When he spoke to his colleagues and co-workers about his intention to leave work and care for his children, their response was more muted than enthusiastic, like it was a flight of fancy. Caring for your children, isn’t that your wife’s job? A few eyebrows were raised at the prospect of him becoming a househusband, mainly by his male co-workers. In truth, he suspected that few were sorry to see him go. He had always been the odd man out around the office. Non-committal and insubordinate, cynical to the point of superciliousness, hot-headed and self-aggrandising, prone to bouts of festering silence. Most were aware he had long harboured a desire to disappear, and they acknowledged that disappearing might make him happier, however briefly.
Since becoming a father he had been unable to wear the friction between his home life and his work life, the two continental shelves of selfhood continually grinding against one another. His employers expectations would never match his responsibilities as a parent, the love he had for his wife and son always overrode the bullshit nature of his 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, before he left he made a public statement which accused the industry he worked for of unparalleled greed, of social cleansing, of confusing avarice with altruism, something which he hoped would make him feel heroic, but which had the precisely the opposite effect.
He had written a letter, a letter which when his organisation’s new chief executive saw it caused all the colour to drain from his face and made him swear profusely, a letter which was published in a trade magazine with a 60K circulation (100K for its digital version) 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, he had fled from like a naughty child that evening, switching off his mobile phone and going to ground, leaving work without saying goodbye to those colleagues who had made his time at the organisation tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, those who had found his company tolerable, if not truly enjoyable, and who no doubt spoke ill of him once he was gone.
A letter which guaranteed that he would not be able to call on either of his previous employers for a reference, should he be fortunate enough to find another job in the future. 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. When he delivered the news of its imminent publication, he face fell momentarily, before she regained her composure and wrinkled her forehead in sympathy, and told him, It’ll be okay, and We’ll manage, 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 had been fastidious about maintaining 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. For him, creative pursuits always gave way to the demands of his domestic duties. 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. 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 not repeat the mistakes of the preceding generation, that he would change nappies and read bedtime stories and prepare feeds, care about his children and tell them that they were beloved.
From the very beginning, he threw himself into fatherhood, with his customary paucity of common sense or forethought. On the first night at home with their new son, his son woke in the early hours in some distress. He lifted his son, writhing like an enraged sphynx cat in a cloth sack, from the Moses basket and carried him through to the spare room, where he attempted to wipe away the meconium gummed to his tiny scrotum using a wad of cotton wool dipped in cold water, which caused the mewling child to scream uncontrollably and urinate all over his sleep suit. Sometimes he thought his eldest had never forgiven him for that, the traumatic memory rooted deep in his unconscious.
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, where he would watch him, kicking his legs in the air, making small 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. Placing his son in his crib, he would play him Satie’s Gymnopédies, Chopin’s Nocturnes or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on the small stereo in his room. If he heard his son cry, he would rush to him, stroke his soft, warm head and calm him with soothing tones.
Later that year his wife transferred two months of her maternity leave to him, and they 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 being kind to one another.
Two years later, their second son was born. To their incredible 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 their backs. Every day brought a new configuration of unanticipated calamity. Irrational tantrums. Explosive diarrhoea. Nocturnal vomiting. Nothing had prepared them for the onslaught, the sheer relentlessness of raising two children. The irregular sleep, the near-permanent fatigue, the inescapable odour of excrement, the heightened state of irritability at everyone and everything, especially one’s spouse. The physical and financial inability to do anything other than feed and clothe and spend time with 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 hours at his laptop.
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. 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 should have known that was far too optimistic. 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, their settled routine he had envisioned was obliterated by the complexity of getting his eldest son’s to nursery every day. It was ludicrously problematic. A few months earlier, he and his wife had registered their son at a nursery the next street over from their former home, but had then moved to a new house a couple of weeks before he was due to start at the nursery. As the nursery was close to the home of their childminder, who had looked after their son since he was a baby, and who while he and his wife were at work continued to collect their son from nursery, and as they were fearful that he would miss out on a nursery place if they tried to move him to one closer to their new home, after he left work they had to take him to the nursery in their old postcode each afternoon.
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 almost always late setting off because one child or another had either refused to eat his lunch within the half hour he had allotted for the purpose, or soiled himself 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, who was always reluctant to go, stood on the buggy board at the rear. His eldest son, being three years old, was still napping in the afternoon, and on a couple of occasions he arrived at the nursery to discover he 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 exhausting himself over the first couple of weeks, he transferred his eldest to his micro scooter, and pulled him along using a leash. He had envisioned his child happily scooting on the level sections of the route, lessening his endeavour when they reached one of the many hills but instead 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. More often than not, they didn’t.
Many years before, he had caught the end of a TV screening of Mr. Mom, starring a very young Michael Keaton. As he watched the film, in his youthful naiveté, 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, implied otherwise.
After being made redundant from his Detroit car plant, engineer Jack Butler, played by Keaton, has to become care for his 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 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 amorous advances of a divorcee neighbour.
In each scenario, Jack’s prior masculine identity and social standing were drawn into conflict with his newly-adopted role as househusband identity. Early in the film, Jack and his wife attend a corporate party hosted by Caroline’s boss. Once there he is goaded by her boss into competing in an obstacle course race, an annual event organised by her boss to reaffirm his authority. Near the end of the race, as Jack closes in on the finishing line, with victory in sight, he realises the effect that could have on her career, and instead of racing for the line, he throws himself to the ground, conceding victory to his wife’s boss. By allowing Caroline’s boss to win, Jack symbolically throws of the competitive facets of masculinity. At the close of the scene, when Jack leaves the frame, he is accompanied by his children, who celebrate his loss as if he won, reinforcing this paradigm shift within the narrative.
The film also contained several ironic reversals of the social expectations and pressures placed upon new mothers. One evening, when Jack brings Caroline something to eat as she works upstairs, she takes him to task for, as she perceives it, letting himself go, by sporting a shirt and beard which looked to have been modelled on Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American folklore, and symbol of the frontier mythos. 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.
In a later dream sequence, he imagines Caroline shooting him for reciprocating to his flirtatious neighbour’s advances. Not long after this scene, which can be 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 masculinised delusions. Then, Jack’s employers accept they made a terrible mistake in letting him go, and offer him his old job back. Caroline, meanwhile, tired of working in advertising, and returns to being a housewife.
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 Hughes and others such as Richard Linklater and Judd Apatow would profitably mine after the former’s death, from a sudden heart attack, in 1998. By that time, Hughes had 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 adolescent lassitude into the anomie of adulthood.
As a late Gen Xer, born in 1979, Hughes’ film had merely coloured his own consciousness, rather than overtly remoulded it. He had missed most of the classic Hughes films of the 1980s, being first too young, and then too sneering for the likes of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller, Weird Science. The later Hughes films encountered were humorous, if largely saccharine. The Great Outdoors. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Uncle Buck. Home Alone. When Beethoven was released, Hughes’ career appeared to be on the wane, and his coronet as the friendly, benign uncle with the uncanny ability of mapping the emotional terrain of young people passed to Pixar’s John Lassetter, whose game-changing animated movie Toy Story came out the year after Beethoven, effectively obliterating 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 had 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, all boys, 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.
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, working only sporadically for the next two decades. 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. 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. 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 he deployed in movies such as Beetlejuice and The Dream Team. 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. An inferior sequel followed a couple of years later, and after walking out on the second sequel in pre-production, his career never really recovered. 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 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, the film, to all intents and purposes, Birdman 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 one 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. 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 particular traits in their character (Ed Norton as talented, arrogant, script-altering buffoon Mike Shiner) added to this metacinematic frisson. 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.
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. Back where he belonged. Above them all. Everyone loves a happy ending.
Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) had begun 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 was already familiar with Raymond Carver’s poem Late Fragment. There was a beguiling ambiguity to it, 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 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. That the poem had been chiselled into Carver’s gravestone accentuated the ambiguous close of Birdman.
Then 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. 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 informed his son 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 schools 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.
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, 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 in 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, and work, and 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 Marryann 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 wrote in her memoir. Then it was Gallagher’s turn: 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, his eighteen-month-old’s determined push for a different form of hypermobility to that of his brother, as it meant that the bedevilling travel pushchair that had long been their default mode of child transportation could now be consigned to its new home in the loft. 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.
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 use his son’s scooter 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 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 collection of 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 an absolute clusterfuck, perfectly-calibrated to cause maximum chaos at home time.
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. 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 clucking and tutting.
Eventually, a member of the reception staff had to come down from the school building to manually open the gate. As the gate was only large enough to allow one person through at a time, 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 of parents and carers. 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 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 having just 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 his youngest had the day to themselves. Mondays and Wednesdays they went to the playgroup in 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 round 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 preschoolers and a charmingly blase approach to minding them. There other parents were mostly mothers. Another south Londoner whose daughter had red curls and a blood-curdling scream. A woman with a dark bob who had adopted orphaned boy twins from India. Her gym bunny friend who had a suspiciously-enduring cold, and a little boy who threw spectacular tantrums. A blonde with her mini-me daughter in pigtails and pink.
Very occasionally there would be another father there. Whenever there was, he and the other father would circle each other uncertainly, 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 for a half hour or so. After that, he would never see the father again. In truth, he preferred it 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 safe 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 his son.
Wednesdays were the exact flip of Mondays. On Wednesdays, there being no other playgroups in session that day, 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. On Wednesdays, the playgroup became without fail 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.
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. Karen, the ponytailed childminder, told his mother off, and he didn’t see either of them at playgroup again.
Wednesdays always infuriated Karen. She took great pleasure in turning people away once she deemed the playgroup full, her mouth set in indignant 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. On one particular morning, the playgroup was already at capacity when two unfamiliar carers appeared at the door with seven preschoolers, 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, got out their phones 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 famously withdrew from the music business to become a househusband. From Sean’s birth in 1975 until his re-emergence with the album Double Fantasy in 1980, the former Beatle all but disappeared from public view. 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, so the story goes, Lennon’s 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, Lennon had been on a two-year booze-soaked interregnum in his marriage with Ono, a period Lennon later 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. Each day he rose at six a.m. to be with his son and plan his day, establishing a safe, stable and caring environment for him. Lennon 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. Beatles obsessives, being heavily invested in the life of John Winston Lennon, Liverpool’s most famous son, a man so beloved in the city of his birth that he received that rare and ecologically unsound accolade of having an airport named after him, believed that they knew the man. They could derive kinship from absorption in the music and words and interviews and photographs and film-reels, a narrative from which they lifted key moments like neatly-parsed lyrics of a familiar song.
Born 1940, parental abandonment, Aunt Mimi, mother dies, The Quarrymen, meets Paul and George, Liverpool Institute, Stuart Sutcliffe, Hamburg, The Silver Beatles, Cavern Club, Brian Epstein, Pete Best/Ringo Starr, Please Please Me, ‘She Loves You’, birth of Julian, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, Ed Sullivan, A Hard Day’s Night, Bob Dylan, Help!, ‘Nowhere Man’, Shea Stadium, Revolver, Candlestick Park, Yoko Ono, LSD, Strawberry Fields Forever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Epstein’s death, Paul’s ascendancy, Magical Mystery Tour, heroin, White Album, Two Virgins, Apple Corp, ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’, Allen Klein, Beatles split, ‘Cold Turkey’, primal scream therapy, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, New York, May Pang, LA, Lost Weekend, return to NY/YO, birth of Sean, semi-retirement, Double Fantasy, shot by Mark David Chapman, dies 1980.
The tendency with any artist’s biography is to focus on the rise and thereafter the fall, while ignoring the lull. Hagiographers such as Philip Norman glossed over the last five years of Lennon’s life, but for speculative and unscrupulous biographers the lull provided a rich seam. 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 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’ Ono. This was followed, almost a decade later, by Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, a fictional imagining of Lennon’s psychic realm which was drafted from his journals, letters and other ephemera, which the dutiful Seaman had pilfered and passed to Rosen after Lennon’s death. While Seaman and Rosen’s books corroborated some of Goldman’s allegations about Lennon’s Howard Hughes existence and Ono’s ruthless management of her husband’s business, and extramarital, affairs, none could agree which Lennon was the true one. Seaman was sued by Ono for the theft of Lennon’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 gestured towards an oblique feminism in its narrative of shared parental responsibility and non-traditional masculine identity. 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 Lennon’s last years sought to undermine the tropes of domestic contentment and marital bliss by suggesting they were a projection, a self-masking by Lennon and Ono which reaffirmed the former Beatle’s mythic, or saintly, status and made the couple multimillionaires. This married with the narrative of Lennon as an unrestrained egotist, if not entirely with his being the victim of Ono’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 partially borne out by the wave of global mourning following his murder.
Lennon’s becoming a househusband was, more pertinently, a complete reversal of his first, failed attempt at fatherhood. Julian, John’s son by his first wife 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, Lennon sang, I just believe in me / Yoko and me / and that’s reality. Difficult to imagine what Julian felt when he heard the song.
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 the affection and understanding he needed while he was alive, after his death John left little to Julian by way of a bequeath. Eventually he sued the Lennon estate and was awarded a substantial sum, some of which he used to buy some of his father’s possessions when the estate refused to pass them 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. On the 20th anniversary of John’s murder, an embittered Julian issued a statement on his website accusing Ono of manipulating his father and continually frustrating their attempts at rebuilding their 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. First they were treated to Simon Mayo goofing around with Cathy Dennis’ backing singers, before someone in an oversized Bart Simpson bodysuit danced to ‘Do The Bartman’. Finally a nervous-looking Julian was invited on stage and interviewed by Mayo, standing awkwardly with his acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, before pretending 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 / of how we measure pain, Lennon sang on the eponymous song on his debut album. Julian might have said the same for paternal 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. 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 self-funded 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 repairs to his 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 a buggy 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.
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.
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 he was always at war with.