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Swellboy on… fatherhood

Why consult the animal kingdom for parental guidance when there’s Terry-Thomas?

Swellboy on… fatherhood

Image: Brijesh Patel

April 10 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am casting about for a suitable adjectival epithet from the animal kingdom to describe my fathering method or modus parens, as I am sure it is incorrectly Latinised. I had thought of “Tortoise Father” but, as Aesop tells us, tortoises win races in the end so that gives an inaccurate impression that I possess an effective paternal skill set.

This sudden interest in the taxonomy of parenting has, of course, been brought about by Amy Chua and her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The hysterical response is roughly equally divided between those who feel that, at last, they have a voice that vindicates their hothousing and those who think of the good professor as a 21st-century Lady Macbeth capable of plucking her nipple from the child’s toothless gums and dashing the poor thing’s brains out if it gets less than 101 per cent in algebra. Like almost everyone else with a view on this subject, I have not read Professor Chua’s book; but I do have children.

I suppose my approach to the business of sharing a house and life with them is characterised by intense love, and a mild indulgence, tempered by sporadic periods of pride in their more idiosyncratic and creative moments.

When urging my children to excel academically, or to take part in various wholesome extracurricular activities, I find that I must remind myself that at their age I made a point of not joining anything. If there was an organisation calculated to look good on my CV as a youngster, you could count on me to be a very active non-member, even if joining happened to be the easier and even more pleasurable option.

I am nevertheless assailed by occasional pangs of jealousy as my more achievement-minded friends (sabretooth cat parents, you could say) are busy scooping up scholarships at Oxford for children who could play the fiddle, sorry, Suzuki violin (I am more of a Stradivarius motorcycle man myself), before they uttered their first words of Mandarin aged three and a half. I have tried telling myself that academic achievement is not necessarily an indicator of success in life: just look at Lord Sugar. Then again, perhaps this is not the most comforting of thoughts…

How, then, should I go about equipping my children for life if I have neither the heart nor the energy to shackle them to their violins, to wake them up at 3am for an emergency Latin test, or read them Maynard Keynes at bedtime? The answer, of course, lies not in the animal kingdom at all, but in the cinematic canon of works by Terry-Thomas, in particular his School for Scoundrels, wherein the ingénu Ian Carmichael enrols at the College of Lifemanship, where, according to the head of this educational establishment (the marvellously lugubrious Alastair Sim), the main principle is “the science of being one up on your opponents at all times”. The film is a gem – I can watch anything with Terry-Thomas, but Ian Carmichael is superb too and Dennis Price is a marvel as the crooked car salesman who flogs the hapless Carmichael a clapped-out old banger called the Swiftmobile.

But as well as evoking an England of tweed jackets and flannel trousers, the film provides an alternative view of the meaning of success and how it can be achieved with minimum effort, by gently directing the belief of others in an appropriate direction. As good luck had it, the BBC offered a fine example.

As part of my sporadic attempts at big-cat parenting I had forced my children to watch Sebastian Faulks’s television programme about people who write books. Whereupon my elder son remarked that from time to time people asked him whether his father’s name was Sebastian. I must have been channelling the late Terry-Thomas at that very moment, because, without a pause I said, “To which you must always answer ‘Yes’.”

They both digested this nugget of paternal wisdom and seemed to appreciate the advantages of appearing to be the children of a wildly successful novelist and television personality. I might also have detected a flicker of relief as, having yielded them this useful lesson in life, I said they could turn off the telly and resume their instructive game of Call of Duty 7. But after a while my younger one looked at me with puzzlement.

“What is it?” I asked

“The problem is that our real daddy is better dressed than our other daddy.”

This, naturally, presents a barrier to my “Lifemanship” stratagem for advancing my children. It did, however, solve my taxonomical problem… I am not a Tiger Mother, nor a Tortoise Dad. I am – of course – a Peacock Parent.

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