Don’t blub

Michael Hofmann

  • Stand before Your God: Growing up to Be a Writer by Paul Watkins
    Faber, 203 pp, £14.99, August 1993, ISBN 0 571 16944 9

In his slightly overplayed beginning, Watkins says:

  I swear, I thought I was going to a party.

  I had a new suit made of blue corduroy and new black shoes that came with a free pack of playing cards. I was seven years old.

What he was actually going to was the Dragon School (his new suit was its uniform), he had just – through inattention, or distracted by TV – missed the parental announcement. In my own case, there was no possible confusion, but then I was twice Watkins’s age, and my father put me through an elaborate maastricht of public information and consultation, describing Winchester to me. When he had finished, I said, ‘It sounds just like prison,’ and he had to laugh, because it did.

My father came by Winchester in an Education Which. Now, with the family on the point of going back to the German-speaking world, the German Sprachraum, he proposed sending me there. Actually, I quite fancied the Sprachraum and a little more family life, but of course the decision had already been taken. He accompanied me down to Winchester for the scholarship exams, like a peasant taking his prize heifer to an agricultural show. For three days, he went for walks round the grounds, while I sat the exams in the denims he had cunningly prescribed (his Continental football manager’s guile, his shot at pushing his foreign coinage into the British slot machine!). In the evenings, I briefed him in restaurants, and together we rubbished the mouse-grey opposition, with their mothers or prep-school masters chaperoning them. It was the last intimate time I had with him. I knew I was there to make good something in his life. When he’d been my age, in East Germany, with the war just ending and the Russians in occupation, he had dropped out of school, and even spent a couple of months in proper prison, with real murderers. He was trying to ensure that nothing of the kind happened to me. A while later, I came upon the term ‘projective narcissism’ (an aggressive, high-tech version of ‘wanting the best for your children’), and that nicely covers his behaviour.

Watkins wasn’t obvious Dragon and Eton material either. He was put down for them at the fabled six months, but by a father who ‘quit school at 17, and went to work in a factory that made aeroplane engines’. Watkins père left the factory, which he hated, studied, emigrated to America and became a geophysicist (he has a range of undersea mountains named for him). Ex of Wales, then of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, himself once the tallest schoolboy in Britain at six foot seven, he must, to his son, have seemed like Oceanus or something; an altogether more convincing mastery of the world than most fathers. Sending his son (both sons) to Eton was a bridge to home, a social leap, but also, the son feels, a kind of betrayal, as ‘the people who had most intimidated my father were the Old-School types that Eton produced in more refinement than perhaps any other place.’ It does seem oddly defensive – if setting up a life in absolute opposition to one’s own can be described as defensive.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in