ADVENTURES IN FATHERLAND
27 Feb 23
Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much.
There has barely been a minute of the last ten years that I haven’t enjoyed being with my three sons, Sachin, Carlo and Kier. But I have to admit that the early days were difficult, if not nasty and even hair-raising at times.
I am sure there isn’t a parent in the world who wouldn’t admit this. Freud refers to these strong alternating currents as ambivalence, which does not mean mixed feelings, but absolute hating and absolute loving, often at the same time. The people most likely to madden you are not those you merely hate, but those who raise the greatest, most insane-making conflicts in you.
My first two sons, Sachin and Carlo, are identical twins and a bit like my accident, were a bomb dropped on me and on my partner Tracey. I was in my late thirties and had always intended to become a parent. Somehow I never got round to it, though there had been a couple of near-misses. Life was too much fun; in the 1980s selfishness was the character ideal of the age.
From the day I discovered Tracey was pregnant with twins, dadness, I found, was more catastrophic than marvellous, as people told me it usually is at the beginning. I felt as I do about my accident; that something both irretrievable and disastrous had happened, and there was no going back.
Tracey and I had somehow stepped thorough a mirror and walked into another world, of instant insolvency, screaming midnights, nappies, and more nappies. I remember dragging the kids out of their cots at six o’clock one Sunday morning, getting them dressed on the living room floor - already filthy with children’s detritus - shove them both screaming into their pushchair, and heaving this huge unmanageable double-buggy up the hilly street and into Holland Park.
It must have been a rainy summer; still, I sat on the damp grass as the kids danced in a filthy puddle until they were black, while around me lay exhausted and chatteringly amused revellers, who had just dragged themselves from a club. That should have been me.
My first novel The Buddha of Suburbia had been published eighteen months or so before. I was researching and writing my second novel, The Black Album, which was to be about the nefarious effect of a nascent Islamic fundamentalism on a new generation of Asian kids, rebelling against what they saw as their more quiescent and cowed parents. I recognised at last I had to become a serious writer and earn a living from my pen until these little bastards were educated and almost grown up.
It took me a few years to start to really enjoy them, and along the way I found myself in many uncomfortable situations. In particular, I hated taking them to the various activities the times demanded, like karate, football and swimming, which involved wasting hours with the parents of other kids, where I felt I was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I found myself shuffling about, listlessly; I always wanted to be somewhere else, but where? Doing what? And when I wasn’t serving the kids, I felt guilty as hell, as parents tend to in these circumstances. However I had to get used to this, and bear the guilt. I had spent many years doing what I wanted, when I wanted, and I guess I had spoiled myself; becoming entitled and arrogant.
I have to say, the kid-world, where you are just another inadequate parent, made me feel frustrated and alienated. Now I had to adjust to reality just like everyone else, and I made a right sulky and miserable fuss over it.
Then I repeated the experience with my third son, Kier. I had split up with Tracey when the children were two years old. But this time I was determined to stick it out with Kier, with whose mother I remained until Kier was fifteen. As some new mothers do, she had taken a dislike to the older children, and the amount of time I spent with them. In order to see them as much as I wanted, I had to sneak about like an illicit lover, covering my tracks, making excuses. But I was never going to give them up, and I didn’t.
My father had been a loving and warm dad. He and his brothers and sisters, in a large Muslim family, loved having kids around, mind you, often with many servants to look after them. I was brought up at a time – the early post-war period - when men, or at least fathers, were bosses or rather the head of the family; women were mostly housewives, and children were supposed to be children. All this strict organization, and gender and generational differentiation, began to fall apart in the Sixties and Seventies.
By the time I became a father no one knew who they were and what was what. Many couples I knew were separated, divorced or in relationships with people they were not supposed to be with. It was a usefully chaotic time that was also very creative in terms of the family, as it enlarged and mutated in ways never thought formerly possible.
To my amazement, and mostly because of the strength and intelligence of the women I was with, we all survived and indeed flourished, as it turned out. As we all grew older, I fell in love with the boys again and again. When they were younger, I had realised, with some sadness, that I would have to wait for many years for the passionate love they had for their mothers to develop into an affection and need for the father. Eventually this did take place. But their respective mothers did get them through school, and homework, and the various dangers of adolescence with an attention that our parents’ generation barely showed us.
The Seventies wasn’t a great time for parenting. After the creative narcissism of the Sixties, parents seemed to be more concerned with sexuality, identity and ideology (feminism, Marxism and the anti-family movement) than with their own kids, who they allowed to run wild. By the time I became a parent in the Nineties and early Noughties, in the age of neoliberalism, all the impositions we had neglected as kids - homework, discipline, domestic organization - had come back.
Children were being converted into their parents’ project. Luckily it was too late for me to become that sort of tyrannical parent. My own education had been chaotic. I was clever and knowledgeable but had barely done an hour’s homework in my life. I was semi-delinquent like many of my peers, and had rarely met a teacher I listened to or respected. I never worried about the future. The way our kids were brought up - supposedly to eschew sweets, television and other so-called indulgences – this new puritanism was not agreeable to me. I recall one of the children’s Eastern European au pairs reprimanding me for smoking marijuana in front of my kids in my own house.
Yet to write this sounds slightly off. No one would have been able to write the novels, essays, films and stories that I have done without a huge amount of discipline. I guess an artist is someone with an anarchic head but with the sitting-down ability of a book keeper or an accountant.
In the end my kids were mostly well brought up by their fine mothers, women of good character and compassion. If I am to take any credit, and I will only take a bit, it is that I instilled in them my enthusiasms, for art, good writing, sport, politics and pleasure, pleasure, and more pleasure, without self-destructiveness.
So I’d say I hated it until I loved it, and until I saw you couldn’t have the one without the other. Not long ago my middle son Carlo, who is 29, said rather cruelly, that I was a better friend than father. It hurt; and I don’t believe it’s true. You can be both and I still am, so fuck him, and love him.
Your loving Writer,
I like that this blog, that was born was from calamity, has become the Kureishi family forum, with input from your sons. It feels like the psychic component of a much larger scaffold that I hope will move you slowly but surely along a scale of recovery.
There was a moment in my life, many years ago, when it hit me that I would never be a parent. It's one of those short-form memories that manifest as a strong emotional yearning, tied to a soft focus mental image.
I was walking through Bethnal Green, in East London. It was a dark and wretched evening in January. A persistent rain was building a cumulative sense of misery. I was looking for a music venue called The Ocean. I didn't know if I was heading in the right direction. The street where I was walking didn't strike me as the kind of place where it would be a good idea to be observed studying a copy of the AZ, so I kept on going.
I passed a young man. He was standing underneath the slender awning of a late night chemists. His hands were absently wheeling a covered pushchair an inch or so back and forth. He appeared to be starring through the fogged glass of the window display. Yellow and green light from inside diffused through the condensation. I assume he was waiting for the child's mother. There was an element of something quite beautiful in that fluid tableau.
I was overwhelmed by a sudden realisation: I will never have what this man has – I will never fully understand the sacrifices, the joys, the frustrations and the gradual transformation that are part and parcel of being a parent. It is a continental expanse of life that I will never experience.
A few years later I was diagnosed with a progressive disease that really should have killed me by now, but is dragging its heels. It can be passed down through the genes. I would not wish it on anyone. The line separating me from parenthood had already been provisionally drawn in pencil. When I received the diagnosis I went over it in permanent ink. No children for me. No wife or long-term partner either.
I catch occasional glimpses of what it might be like to be a parent. Supervising activities – giving space while building enthusiasm, managing accidents and diffusing tempers. It is rewarding and draining.
One evening I returned home from the hospital, where I was at the time employed as deliverer of medical records. I was so exhausted, the moment after I walked in I lay down in the hallway. My brother's family were visiting for Easter. My Lego-obsessed nephew wandered out and began engaging me in his favourite subject. He wanted me to build with him. I told that I would. I just needed a few moments. I dozed off. When I awoke, still lying on the floor, I had become the foundation hill of a Lego village that was still undergoing construction.
My parents are providers – a quality whose value is often taken for granted. It is because of the stability they provided that I can look to my left and see the spindly branches of tall trees swaying stiffly in the wind, and the green parakeets, who have found a home in this area, flapping in silhouette from limb to limb.
They offered me very little in the way of guidance. As the eldest child I had to work out a lot myself. The experience has left me with a distaste for milquetoast parenting. It is easy to criticise from a position of ignorance. I do not know whether I would be a good parent. I suspect that I would not.
One consequence of not having children occurred to me quite recently. Our family has lived in Southend-on-Sea for a very long time. There is a notoriously complicated road junction in the area that is named, presumably, after some distant ancestors.
My brothers have both moved from the town, taking their families with them. They will not be back. When I die it will close a chapter in the history of our immediate family. We lived in these parts for a long time. We built houses and raised children. Now we are gone and those graves we leave behind will go untended.
Now I remember why I thought I should subscribe to this. I loved this.