‘Do you have empathy?’, my tutor asked me. ‘Empathy…me? Not really, no…I mean, yes, I do but I have to turn it on.’ It’s like a switch. Normally, I’m in my own bubble and can’t see others’. But I remember her saying to me, ‘Try empathy, my friend, and see what it will do.’ And I discovered I had it in spades. It was amazing and I got to sit down, metaphorically speaking, on the crowded train at Christmas and gained a friend, really. I was reading a new book by Jennifer Kavanagh, The Emancipation of B, and it was making me think.
One of the places in Jennifer’s book which strikes a chord is the disinterring of the relationship between B’s parents. He idolises his father, who barely spent time with him. He castigates his mother for being controlling and spiteful. Passive-aggressive, you’d call her today. His dad is just passive. How had the got to this place? And sex? So much thinking about sex or rather, not having sex, especially with the rising of the sap each spring. It’s natural, isn’t it? And normal…why all the guilt? It stems from the mother, the book seems to say. I’m not so sure. Well, in this book, it does. But B’s parents must have had sex, though it’s hard to think of them doing so, at least twice because they have two kids. And other people seem to like or get on with his mother, B observes, so maybe it’s not all her fault. Maybe, the problems in the marriage were his father’s fault!
In this place, I thought back to my own dad, who was my hero as a young boy. He walked like John Wayne and held his cigarette like Humphrey Bogart, cupped in his palm. That was him – fictitious. He was my hero but, was it one moment or over many, I came to hate him. At fifteen, I told him one day, if he hurt mum again, that I would beat him. I couldn’t do it then but the time would come. And I would beat him.
Time passes…and that moment never came… Through excess drink, tobacco and poor diet, he grew old and frail and died at a relatively early age, only 69. He spent his last few months in bed, unable to get up, except to go to the toilet, relying on ‘meals on wheels’, which he didn’t eat. I thought I was his only visitor, but not quite. My sister told me of the time she went to see him, lying in bed, only to realise there was a woman, laying quietly next to him, under the bed clothes. The woman, his drinking buddy, never said a word. Good old dad!
Those visits were important to me for, unlike B in the book, I was able to make my peace with my dad. I was able to say that I understood much better how he’d been affected by his own rough childhood; how, as a parent, I felt how hard it is to work and do the dad stuff. He worked as a manual worker, so no surprise he didn’t want to or couldn’t spend much time with me. He slept in his armchair by the fire in the evenings. I don’t think I was a disappointment to him. I know I wasn’t. I lived the life, going to a grammar school, he’d been denied himself for lack of money or will or both.
Education was the greatest gift he gave his kids. I was able to tell him, sitting by his bed, that I forgave him all the shouting and swearing and hitting mum…it did get less frequent as we got older…as I had learned to shout the loudest to stop them from arguing. Best of all, I could tell him that I loved him. I love him still. He is my dad. Not a hero…an ordinary man, who lived the life he did…perhaps, not the one he would have liked but then he wouldn’t have been my dad…and probably I wouldn’t have been me.
I never met either of my grandads. Both died early, before I was born. So, I only have family stories about what they were like. Dad’s dad, Bernard, was small, though he must have been strong. He worked as a ‘navvy’, building tunnels. His wife ruled the roost. When my dad’s ship came home, he would wait for him to come round the corner, carrying his case and he’d say to my dad, ‘Take me for a pint, son.’ And off they went for a few pints together. I wonder what they talked about and how close they were. I had some of those moments with my dad. He did like to drink and would go on and he had hollow legs but he must have thought back to those times, sitting and having a drink, with his dad.
And my sons? I wonder how they will make sense of their parents’ relationship, of a marriage that didn’t last. Will they need to? What if they are independent and self-minded, grounded and centred. I hope so. Will I be to blame for their faults, their mistakes in their relationships? Or their mother? Perhaps, they may think so…they are both young. It is too soon to say. We will see.
My grandad on my mum’s side, William, was a quiet man. He was really my mum’s real mum’s brother after her real mum died in childbirth. She was the last of a big family. Her dad, Albert, couldn’t look after a small baby. So, mum was eventually adopted at 16. My granddad, she said, used to spoil her. ‘Can I have sixpence for the pictures, dad? Can I? Can I? Go on, please! Go on, dad, please?’ ‘No, you can’t,’ he’d say but he always gave it her in the end. He was a foreman in a factory near the docks and was very good at repairing bikes.
I recommend Jennifer Kavanagh’s book to you. Who knows where it will lead.
The Emancipation of B by Jennifer Kavanagh, Round fire books, 2015 http://newsfromnowhere.tbpcontrol.co.uk/TBP.Direct/PurchaseProduct/OrderProduct/CustomerSelectProduct/ProductDetail.aspx?d=newsfromnowhere&s=C&r=10000022&ui=0&bc=0&productCode=9781782798842