As advice for the ages goes, “Neither a lender nor borrower be,” didn’t quite make it into the modern pantheon of proverbs to follow; what with usury (and speculation thereon) being the very backbone of modern capitalism – the bread and butter for a good many Londoners. Certainly king of the pyramids, nay Pharaoh, Bernie Madoff epically failed to get that particular memo.
The phrase itself is from Hamlet. One of a number of maxims that, King’s Counsel, Polonius confers on his son Laertes. Advice for a young man about to set out into the world. “Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar,” “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice,” that sort of thing. Not as useful as perhaps “Wash”, or “Try to get up before midday,“ but it’s a template for Kipling’s If; as if the transition to adulthood can be boiled down to a shopping list of virtues.
Indeed, Polonius reels off qualities as if he might forget the ham slices, baked beans and toilet roll. And Laertes patiently waits for this wise Source-of-tuition-fees to finish, even though he’s desperate to hare it from the castle to his ship which is about to sail off to uni.
Standing next to the Bristol Megabus in Victoria Coach Station at six in the morning and shouting over the engine noise lacks some of the gravitas, but Polonius proves that being a father and suddenly realising that there`s still so much you`ve somehow forgotten to say, or haven’t quite said enough times, in the 18 years that lead to this parting is a perennial September life meme.
For parents who have, every year, longed for this month and the respite it brings from constant childcare, it comes as a shock that September should also be so bittersweet with goodbyes and feeling, like Polonius, that your masterwork is not quite ready for the world. You have this nagging sense that, despite getting the A-Level grades and accepted into University, your child is still a child, half-witted, half-baked and going off half-cocked. You know the lights are on but you can’t help feeling that someone’s been playing with the dimmer switch.
I look at my son about to embark on this next phase of his life and I’m not wondering if he’ll sink or swim but: did he pack his scuba gear? I’m dying to bestow great life-long advice. “Remember, my son, the road to failure is the path of least persistence. A good friend will help you move, a great friend will help you move a body. If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not your sport and never forget that old proverb which says pretty much anything you want it to say.”
But if there’s anything that the last half a decade has taught me: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with teenagers that reasoning won’t aggravate. As my son readies himself I try to hold my tongue and hide the fear. I know that whatever advice I give it will sound like a lecture and his automatic Candy Crush brain-idle will kick in until he hears my voice stop.
Perhaps what I should really be concerned about is that I have reached an age when my personal associations are with the play’s geriatrics rather than Hamlet with all his, let’s face it, teen angst. It’s an irony that Benedict Cumberbatch is currently proving at the RSC: by the time you’re established enough to ‘play the Dane’, you’re far too old to be a convincing coming-of-ager struggling between the rocks of youthful idealism and the realisation that it’s a dirty world. When you’re older, “To be or not to be?” becomes a question only if you’re considering how soft you want your pencil lead to be. And at my age, the lead in the pencil is soft indeed.
Young Hamlet calls Polonius a “tedious old fool,” and his advice, however good, certainly seems to go in one of Laertes’ ears and straight out of the other. Yet, and this gives me hope, just maybe some of those character strengthening tidbits eventually found their mark. It is Laertes, after all, who finds his mettle (specifically some three feet of sharpened steel) and returns to avenge his sister and father, the only one to have the courage to stand up to the solipsist ego-mania of the teenage Danish prince.
So maybe, just maybe, a smidgen of the advice that I have tried to impart to my own son will find its way through the morass of self-absorption that besieges the teen mind.
“Above all – to thine own self be true,” Polonius tells his son. Which sounds easy, until you realise what a shaky understanding we have of both the subject and object of that sentence. So maybe it was just as well Laertes’s young brain filtered it out; otherwise Denmark, under Hamlet, could have really had its bacon.
I prepare myself for some last essential word of wisdom but, “Good luck,” is all I manage; despite having zero tolerance for fortune, fate, karma or coincidence. Watching the massive head of the cartoon bus driver on the back of the Megabus turn out of the station, I start to wonder if Pret’s open for breakfast yet.
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