Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference
When I was of an age to be going out into the world – just before secondary school and at the onset of puberty I suppose, my Dad said to me “If you see an opportunity son, grab it with both hands”.
I’ve tried to follow this advice throughout my life and, in the family home, I had every opportunity to do so. I had it easy, my three elder sisters had fought all the parental battles for me – staying out late, drinking in pubs, hitch-hiking. And my parents also had a view that, as a boy, I was that much more able to look after myself, so I was even allowed to hitch-hike [if you’re too young to know what that is, look it up] on my own.
You might think from this that my Dad was a happy-go-lucky, glass-half-full kind of a person, but his approach to own life was more sanguine. More than once he’d say: “I assume the worst is going to happen, so if it does I’m prepared and, if it doesn’t, I’m pleasantly surprised.”
This says much about a man I loved and admired and who had a profound effect on my life that persists long after his death – not least in fuelling my love of words.
The radio, not TV, was ever-present in our house (My Word – a panel game – being a family favourite) as were shelf-loads of books. But I think I probably inherited my love of language and communication from my father; he was a great thinker and a skilled user of the spoken word in particular. He loved deep intellectual discussions – even with strangers and when, in later life, his job required ‘small talk’ he had to work hard (checking in with my mum from time to time to find out how he was doing). If you know about Berne’s levels of communication, my dad was keen to jump from ‘ritual’ to ‘rapport’ in one leap.
His ability to articulate his deeply-held inner beliefs is perhaps best illustrated by his refusal, as a Quaker, to fight in the Second World War. He went before a tribunal with three possible outcomes – imprisonment, work on a farm, or complete discharge. His ability to convince the panel of the sincerity of his pacifism meant he was given a complete discharge, spending the war years voluntarily fire-fighting in the East End of London. My dad was the first to admit that equally sincere Conscientious Objectors ended up in jail because they didn’t have the means to put their beliefs into words.
I’ve often wondered whether, if the need arose, I would be prepared to sacrifice my liberty for my beliefs and, if I had the opportunity, whether I would be able to put heart-felt feelings into words. It’s not a thing that most men are very good at – which pretty much explains the genesis of this ‘No man’s land’ series of blog posts.
I’ve never pretended to be an armchair psychologist, and I don’t intend to start now, but that doesn’t stop me looking at the similarities (other than our shared love of words) and differences between me and my Dad, and reflecting on some of the memories that have lingered the longest.
We shared a boarding school education, albeit 40 years apart. Like many others sent away for their schooling by their parents, I’ve often wondered why someone who himself disliked the experience would even consider sending his own son away to be ‘parented’ by strangers. Admittedly my father went to a boarding school when he was eight (I was 11 years and 1 month), but even he attributed his lifelong nervous ticks and twitches to that early schooling. So he couldn’t even use the well-worn refrain ‘well, it never did me any harm…’
Both my parents loved music and sang in a choir – a passion they passed to us four children in pretty much equal measure. Along with the sound of his singing, and guitar playing, I have happy memories of my Dad whistling (why do so few people whistle these days?) I took it to be a sign of his contentment. Only later in life did I realise that it often, but not always I like to think, indicated he was getting agitated; impatient about us not getting in the car maybe, or something not turning out as he’d planned.
If only I’d been more aware, maybe I could have responded to the early warning signs whistling in my ears. But, as I say, males of all ages seem to be conditioned to keep sensitivity at arm’s length and their feelings inside.
That said, a rather more direct expression of my father’s annoyance when we weren’t doing what we were told came in the form of two ‘threats’ that, looking back, were somewhat at odds with his non-violent beliefs. The first warning was a verbal “do I have to hit you to show you I mean it?” (I hasten to add he never did) and the second was non-verbal and arguably more threatening.
For some reason, my dad always had a stash of pins in his jacket lapel. I never knew why but, since he was in the textile business, maybe he picked them up all day at work and simply stored them there. Whatever the reason, if he wanted us to do something that we didn’t, he would make an exaggerated move to pick a pin from behind his lapel to threaten us with it. The pin never came out far, but I’m sure social services would have something to say about this in the current climate.
His application of amateur psychology also manifested itself in more benign ways. When I couldn’t sleep at night, he’d promise me half-a-crown [look it up if you’re too young to know what I’m talking about] if I stayed awake all night. The effort of doing this sent me straight off to sleep of course. I fell for it every time.
For men of a certain age, their paid work often defines them but not, I think, in my Dad’s case. He worked in the family firm until he was 55 when the business closed down. He said he was less upset about this than others. This may be because, as Financial Director, he’d lived with the possibility of closure for five years or maybe it was him denying his true feelings. The only break from the business – which wove textiles and hand-crafted tapestries – was a period during the war when, through his pacifism, he refused to work there because the factory was making uniforms for the armed forces. Like his conscientious objection to war, this principled stand – in his own family firm – impressed me greatly; something that I believe had a profound effect on me in later life.
My dad seemed to work a pretty fixed week – leaving home around 7.30am for the 20-minute walk to work. He would arrive back in time for tea at 6pm around the kitchen table – an important family fixture in the working week. After tea, he’d dedicate equal time to each of us four children. For me this might be kicking a football on the rough ground next to our house or helping me with my homework. His patience and dedication were amazing and much greater, I think, than mine was with our (only) daughter.
Weekends we did father-and-son things like going to football matches – Tranmere Rovers, Everton or Liverpool. He also cultivated my love of woodwork and generally doing things with my hands – which I think has ‘saved me’ in later life. All very much boy’s stuff – but I think this was a well-intentioned and conscious effort to counter the female influence in our home.
He was pretty much ever-present at home before I went away to school, all except for an annual six-week business trip around Europe making the most of his foreign language skills. During those sales trips, we took it in turns to sleep next to my mum in their bed. I don’t think she got much sleep during those six weeks, but when it was my turn I was excited all day at primary school. Even now I can remember sleeping soundly, that wonderful feeling of being safe and secure in a warm cosy bed.
Returning to my father’s strict moral code (not that he overtly imposed his views on us children) I remember a summer fair at which there was a ‘guess-the-number-of-currants-in-the-cake’ stall – a fundraiser with the winner having the cake that was there on display. Quakers are against gambling so, rather than guess, my Dad counted the number of currents he could see on the surface, measured the size of the cake and did the necessary calculation to come up with the answer. He duly won the cake with a clear conscience!
The clarity with which I remember things like this – that happened over 50 years ago – is a sign of my dad’s continuing presence in my life (and probably the fact that favourite family stories were often re-told). On an almost daily basis I still catch myself repeating my father’s sayings, but always with credit … ‘as my old dad used to say’.
For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land