Autobiography 5: How to be a man
My father found it much easier to show affection to a daughter (hardly surprising, having had the terrible heartbreak of the first born girl’s death by drowning) and to the youngest versions of me, his son. As I grew older, the physicality of touch diminished until, one day in his seventies in Lanark, when he looked a bit wobbly and I put a hand on his shoulder, he leaped away from me as though branded. He knew my liking for literature and was fulsome in his condemnation of D H Lawrence who was essential reading in the 1960s for anyone interested in the sexual revolution. I wondered later whether he had conflated him with T. E. Lawrence whose extra-military exertions with Arabs would have been, for him, obscene and worthy of a hanging. He was an excellent crossword puzzle solver, doing the Daily Telegraph offering each morning – providing my mother did not get there first. She told me with great amusement one day that he had not been able to solve a final clue whose answer was lesbian, and when she put it in, he was visibly shaken when she told him its meaning.
But in my childhood and youth he was a powerful role model of what it was to be truly male. I believed in him. It was a principle not to lose against either my sister or I at the games that children loved then, whether draughts, cards, word games, football or cricket. Nor did I begrudge him his victories. It added to his aura of invincibility. And it made me competitive. I suppose I was a fragile child in some ways, thin and awkward, knotted in the knee and wearing glasses. He bought me bright red boxing gloves when I was about seven and set up a bag for me to punch. I was given a pewter-coloured, grey potato and lead slug pistol that required strength to spring load it and when I was a bit older an air rifle. I watched him wring the necks of chickens we kept in the garden and follow their awkward post mortem zigzags between the denuded Brussels sprouts’ stalks, their heads dangling. My mother helped in this conscious stiffening of my male resolve by taking me out on to the back step to watch the thunder and lightning storm approach. She talked wistfully of India’s monsoons.
He did create a tremendous sense of privilege and camaraderie, a Boys Own bubble at times. I would be sent to bed on time but told that he would wake me up in the night for the Big Fight from America. I know it happened a few times but I distinctly remember sitting in front of a roaring fire in the early hours, with the lights off, wrapped in a dressing gown, feet in slippers as the crackling commentary was relayed from Madison Square Garden or some other pugilists’ paradise. Particularly, I remember Rocky Marciano’s bouts with Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott, not the fights but the celebratory ambience of the sitting room. My father would be like a hairpin, bent forward, elbows on knees, staring into the middle distance, living every described punch. He had been a Captain in the PT Corps of the Lancashire Fusiliers, seconded to the Indian Military to help build the officers’ training centre in Dehra Dun. He had boxed, high dived, done gymnastics, played football, tennis and cricket, all at a high competitive standard. What stopped him from becoming a Major was his leaving school at 14 to work in the mines to support his mother. He was not privately educated. “Not officer material’ was stamped across his otherwise exemplary record, the best anyone had ever encountered both academic and physical. How he could remain a Tory supporter after that rebuff I never could work out.
When I was young I marveled at the changes that had occurred in my parents’ lifetime: television, jets, man on the moon, domestic technology. Yet even more change has taken place in my own. But the sheer domination of the monolithic walnut encased wireless in those early years is a far cry from the range of whizzbang electronic media today. My favourite stood tall and slim and had wings that ran down its sides similar to the accretions on American cars. The dial shone like a halo. The sound emanated magically from some Mount Olympus..