And He Shut Up, He Sat Down, And He Ate

I would agree that growing up is a process of disillusionment. In a previous piece I argued that this term stands for a lot more than its narrow hipster meaning: a kind of prancing boredom. As a child you think of your parents as gods, omniscient and wise, and essentially benign despite the odd eruption. Then you grown up and come to realise the truth of Martin Amis’s sentence, ‘that adults, too, were small, and pushed and tugged by many forces’. The secret is that no one knows anything. True in Hollywood, and true everywhere. We are all winging it, we make it up as we go along, no one is driving this car, no one is flying this plane, the room at the top of the Tower is empty. To me this is what disillusionment means. And there’s a liberation in that.

Given this, if I’d had two children in the 1980s, could I have done even half as good a job of raising those children as my mother did with me? God, I doubt it. One of her worst habits of thinking is a tendency to blame herself for my mental health problems and self-inflicted wounds, and a reluctance to take credit for the success our family has enjoyed. My sister got a first from Oxford. She was the first graduate of our state school to get into Oxbridge for, I think, some generations. She is now an account exec for a major advertising firm – our own little Peggy Olson. Even I’ve done well, with a couple of degrees and a good, salaried job and a comfortable present and a knowledge that anything is possible. 

All this happened because my mother never tried to lower our expectations in the way of so many parents and peers. The thing I most remember her saying is ‘I want the best for you.’ That’s an important thing to hear in a country where everyone is told that they have to settle for something. As I get older, I find that there’s more and more days when I reflect on how lucky I was to grow up in a house full of books.

The old girl has some fascinating stories of her younger years in London and Edinburgh at the tail end of the last century’s great change. She is no drudge, she has been around, yet at the same time I’ve never known anyone so selfless. It’s a rare quality and one that almost scares me, being the self-centred individualist I am. She is nearing the end of a great career in human rights advocacy and public service (and has recently become a Quaker elder). It’s her I think of when I read the classic quote from Middlemarch:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

No one’s perfect, of course, and there are things about my mother that always irritated me and always will. Her enthusiasm for antismoking is probably part of what turned me into a hardcore, unrepetant twenty-a-day man. A fluttery overprotectiveness, an unintentional condescension – I can see myself at seventy, about to walk on stage to pick up the Nobel Prize for Literature, and my mobile goes: ‘Did you have your haircut? Are you taking those zinc tablets I sent you? Have you eaten fruit?’

But being close means you have to forgive these forgiveable sins. Family love isn’t as simple and direct as romantic love: it’s diffuse and complicated, and shadows float in the undercurrents, but it endures. It does.

Skinner fought to keep his mouth shut. But it was true. And he looked at this tough, bitter, loving and wonderful woman, who had devoted her life to his welfare… who looked after him and never talked down to him, valued his opinion and treated him like an adult even when he was just a boy…. He looked down at the food Beverly had made for him and he shut up and he ate.


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