The Synaptic Years

Jenny Diski

  • And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison
    Granta, 215 pp, £14.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 14 014240 1
  • Eating Children by Jill Tweedie
    Viking, 314 pp, £15.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 670 84911 1

It’s a race against time, but, as this century totters to its close, we might, in the final few years, catch up with the arithmetic and discover that it’s the 20th century we’ve been inhabiting, and not, after all, a dreamlike prolongation of the 19th. We’ll feel bereft, of course, as we pack away the old Middle-European 19th-century philosophies – we’ve played with them for so long there appears to be no alternative. Actually, we’ve got nothing to lose but certain habits of mind, and not much to fear since forming habits of mind is a special talent of our species. And there might be enough of a hiatus to feel sweet relief as the weight of Marx and Freud lifts off us, and the burden of history, public and personal, becomes a thing of the past.

Suppose, just suppose, that somewhere, someone is scribbling down an entirely new version of what we really are: a boldly different theory for the 21st century whose premise is that the crucial years of an individual’s psychological development are not from birth till five, but between the ages of 42 and 47. According to this theory, the psyche and personality in the first half of life are malleable and unfinished; childhood trauma not trauma, but neutral and neural experience: the Synaptic Years. Then it would be a simple matter for each of us to be analysed between the ages of 40 and 42, and by the time we reached the critical age – the Mid-Life Crisis which we’ve already labelled, but whose significance we’ve only dimly begun to grasp – we’d have got ourselves sorted out, our experience assessed and ordered, and be ready to spend fruitful years from middle age to the end of our days, as positive, harmonious and psychologically healthy as Houyhnhnms.

Certainly, we’re not there yet. Personal excavations into the undergrowth of family continue to roll off the presses. And – twitch, twitch, twitch – what would become of those of us who make our living raking over the ashes of our singular and desperately consequential childhoods? How are we to earn our crusts if we lose all the excruciating, delectable pain and pathology of the nuclear family, and relinquish the myths and monsters which sustain our sense of our uniquely interesting selves? Does the recent escalation of books on Life-with-Father suggest a kind of panic, perhaps, that the game is almost up?

Mind you, the whole edifice of the Freudian family horror story might collapse simply because all the best titles are gone. Turgenev has long since taken the solid and serious Fathers and Sons, and Sylvia Plath, the seminal ‘Daddy’. Germaine Greer’s used up Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, and now Blake Morrison has bagged And When Did You Last See Your Father? Which leaves me, I guess, with a choice between Oh, mein Papa and Daddy’s Little Girl. I’d better get a move on, or I’ll be lumbered with When Father Papered the Parlour, which wouldn’t do at all,

When fathers die, their children are free to write memoirs. Historically, one of the main perks of being the next generation is that in the normal way of things we outlast them. Sadness at their going is always mingled with the triumph of survival. Now, the world belongs to us, we say, with a tear in one eye and a sparkle in the other. Ambivalence has been the key to the succession of the generations. But hygiene and medical advances being what they have this century, the parental generation have been able to put off their dying until the children are well into the middle of their lives. They seem to be closing on us, and it’s all become a bit of a rush: we barely have time to meditate on the meaning of the loss of our parents before we’re forced to confront the looming inevitability of our own death.

Morrison, Tweedie (and Greer before them) waited, apparently needing their part in the paternal death before the tale could be told, but by then, childhood had long gone, and the past had been screened and skewed by the place the offspring had made for themselves in the world. Of the two new memoirs, Morrison seems better to understand his lack of generational innocence: the death of Arthur Morrison takes up a good half of the book, and the son’s deathwatch seems to look forward to his own end as much as it looks back to his beginnings. Indeed, the beginnings are the problem of the memoir, the childhood too much strived for through a synthetically childish language, as if putting ‘y’s on the end of words will work the trick of getting back there again. ‘Bumpy’ grass, ‘gleamy bits’ of cars, ‘headachy’ air, ‘squelchy’ pies abound, signalling the boyish view of the world, but effectively alienating rather than ushering the reader back to the earlier time. The less stylised but more potent deathwatch sections of the book speak with greater directness about the complex of hot emotions and cool curiosities both boy and man feel for the father.

There is no hardship or hunger, no violence or melodrama in Morrison’s provincial Fifties childhood with his doctor parents. Embarrassment is the central thread in his memory, accompanied by a moment of mild unease about what Daddy’s doing in the car with Auntie Beaty, who isn’t really an auntie at all. Perhaps embarrassment (felt as shame by the child, and therefore serious; and something to be ashamed of as an adult looking back, and therefore serious) is always the central emotion between parent and offspring. Doubtless junior Homo Habilis looked on his half-handy Dad with burning cheeks and wished himself a couple of million years into the future. He needn’t have bothered: it all goes on going on. The problem is how do you – educated, thoughtful, special surely – relate to the pompous, ordinary, cliché-ridden, unread man who is your father? You look back for clues about yourself, and see only the nondescript, uneventful black-and-whiteness of an unremarkable English family circa 1958. And what, in the age of the New Man, about love?

Jill Tweedie, being a woman and therefore not obliged to prove her sensitivity, dispenses with this difficulty. She writes not as a middle-aged parent trying to find her relation to her own parent, but as a still enraged child of the man she refers to throughout as The Cleft. His very name seems anathema, which makes him godlike, the more so since his crime against her is that he did not love her. She retaliates with her loathing of him, and the reactive mess she makes of her early life. The verbal fist she shakes at The Cleft (the dent in his chin, or ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’?) is the same one we shake at God when we finally realise that he created us and then took no further interest in our doings.

Yet The Cleft and Arthur Morrison have (along with Reg Greer) a good deal in common. They are suburban, dull and rather idiotically self-important. They lurk behind their achieving offspring like guilty secrets. The problem is that the generations born this century have more than Freud to deal with when trying to define themselves against their background. There is the fact of DNA to be taken into account. Whatever they are like, those fathers have deposited half their genes in us. We are 50 per cent our fathers – no getting away from that. Thank you very much, Mendel, Crick and Watson. We may deny genetic destiny, and speak contemptuously of reductionism, but I suspect that the nature half of the nature/nurture debate troubles us deeply and perpetually, like a grumbling appendix. You can only hold onto the fantasy of turning out to be a foundling for a short while; then reality intrudes. You know you’re of them – the signs are there, written on your face. And if we don’t think much of them, what does that make us?

During his vigil with his dying father, Blake Morrison does find a way to connect himself with the man who exists in every cell of his body and is nonetheless a difficult stranger. The memories achieve little beyond a renewed sense of alienation, but the practical physical needs he has to deal with, and the failing body he has to observe, put him in a proper relation to the older man. Morrison confronts the deteriorating body of his father head on; gazing with a scientist’s (or child’s) interest at the way the tumour swells the belly, at the accidentally revealed penis (‘a sad little rose’) which he helps his father to veil once more, supposing it will never be engorged again. He also helps the rest of the family to change his father’s nappy:

Then we unsnap the ties on his nappy, and I lift him upright again while my sister slides it off: it peels away crooked and slantwise, snagging on his thigh, but at least the wiping of his bottom, which is smudgy but not sore, need be no more than perfunctory ... I have to slide my right arm through my father’s right arm and across his chest to support him under the left arm, while with my free left arm I hold the nappy firm so my mother can stick down the tie.

When it’s done, Morrison wonders whether ‘he, being the patriarch he was’, his father changed a nappy of his, and ‘if this might be a definition of what it is to be grown-up – not changing your child’s nappy but changing your parent’s’.

In fact, it’s a definition of how the emotional demands on men have altered, and of what they have gained as a result. Probably, only a man who has changed his children’s nappies could change his father’s with a degree of equanimity, and that already is saying something new. Morrison’s ability to give his father such intimate care makes the connection between the two generations of men more powerful than the distance they put between each other. It’s grown-up, all right, and it’s also an accidental gift that the dying older man confers, which Morrison, giving, in return, can take.

The new man, however, hasn’t entirely lost touch with the old man in himself. Lying in the bath one morning, his father upstairs dying, he masturbates, faintly guilty but ‘wanting to escape’. And later he tries half-heartedly to seduce a woman with whom he had sex as a youth in his father’s house. Men have always thought they could beat death to death with an engorged penis. It is, I suppose, a visible sign of life, an amulet against the vision of the father’s forever quiescent member. If they can pour out the substance of life, they can be sure they’re still with us, as if a petite mort fends off the greater extinction. Women seem to know with a calmer certainty that the engendering of life is also the engendering of death, and don’t fight against it so much.

On the other hand, if Tweedie’s book is anything to go by, women will use their sexuality to punish the crimes of their fathers, at the cost, if necessary, of their own misery. It’s an old story, for us father-fixated girls; The Clefts in our lives cause us no end of unnecessary suffering because they will not love us. Faced with a violent but persistent lover, she runs home to The Cleft, who clinches it:

Only a man who thinks he’s a teapot would take on a featherbrain like you. It was one such remark that braced me to tell them about István and tell them, moreover, as if all were decided. ‘And I’m going to marry him,’ I ended defiantly, which was not in the least the prayerful whine I’d intended: stop me. I don’t want to. I’m scared.

Where would we be without our wicked old daddies to send us skittering into the arms of unkind and unloving men? Happy? Probably not. But at least (Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through) we’ve got someone to blame. Again, as with Morrison’s background, there’s no poverty or physical cruelty here. But that in itself is a kind of deprivation. A 16-year-old of my acquaintance complains because nothing interesting has happened to her in childhood. ‘You mean nothing terrible?’ ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Everything’s been all right.’ She’s in a more parlous condition than Jill Tweedie: everybody loved her, while Tweedie, at least, gets contempt at every turn.

What Tweedie feels, however, isn’t simply the righteous anger of an emotionally deprived child. The worst crime is that she loved him; that, in spite of everything, he made her love him; and not just the love that a child is supposed to feel for her parent: it’s worse than that – The Cleft is funny, he makes her laugh. He makes me laugh, and, as a fellow father-fixated daughter, I feel for her. He looks like Gary Cooper, for God’s sake, and he has a certain cruel wit. I have to admit it, I began to look forward to The Cleft’s appearance in the book. I rather fancied him. That’s what happens to Daddy’s girls like us. We know what we like, and what we like usually isn’t nice. Perhaps we should arrange a barter system – I’ll take your bastard of a father, you can have mine. Will the new-man-as-father, changing nappies, wheeling buggies, hugging, soothing, staying around, sort all this out and validate their girl children, who will grow up to value nice men and so live contented, gentle lives? That’ll leave a pool of ageing women in search of an ever-depleting supply of even older bastards, too concerned with their own imminent demise to be bothered with making us miserable. Not a happy prospect.

There is no healing contact for Tweedie in her father’s death. There is, however, a certain fatal justice. Seeing him brokenly unwell and almost immobilised, she is moved by his condition, and something wells up in her. She insists on calling an ambulance. The journey to hospital dislodges a blood clot, sets it en route to his heart and kills him that night. She finally manages to love him to death.