I’ve done some pretty strange things in my life, but this afternoon may take the biscuit: I had the head-splittingly odd experience of carrying my dad around his garden in a carrier bag.
My newly portable father, so troublesome in life, so strangely heavy in death.
Of course, we all know that everyone’s gotta die at some time or another, but most of the time we ignore it as all around us people snuff it left, right and centre.
Can you imagine how many people die in London each year? Imagine how many people died in London just today… in fact, you will have to imagine it, because I can’t be bothered to look it up (and anyway, I’ve always been a strong believer in the axiom that you should never allow the facts to stand in the way of a good story). But death is everywhere around us, we all know that – and just to preserve our sanity, we choose to ignore it.
This evening, as I walked into our block of flats, there was a crushed snail splatted on the doorstep. I may have even crushed it underfoot myself as I left on the way to the scattering of my dad’s ashes. I may not. But either way I gave it very little thought. It was just a very small death in the larger scheme of things (unless, of course, you’re part of the North London snail community). That snail’s passing had no possible effect on me – apart from the minor inconvenience of scraping it’s shell and body off the sole of my Oliver Sweeneys.
My dad, though, is a different matter. My dad, who now fits into a Sainsbury’s Ziploc bag, is gone, and I would be a grievously unreflective mo-fo indeed if that fact didn’t give me pause for thought. I’m not talking about grief here, because that was gone through several months ago when I watched him dying on a bed in his house whacked out of his head on morphine. Of course I miss the fucker. I miss the man he was, a bit. But a lot more, I miss the man he could have been.
I remember several years ago that the great grand-daddy of men's journalism, Tony Parsons, wrote immensely movingly about the passing of his own father, and it made me cry. Tony then returned to the subject in his book Man and Boy, and I cried again.
It was obvious from these pieces that Tony was very close to his father, that his father was a man he looked up to and that his passing had caused Tony to painfully reassess his own life and his relationship with his own son (a re-assessment which he, incidentally, turned into a million-pound-netting bestseller) and in that way Tony made me cry again, but this time in a different way.
Now, my dad was not the working class hero of Parsons’ life and books. My dad was a middle-class anti-hero. He was neither brave, nor heroic, nor a role model. He was not a great man. He was, like many people’s parents, a bit of an arse.
Bad tempered, over-worked, not just with feet of clay but a whole torso, neck and head of the stuff. He was a bugger to live with, and his faults and wrongdoings include things which I would never dream of sharing with you, dear reader. But he was my Father, the only one I’m ever gonna have, and he is now scattered underneath the rose bushes of Faversham, after I carried him round the garden this afternoon, marvelling at the sheer weight and volume of a cremated man, and thinking, “Who’d have thought that a human’s ashes could be so heavy?”
And this has to make you think. For starters, I am not alone in this. Suddenly people’s parents seem to be dropping like flies around me, or like snails on a north London doorstep. I remember thinking in the week after he died, as I cycled through the summer crowds in central London, “Every single person I am looking at will experience the same thing I am now. The only way to not go though your parents’ death is to die before them. And the only way to never lose someone you love is to never love anyone.”
We only have one chance, and we should grab love where we find it – tomorrow we could all be chip wrappings
So I wonder, how many readers of this column have had the same strange experience this summer that I have had? And where does that leave us?
And second, I guess you might be thinking, “What the hell has all this got to do with the usual light and frothy subject matter of this column?”
Usually I bang on about how impossible it is for modern men and women to make a go of things. That all women are mad, and that we men have made mugs of ourselves, running around trying to catch our tails, that the old system was bad but we have exchanged it for something equally imperfect: a world where men internalise guilt, where women want to be party animals all their lives and suddenly find themselves 38 and babyless; a world where we have become infantilised just like the women, where we are still playing video games and watching internet porn at an age when our parents were starting to slow down and looking forward to being grandparents.
It has been a column about the fact that yes, the modern world is eight million times better that the world of our forebears, where women were pregnant aged 14 and men died down the pit aged 32, and yet we need to watch out, because it would be a shame to lose the wisdom of generations and end up childless and unfulfilled like a bunch of gay men watching MTV in an old people’s home.
This has been a column, for years now, about having your cake and eating it, and how that might cause indigestion. About how women want to have all the benefits that men have, and yet still find it sexy to have the door opened for them as they enter a restaurant and feel miffed if you don’t pay the bill. About how old gender roles are sexy, about how we shouldn’t listen to too much crap about men being useless when the boys who brought you war and missiles also brought you democracy and freedom.
It has been my own tiny contribution to the debate about where we go in the future, now that everyone has got the vote and the right to buy Jimmy Choos. But above all, it has been sounding a warning note that you should watch out, boys, and not give up too much ground, because we’re not as bad as they make out and they are madder than we will ever know.
This has been a column counselling caution in the affairs of the heart.
But you know what? After carrying my dad around in a carrier bag this afternoon, I realise that we only have one chance, and that we should grab love where we find it. That tomorrow we could all be chip wrappings. Or ashes.
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