I have a small confession to make: I have been telling folks around here that The Salisbury Review is ‘the Queen’s favourite magazine’. I didn’t mean to deceive, not at first. It started with just my mother-in-law. She had been gaining ascendancy over me lately. She was soundly winning the propaganda war for the heart and mind of my wife. I was desperate. So, one day over dinner, slab of sirloin dangling from fork, dull table-lamp illuminating half my mug, I barked, ‘Even the Queen of England reads what I have to say! So there!’ The dirty lie just slipped out, sort of. And it hit home, striking a powerful blow. She even emitted a grunt. And of course, she goes and tells everyone, proud of my glory, despite herself.
What choice did I have but more dissembling?
Sinner that I am, I even told my two eldest daughters, aged 15 and 13, that The Salisbury Review, Daddy’s articles, were laid out, right there in the gilded drawing room at Buckingham Palace. Looked them dead in their cherubic eyes without blinking. But the foul fib was barely worth the telling, for it meant nothing to my sultry young ladies, that is the thing. They just offered the blankest of blank gazes and treated me like a man with a long grey beard from nose to stomach. I took this sorely to heart.
Things were different in my day. When I was about 10, I lived in a backwoods Huckleberry Finn hick-town called Port St Lucie, Florida. My dad had been dispatched to this inviolate gator-infested outpost to get its crumbling telephone company shipshape. I made pals with the local lads, boys whose lifelong uniform would be jean-shorts and flip-flops, who maybe even now are lurking in ambush somewhere. For fun, we shot cottonmouth water moccasins with pellet guns, searching fetid ditches and swamp-flowers for the slithery serpents.
But one day, we boys had what amounted to an intellectual conversation.
We lounged in the palmetto woods high in a wooden tree-fort, constructed for certain military operations, and ruminated on the question ‘What would you do if the Queen of England suddenly visited your house?’ I still remember the weighty talk. A band of boys with war paint on faces, Rambo knives on belts, discussing serious points of etiquette. I, naturally, had the most authority: St Petersburg, land of the Tsars, gave birth to me (admittedly, it was only Leningrad at the time). My family had an icon of the martyred Imperial Family hanging in the breakfast nook. I knew things. I pontificated: ‘You couldn’t just give her a tea bag. You’d have to use loose tea from a box. You’d have to warm the tea pot, swoosh some boiling water in it before adding the tea. And you’d have to cover the teapot with a small blanket and let it brew for the right time…’
What tickles me, looking back, is how we never dreamt of inviting Reagan over. By some instinct, a band of American boys in the steam-bath of the Florida sticks understood that a queen was something infinitely higher than a mere president. Nobody taught us this, we just knew it. You could toss Reagan a Lipton teabag, call it a day, and he wouldn’t even notice.
This brings me to my topic. I was asked recently what fatherly worries I had about the future for my four daughters. Weighty question.
Like Lear, my chief concern, of course, is securing total lifetime daughterly devotion and unremitting affection. Far behind comes any diffuse worries for the general state of the future world. I don’t wish to end like old Papa Goriot, you see, with daughters out dancing while I’m slowly belching up the ghost on the sickbed. Especially not dancing to the yowling of some strange new music. No, my vision is more that they solemnly stand at opposite bedposts, the atmosphere in the room that of Albinoni’s mournful Adagio in G, and so on. With such in mind, I must count all therapists, social workers, most educators – most modern people, really, and mine especially, as natural enemies of fatherhood in the lump.
The process starts early, turning them against father. It’s in the ‘children’s literature,’ not overtly, but obliquely. It’s not like in the old fairy tales, which speak to the natural processes going on in a child – the love of papa, or even the fear of papa. The prettified fairy tales of today are bad. They don’t help a child find security in an identified language, using as they do abstract ethical concepts instead of dragons. Bruno Bettelheim describes in his wonderful book The Uses of Enchantment: ‘Contrary to what takes place in many modern children’s stories, in fairy tales evil is as omnipresent as virtue. In practically every fairy tale good and evil are given body in the form of some figure and their actions, as good and evil are omnipresent in life and the propensities for both are present in every man. It is this duality which poses the moral problem, and requires the struggle to solve it.’
Can you not see that all these new books are against me?
Charles Dickens understood that fairy tales help kids attain maturity, civilize their chaotic minds and, above all, impart the proper love of papa. He repeatedly expressed scorn for those who, motivated by an unattained and petty rationality, insisted on bowdlerizing and rationalizing these stories, and thus robbed children of the important contributions fairy tales could make in their lives.
So much for my younger two daughters, whose future earth I have difficulty imagining, other than to suspect that present tendencies aren’t the sort to blossom so wonderfully. It won’t be a world where moustachioed waiters spin around you and all the silver shines.
As for the older two daughters, let me tell you one thing that happened, since we have been talking about stories. My thirteen-year old was asked to choose a hero and report back to her class. She goes to what is considered a ‘good school’. At first, she chose Tolstoy, regrettably dead, white and male, but otherwise seemingly unimpeachable, even from a progressive angle. After all, the man had no time for private property or official Christianity, and even renounced literature in the name of social reform. Gave his land to his peasants. Yet for all that, the teacher found him objectionable – for no better reason than he set off her ‘yucky meter’. The glum pedagogue proposed instead the American sitcom actress and comic, Ellen DeGeneres. Let me assure you dear readers across the Pond that we are not talking of another Blind Milton dictating Paradise Lost in the early hours to his daughter so we may know that Satan yet walks the earth, but a yacking cocktail party TV hostess who came out as a Lesbian on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997.
Ladies and gentlemen, am I to tell you what this did to me? Upon hearing the verdict, my eyes refused to focus. My limbs seemed to be leaving me. And the pain, which may have been out of all proportion, remains an unrelieved horror in memory. Can you imagine? Ellen DeGeneres over Tolstoy! The whole point of having children is to reproduce your kind. I want my little ones to go around like I do, needling good people with alexandrine couplets, scorning Hollywood in favour of the Duchesse de Guermantes, drinking black coffee, even smoking, damn it. What right have they got to bequeath them to Ellen?
It matters because, lacking something fine to compare things to, one muddles the mediocre with the exceptional. And so, what then? Well, then you start to feel in clichés, and all your sentiments get cheapened. That is a bad thing.
The worst part is wondering what sort of husbands await.
It might be the type that goes jogging, the worst sort of all. Remember, it can take many years for a crummy character to come out. Such a man might bring them to a world of laminated Thai menus and paper napkins folded into pyramids. My girls will forget all I taught them under such conditions. And I will not even mention the wedding at the rented ballroom, people dancing in a sort of conga line. I will not mention vacations at beach resorts sipping fruity cocktails under canopies. It is all just too dreadful!
Yes, as a father I have a lot of fears, and they usually arrive every day, at exactly eight o’clock. Perhaps with too many helpings of dinner and the torrid monotony of evening, bad thoughts come. But I won’t blame myself, I won’t. Even the brilliant Abelard is on my side: ‘What man, intent on his philosophic meditations, can possibly endure the whining of children, the lullabies of the nurse seeking to quiet them, or the noisy confusion of family life?’
I do my best.