The Daddy as Baddie

“I’m going to count to five and if you haven’t said sorry by then you’re going straight to your room.”

I stand pointing upstairs looking as furious as possible as I try to remember where I’ve heard the phrase I’ve just used before. Oh yes. It was my father.

“One”

With the possible exception of being behind the wheel of a very large truck, you don’t want to turn in to your parents. However, the chances of avoiding it, when they’re the only consistent guide to parenting you’ve had, are slim.

For me this isn’t helped when each morning I look in the mirror and all I can see is my father staring back. Not only that, he hasn’t even bothered to shave. When my wife wakes up she doesn’t just look like her mother, she proceeds to tell me how she was always too good for me, I should get a proper job and that there were a lot less darkies around during the blitz.

“Two”

My only consolation in my patermorphis is that I’m not turning into someone else’s father because, flawed as my one was, this week has proven there are far worse out there.

Take poor Ray Bond who failed to pick up the clues when he allowed Hannah, his 13 year old “emo” fixated, goth, daughter with a history of self harm, unmonitored internet access. Hannah “was always very protective of the screen whenever I came in to the room,” he told a Coroner after finding her lifeless body hanging from her bunk bed.

Of course he didn’t choke his daughter to death by stamping on her throat in an honour killing as Abdel-Quader Ali did after seeing her talking to a British soldier. “Death was the least she deserved,” he pronounced.

But even that pales when the kindly old father figure from Amstetten said, “It was a beautiful idea for me, to have a proper family also down in the cellar.”

“Three”

Suddenly I’m wondering if I’m not being a little too authoritarian. I mean dads have hardly had a good press this week. It’s like someone’s been running a campaign for Fathers For Injustice. And here I am looking stern and maybe it’s scarier then I think.

I do realise that, like nipples and Calpol, terror has a key role in the psyche of the young, it trains caution before they’re old enough to understand danger. An ugly witch in a fairy tale used to do the job but since Shrek came along they’re all cute and rehabilitated; ogres no longer seem to eat children.

When R’s school project on Zeus revealed that his father ate most of his siblings as babies and Zeus ate his first wife with his unborn child inside her it was greeted with the same indifference as if that was just another option on a Happy Meal.

So now we have the news to broadcast our ogres and the terror is distributed indiscriminate of age. Madeline McCann is a cautionary tale, but mostly for grown ups, and where story monsters were always marked by their differences, now what makes them scarier is that they’re just like us.

“I wanted to have many children. Not children that would have to grow up alone… but children that would always have someone to play with.” It’s a simple caring notion, what parent hasn’t let it idle through their brain at some point? But, oh my god, I’ve just shared a thought with the mind of Joseph Fritzl – and here I am about to imprison a defenceless child in her room. What kind of father am I?

“Four”

As I stand there praying I won’t have to mete out punishment, it dawns on me that I’m no longer one of the kids, I‘m not one of us, I’m one of them. I’m the brick wall my children will try to tear down. I’m the cause to be rebelled against. My love might be unconditional but any chance of friendship is overloaded with conditions. I’ll be your friend if you obey my rules: sit up, don’t slouch, speak up, get your feet off the chair, lean over your plate when you put food in your mouth, say sorry like you mean it…

“Four and a half”

She still hasn’t apologised. I look into J’s determined eyes, hero of her own adventure, facing down the punishment monster. I try to keep my angry dad face and not let on how much I admire her bravery. She’s only three and I know I’ve got to teach her how to respect people because it will keep her safe when she’s out in the big world. But I hate knowing that I’m reinforcing our differences and the memory of moments like this will eventually drive her away to the happier company of her un-judgemental, non-conditional, peers.

“Fi-i-i-i,” I say, menacingly, my arms reaching towards her, ready to snatch and whisk her screaming to her room.

“Sorry” she quickly whispers grabbing my hand and burying her face in my arms.

I kiss her tiny hot head, “No, I’m sorry,” I whisper back.

Got the MABS

I used to think that until I settled down and had a family I’d be incomplete. Of course as soon as I did, I realised I wasn’t complete, I was finished.

It’s something I’d rather forget, but every other week, another “life’s crap for the middle aged family man” ‘finding’ seems to come out forcing me, once again, to stare into the abyss.

Which is, partly, why I find myself sharing a table in a busy pub at lunchtime. The sun is hot and bright, making the darkness inside all the more black. A viscous smattering of partially dehydrated beer glistens on the table.

“You going to get that down you?” says the bloke next to me, nodding at the glass I’ve been staring at for the last half hour. It’s the very question I’ve been asking myself as I grip, the tiny pill in my hand: my first anti-depressant.

It’s Superman in reverse; there you are faster than a locomotive, more powerful than a tall building and so unfamiliar with your own underpants you’re not sure which way to put them on, then you pop into the phone booth of life to give someone a ring and when you come out you’re bespectacled, bumbling, mild mannered, Clark Kent, whose closest encounter with a speeding bullet is being stuck in traffic.

You spend the rest of your life looking for the damn phone booth, or somewhere to just change again, but it’s gone.

I look at the little pill with the big promise and try to remind myself that the disappointment of lost youth is so old as to be a cliché, prosaic rather than cause for Prozac, a trite of passage. But then why is everyone trying to remind me how miserable I’m supposed to be?

Hoards of academics, probably suffering from the Mabs (Middle Aged Bleakness Syndrome) themselves, seem determined to justify their misery.

Why am I not surprised that Professor Oswald, stuck in a midlands university with acres of research, describes life as a U-bend, “bottoming out in middle age”? What middle aged man doesn’t know he’s stuck between the first flush of youth and the blocked waste pipes of old age?

Last week, Relate counsellors revealed the shocking truth that middle aged men lose their libidos – as if the Bonapartes hadn’t already stuck that psychological post-it note on the pages of history – and if cancelling your bedroom activity wasn’t enough, Professor King of the Royal Free was quick to remind us “Men are most likely to suffer depression between the ages of 30 and 50”.

And now, when it’s far too late to do anything about my family, (short of the Austrian fine wine solution of laying them in the cellar for 24 years), Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert declared the happiest people were those married but without children.

But what do you know? All these weighty academics, leaders in their fields, top of their game; if they’re not between 30 and 50 then stick my hat in the oven and season to taste.

Perhaps then, it’s not that middle aged man’s melancholy is any more prevalent, but that he’s more likely to indulge this navel gazing with the time, resources, position and self absorption to explore it.

I just pity the poor research assistants and want to take them by the hand: yes middle aged men, just when then they should be feeling top of the pile, often feel shitty for a number of rather worn reasons. There, now they can use the time I saved them to get back to their all-lego re-make of Star Wars for YouTube.

Maybe depressed men seem more of a story because, unlike women, they’re less likely to admit it or go to a doctor for anti-depressants. The mid-life bloke stumbles through not daring, or conveniently forgetting, to tell his doctor or anybody else, that he no longer feels master of the universe.

I pick up my drink, “There we go”, I think, “bucked the trend and, like Moses, got my answer in a tablet.” I place the pill on my tongue, and lift my head, but looking up I get distracted.

She catches my eye for a hundredth of a second, a fraction of a girl, half my age, and an eighth my BMI. She sweeps past in a skirt which, from table height, appears to have risen above the bottom of a pair of piston driven impossibly firm, tanned, buttocks. I sit there staring and realise I have forgotten why I had put my head up in the first place.

So pity not the sad middle aged man, don’t tell him he’s repressing something, don’t advise him to “let the feelings out”. We come equipped with our very own inbuilt survival mechanism, a natural bad news cut out; the one that allows bills to lie unopened for a week, as if they had never arrived. Death, tax demands and an excess of nasal hair: all inevitable and all totally ignorable. We like to call it things like, “focus” but our one-track, multitasking-resistant, minds are also hard at work defending us from the credit crunch, the spreading gut and the interminable research: our all-natural anti-depressant.

Clutching my glass, I stare at the receding figure and realise I’m as happily capable of forgetting I’m never going back to Krypton as I am anniversaries, the names of in-law and children on buses.

I let out a low whistle and something I’d forgotten plops into my glass.

Who writes this stuff?

So… In brief… I began my career in journalism at The Evening Standard in 1985, becoming their first photo-journalist before going on to write for several national newspapers. Then, age 26, I went up to Oxford to read English. I continued working for the Sunday Times and for a while was the Sunday Express science editor. Other moments I might have capitalized on, but failed to, include: at 19 my first play ‘Frikzhan’, won the 1985 National Youth Theatre/Texaco Most Promising Playwright Award; my radio play ‘sLaughter In The Dark’ won the 1991 BBC Young Writers Festival and I wrote the subsequent popular comedy series for Radio 4 broadcast in 1995; the script for my short film, ‘Diary of a Surreal Killer’ starring Paula Hamilton and A.A.Gill was nominated for the 1997 BAFTA Carl Foreman Award. I’ve written a number of television documentaries – which have included the award winning BBC/A&E series ‘Prohibition’. Making Love was my first novel. How to Forget, now out in both hard cover and paperback, is my second. I’m on my third between chores.