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Date: 15/06/08

Father From The Truth

Father's Day.

A completely invented occasion, of course. Much like those other well-known festivals such as Kiwi Fruit Fortnight, National USB Keyboard Month or World Scabies Year, it was invented by that collective of flagrant prostitutes called 'the advertising industry' in order to sell what otherwise could not be sold.

As a result, I always felt uneasy about it. My own father was a no-nonsense sort of bloke, and it seemed totally incongruous to be showering him with toffees (or whatever) on one day a year; moreover, the fact that it was only one day a year led to me to wonder what he thought that we thought of him the rest of the time. That's the falseness of the occasion, of course, in that it seeks to concentrate into one day expressions and emotions which should be available or apparent at any time of our choosing.

That was a long time ago, though. At least in my case, because I have never had to be on the receiving end of such a deeply ambiguous event.

I have never seriously wanted to own a child. I have spent my whole life trying to evade responsibility, and have accepted it only when I have had no realistic choice in the matter. I have improved down the years to the point where I can just about shoulder responsibility for myself, for inanimate objects or for anonymous processes, but beyond that? People or other animate objects? Not if I can help it. The idea that someone else's well-being (be it a wife, a child or a budgie) depended primarily on me produces the waking equivalent of a cheese nightmare. This is one reason why what I laughingly call my career has reached a cul-de-sac: the next level up would involve that dreaded concept of 'management', and I know that I would take to such a thing like a duck to a vat of concentrated hydrochloric acid.

This is not to say that I haven't wondered, however. I've sometimes lain awake at nights pondering what parenthood would have been like, how it would have been if circumstances had fallen otherwise. I've even populated this experiment with three sons: one placid and stolid, one mildly hyperactive and artistic and one calculating and faintly sinister. Hell, I've even given names to these apparitions.

Something interesting about it, though, is that while I can imagine what these non-existent boys would be like up to the age of about twelve months, and what they would be like after the age of about twelve years, I cannot get any real grasp on what they might be like in the intervening period - the time, as it were, between learning to walk and learning to wank. I don't know why this should be so difficult: after all, it's not as if I was never there myself. But I have great difficulty remembering what we were like at that age. I mean, what did we talk about amongst ourselves? I sometimes overhear boys of that age walking past my garden and apart from being mildly aggrieved by the language (of course we knew those words ourselves - it's just that we would never have used them if we thought an adult might be within earshot: some people call this 'being a more open and honest society'; I just call it a sign of decaying standards, but some of us are getting old), the conversation seems to be about Playstations, football, television and not much more. It's certainly unreasonable of me to expect profundity from nine-year-olds, but were we as shallow as that in what we talked about? I suppose we were, although those subjects (or their 1960s and 1970s analogues) certainly would not have seemed superficial to us at the time - they marked the extent of our known universe. And we always wondered what girls talked about amongst themselves - except that we could be fairly certain that it did not redound to our credit.

And so the whole imaginary edifice collapses. But the vast majority of men have taken the matter beyond fantasy into the realms of the concrete, or rather the flesh-and-blood. All very well if they're intent on doing a proper job of it, of course, and the overwhelming majority of them do, let it be said. But it has long been a source of bemusement to me that the most important job in the whole of human society - namely the creation and development of the next generation - should be one for which there are absolutely no qualifications required other than the possession of the requisite anatomy. We rightly insist that someone who wants to drive a car, defend someone from being imprisoned for twenty years for something he didn't do (or, thanks to our increasingly extreme régime, imprisoned for six weeks for looking Muslim in a built-up area) or operate a nuclear power station should be demonstrably, provably qualified to do so. And yet producing other human beings (which in terms of the probabilities is a far greater potential threat to the world - think Mr and Mrs Hitler) requires only a few minutes of activity for which no training is required - except 'on the job', of course.

And what we often get is what we all too often see - the inevitable consequences of the work of unskilled labour. There is said to be, in this very village, one sponging herbert who has fathered five children on the same number of equally shiftless females, and has then left the responsibility for them to their mothers - and, indirectly, to the rest of us. There was an infamous case in the press a couple of years ago of another such complete waster up in the North-East of England who had reached a total of seven children by the time he was twenty-one, had a criminal record as long as your arm and routinely ignored any attempt to get him to face the consequences.

(I saw his photograph - believe me, he was no work of art - except, perhaps, Picasso's Guernica. I've seen many a good-looking girl going around on the arm of some guy who has a face like a dog's arse with a hat on. I've never understood human psychology in these matters, and I don't suppose I ever will now).

OK, perhaps I've wandered off the point a touch, but the fact is that parenthood is a reponsibility and should not be entered into (if you'll excuse the expression) without one being ready or willing to shoulder it. Which is why I decided many a long year ago that I should not breed. I would, I very strongly suspect, have been no good at it - I would have been a nervous, inconsistent and possibly even tyrannical patriarch. That sort of experience has its effect on children, and I didn't want anyone pointing the finger at me for the consequences. As I often find myself thinking when I see teenage males pushing buggies along the road, why screw up the lives of other people just for the sake of showing that your testicles work?

I suspect, however, that attitudes are changing a little. I don't know whether it's because of an increasing awareness of the problem of overpopulation (a far greater issue in affluent societies than elsewhere, if only because of greater per-capita consumption) or simply a less judgemental attitude, but people no longer look askance at the childless-by-choice as once they did. There was a time within living memory when a middle-aged man with no offspring was viewed with a degree of scepticism - not to say outright suspicion - with the unspoken assumptions found in this classic Marty Feldman sketch never far from the surface. Now it seems to be far more acceptable - indeed, laudable - not to procreate if you choose not to. I know a number of men of roughly my age who aren't fathers, and none of us has any longer to have the ready excuse of a non-standard sexuality to explain our status away.

So, if you have chosen to be a father, and to be conscientious about it, good luck to you - today and every day, not just when the marketing gangsters say so.