessarily high volume, but it was a routine they slipped into as easily as the wheels on a set of rails. He handed his children the lunch he had made for them before they left home and sat back to watch the film.
He had suggested going to watch Inside Out to his wife that morning. He wanted to see how Disney Pixar had managed to distil and compress the complex and multifaceted interdisciplinary debates about nascent selfhood and the mechanics of memory - the so-called ‘hard question’ which continued to cause conjecture between contemporary philosophers and neuroscience practitioners - into an animated child’s movie.
Much of the action took place within the psychic realm of an eleven year old girl named Riley, with consciousness styled as a control-booth named Headquarters and staffed by the personification of five competing and complementary basic emotions – joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger – whose interactions and responses to physical and emotional stimuli determined Riley’s self-identity and the forging of interpersonal relationships.
As the film neared the close of its tumultuous second act, Riley’s relocation from the idyllic Minnesotan backwoods with her parents, to a run-down neighbourhood in San Francisco, had been deleterious to her emotional stability. On the first day at her new school, Riley cried in front of her new classmates, creating an unhappy core memory, a glitch in her overriding joyous persona. Joy, Sadness and Riley’s core memories – the foundation of her personality – were accidentally ejected from Headquarters. Her old personality began to disintegrate and a new one established under the erratic management of Fear, Anger and Disgust. Riley hardened against San Francisco and her parents and decided to run away from home.
By the close of the act, the ever-optimistic sprite Joy, the central character and Riley’s principal emotion, and an elephantine biped named Bing-Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from infanthood, had fallen into the girl's memory dump: a deep chasm within her psychic realm where her long term memories disappear. Surrounded by orbs of memory which, having already turned to grey as Riley’s recollection of them faded, crumbled like balls of ash, Joy and Bing-Bong realised they were unable to escape and that, in time, they too would be forgotten. The previously ebullient Joy began to weep, cradling a batch of Riley’s memories which, in her grief, tumbled from her hands like an armful of bowling balls.
As he watched Joy studying an orb of Riley singing and drawing in infancy fragment into nothing, a lump rose in his throat, and he began to weep. He stayed incredibly still, so his wife wouldn’t notice. He had never wept openly in a cinema before. He’d been close on several occasions, but this was the first time he had yielded to sadness, surrendered himself to the emotional manipulations of a story. He knew he was being manipulated, and by a schmaltzy Disney movie fetishising childhood, of all things, yet he accepted it. And when, in the most pernicious instance of mawkish heart-string tugging he’d witnessed for some time, Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong confined himself to the memory dump throwing himself from the rocket she built with him so that Joy could escape, tears streamed down his gullible face.
His children were still very small, too small to understand who or what they were yet, or the words and images being presented to them on the screen, and yet as he wept he recognised he was weeping for them, for the memories that they would be unable to hold onto, their memories of being young and uninhibited; and he was weeping for himself, self-indulgent tears for the memories he had of them that would fade and diminish and disappear, the memories he had of them now and his experiences with them that had already left his consciousness, and would inevitably leave theirs.
As he watched Joy cradling the orbs of memory, he was reminded of the passage in Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Memory’ where the author described caring for his three year old son Daniel.
All the thousands of hours that A. has spent with him during the first three years of his life, all the millions of words he has spoken to him, the books he has read to him, the meals he has made for him, the tears he has wiped for him – all these things will vanish from the boy’s memory forever.
Not long after his first son was born, he was reading Goodnight Moon to him at bedtime, his son as he sat in his lap, bathed and dried and dressed in a babygro. Reading the book, he was distracted by the fact that his son would never again be as young as he was then, and that every day he would be a little older, and a little changed, until he was no longer a baby but a boy, and no longer a boy but a young man, and if he didn’t pay attention it would happen without him noticing.
His son was then a small, helpless being needing constant care, utterly dependent upon him and his wife for affection and protection, but there would soon come a time when they would no longer read Goodnight Moon together, sat in that precise position on the bed, reading and listening in symbiosis. He made a conscious decision to remember this moment. He would never allow himself to forget it. As he read the book to his son he wept, bewildered by this strange confluence of joy and sadness, at his good fortune at becoming a father and his unpreparedness at the responsibility.
After he finished reading, he took his son in his arms and laid him in his bed, wide-eyed and excited, arms and legs flailing under the blanket, tiny bubbles extruding from his mouth. He could not picture the boy the infant would become then, the second son who would follow, the calm moments and the joyful, the fearful and the fraught, the bedtime routines, the tears and the tantrums, the refusals and the discipline.
After his second son was born, he moved with his family to a new house, a small semi with three bedrooms. They put their youngest son’s cot in the small box room next to their bedroom. Their eldest son now had a room of his own. In time, the younger sibling would join him but for now he and his decided to keep them apart. Unlike his older brother, their youngest son slept poorly, frequently waking to be fed. At six months old he also took a long time to settle and had to be patted to sleep at length, a laborious process that was much like massaging a prop-forward after a hard-won rugby match.
After a few nights in his new room, his youngest son developed a cough and cold, and would presage his waking with a series of protracted cries, bringing his mother or father to his bedside to comfort him. One night, after almost a week of broken sleep, he was woken at four in the morning by his son coughing and crying. He went through to calm his son, and in his fatigue and frustration roughly lifted him from his cot, found himself a hair’s breadth from shaking him. As his son wailed out in the dark, he pulled him close and held him tight, lightly patted his back, and felt the boy’s small hand patting his shoulder in response.
There was a sweet, fusty odour in the room, which he put down to his son’s cold, but after he laid his son back in his cot he traced the smell to a part of the wall which was concealed by their packing boxes from the house move. As he pulled them boxes away from the wall, he discovered a web of black mould had formed behind them, mould which his youngest son had been breathing in for weeks, drawing in through his tiny nose and mouth and down into his developing lungs. His sheets were streaked with snot and catarrh. He put his son in bed with his wife and dragged the cot across the small landing into the room where his other son was sleeping. The next day, he removed the mould and bleached the wall.
After watching Inside Out, he was overtaken by a profound and overwhelming sense of sorrow. Much of his life seemed to have been unhappy, or at the very least, at times unhappiness was all he seemed to be capable of feeling. He knew that this wasn’t true, that he had been loved and had loved in return, as he loved his wife and children now, the dearest things to him, but so many incidental moments of happiness, of unadulterated joy, had been lost and forgotten or subsumed by a narrative of unhappiness that he couldn’t control or master, a chronicle of failings that emerged from the vaults of his long-term memory to torment him.
It was Kierkegaard who wrote, in his late work The Sickness Unto Death, with every increase in the degree of consciousness, and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair. This was the narrative of his self as he understood it. He also understood that he was passing on his unhappiness to his children.
He had been a bad father. At times like Joy in Inside Out, clinging on to his children to preserve his own inclination for happiness. At others, too many to mention, like Anger. Hot-headed, severe, quick to rage. Inconsistent, his wife often said. It was a failing within him, something in his nature or a product of his upbringing. Every day he struggled against it. He hoped his children would forget more than they would remember. He hoped they might forgive him, in time.
He was taking his son to nursery one morning, when something heavy fell from the sky and landed on his foot. At first, he thought it was a stone, or a pinecone. Then he looked again. It was a large chestnut-coloured insect with long, antler-like mandibles.
A stag beetle! He had never seen one before, until now. As a child, he had been fascinated by the fearsome-looking thing, and its distant cousin, the poo-rolling dung beetle. Unchanged for millions of years in evolutionary terms, the insects spent years feeding underground as larvae before pupating and emerging for a few weeks in the early summer to find a mate. Much like their deer namesake, the large antlers of the males were used for fighting with other males over food, mating rights and territory, and could give unsuspecting or cavalier humans a nasty pinch.
As a child he’d hoped he might see one on the playing fields at school, or in the woodland near his grandparent’s house, though of course he never did. Back then they were rare enough. Now they were an endangered species. Protected. Dwindling. Apparently doomed.
Which was why he was surprised at the beetle’s robust solidity as it bounced off his foot. Presumably a bird had dropped it mid-flight, to crack its armour before feasting on its interior. Or else it had flown there of its own accord, landing clumsily on its descent, a not uncommon problem, he later learned, due to its erratic and ungainly flight behaviour.
Using a stick, he carefully lifted it from the pavement onto a brick wall so that his eldest son could get a closer look. As they were watching it, other people stopped to look as well, like a scene from a Shirley Hughes book.
His parents had dubbed him beetle when he was a baby. Something about the way his arms and legs moved excitedly when he was on his back, having his nappy changed. Perhaps he scuttled around like one when he became mobile. Due to his hypermobility, his eldest son had been a reluctant crawler, and didn’t start walking until he was almost two. In his early attempts to crawl, with his drool and lumpen posterior, his eldest son resembled less of a beetle and more of a slug.
The stag beetle was still. Worryingly still. Such was the beetle’s stillness, he was concerned it had been stunned in the fall, or else it was fagged out from all the excitement, playing dead, not really defunct. After a while the beetle began to stir and, as though remembering it had to be somewhere else, crawled to the edge of the wall and flopped onto the flowerbed, where it disappeared.
Disappointed, they set off for nursery once more. As they continued up the road, he realised he had failed to take a photograph of the beetle. No matter. He assumed that his son would remember the day the beetle fell from the sky. That he would recall being with his father, and that his father knew what to do. That he might think the moment remarkable.
Small moments. Small matters.
Years later, they were eating dinner as a family when he remembered the stag beetle that fell from the sky. He asked his son if he remembered seeing it, and his son stared at him doubtfully, and shook his head. Given their endangered status, it was very possible that he wouldn’t see a stag beetle again. There was much from their time in London his son had already forgotten, so much so, that he now wondered what remained.
It was a damp day in late winter, or early spring, when he set off on one of his customary mid-week, mid-morning runs, out from his front door, up the street into his local park, and several times round the elliptical path which circled the under-used cricket pitch, a path measuring approximately five hundred meters, so that by completing two laps he knew he had run approximately one kilometre, and in this way could relatively accurately measure the distance travelled without recourse to a runners app, another contemptible crutch of the terminally networked, his phone’s memory being scarcely large enough for the thousands of photos and videos of his children which he was loath to transfer or upload to the cloud, seeing as he liked to scroll back through them on almost a daily basis, not that he was living in the past but as a reminder himself how quickly his children had grown, and once they were off his phone and onto his laptop they would rarely be looked at, or might end up being inadvertently deleted, and what was it Roland Barthes had said about photography, the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially, and yet if someone took his photograph at that moment he was repeating precisely what he had already repeated multiple times, running around the elliptical path in his park yet again, padding along over the patchy tarmac, admittedly a routine subject to different temporal and spatial configurations, certain variants which might impede or improve his performance – the season, climate, wind speed, his fitness, fatigue, hydration, hayfever, asthma, niggling injuries, degree of commitment – that could be said to be make each instance existentially unique, but it was still him undertaking the same process, his weekly routine, his workout regimen, loping the same laps around the park, anything between ten and twenty times around, five to ten kilometres, followed by pull ups, press ups, tricep curls, abdominal crunches, burpees, this on a good day, of course, when he was in fine fettle, what was it Murakami said he thought about when he thought about running, exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life - and for me, for writing as well, although now it seemed that everyone was writing about running, or walking, or climbing, or wild swimming, communing with the natural world in some way, while urban parks were what passed for the natural world for city dwellers, with their commonplace trees and bug hotels and nature reserves, this was as close as it got for many to the great outdoors, besides today was not one of those days, today he would run as many laps as he could possibly bear, the first six always being the worst, his body resisting its own impulse to exertion, before yielding to to kinesis, then home to write or work on his doctoral thesis, which he should really be doing on a day like today, a day damp and wet and cold, the café half empty, the playground silenced, the tennis courts abandoned, a few straggling dogwalkers toughing out the faint scrim of drizzle and one or two young parents with swaddled toddlers on trikes, and him, loping around the park, forcing himself to do another lap, delaying the inevitable rendezvous with his desk, when he started off on lap fourteen or fifteen, a small group of dog walkers had gathered for a confab on the path, forming a small crowd near the large sessile oak, and as he made to pass them, running on a slithery patch of mud beside the path, eyes down, watching where he was putting his feet, his mind still marginally preoccupied with the theoretical propositions of the chapter he was working on, Hegelian phenomenology and Buberan otherness, a large dog, a rottweiler, broke away from the group and leapt up and bit the underside of his left arm, in between his shoulder and his elbow, pinching the sagging muscle of his tricep between its canines, hanging there for a split-second, until its owner, a silver-haired man in a sky blue ski-jacket, a regular walker in the park, who looked a little like his father-in-law, called out No! and Down! and pulled hard on the rottweiler’s lead, a long blue corded rope, whereupon the dog released his arm and dropped down onto its front paws, where it stood panting, You startled her, the owner said and not wanting to remonstrate with the owner of a dog whose blood might be up, and not wanting to risk continuing his run in case the dog made another attempt at biting him, he continued his run and returned home to inspect the damage, examining his arm in the bathroom before the steam fogged the mirror, the unbroken skin of his arm purpling where the rottweiler’s jaws had applied their momentary pressure, the first intimations of the bruise that had deepened and then yellowed when he next saw the silver-haired man in the park, on a warmer Sunday afternoon when he was taking his eldest son, then aged four, to the playground, and he approached the silver-haired man and spoke to him, indicating his arm and pointing at the dog, She really caught me, you know?, thinking that the presence of his son might give the man pause, but the man said nothing, either he didn’t recognise him or couldn’t remember or didn’t care, either way he said nothing, stood stock still, holding the blue rope lead at the end of which was the rottweiler, unmuzzled, licking its nose and sniffing the delicate sunlight, they stood there for a moment, at a short distance, the rottweiler between them, before he turned and walked with his son to the playground, entering through the gate and locking it shut behind them, where he pushed his son on the swings for a half hour or so, until he was certain the silver-haired man and the rottweiler were gone.ttweiler were gone.