Monday, 22 June 2015

Walking in our Parents' Shadow

I am writing this on Father’s Day. I confess that I have been thinking a lot about parental impact and the outcomes of childhood events over the past few weeks – mainly due to some excellent plays and live performances that I have seen over the last month. I’m off to see Alice’s Adventures Underground this afternoon – the story of a little girl on an adventure without parental supervision (a bit like adulthood for me – my world is full of wonder and unexpected encounters). 
A joy of living in London is the easy access to the Arts. Last Saturday I saw one of the world’s best troupes of Tango dancers – offering slick flicking, sensuous holds and slides that seduced the audience into roaring and stamping their approval. The Belgian choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, had managed to instil different forms of human relationships into the dance, ranging from mourners offering condolence at a funeral to the joys and intimacy of first love. There was one disturbing sequence that clearly demonstrated emotional and physical abuse – the impact of one person on another was obvious and thought provoking. 
In addition to the tango, I have enjoyed two excellent plays (more about them below); the farewell performance of one of the world’s prima ballerinas, Sylvie Guillem; and a live concert by a man commonly hailed as the world’s best guitar player. The latter was Eric Clapton playing at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate his 70th birthday (it was 50 years since his first performance at the iconic London venue) – he is a brilliant guitarist – he clearly loves what he does and does it often; despite the size of the venue, it felt like sitting with friends jamming in their front room (perhaps that was enhanced for my eldest son and me as we were actually sitting on the stage and were able to exchange grins with Nathan East) – the home-like impact was reinforced by the fact that Clapton had his own small carpet, brought onto the stage before the start, and he sat on it, on a stool, while he strummed. 
Clapton's carpet:
His voice is still strong and compelling. It was a brilliant and memorable evening.
The following Saturday I saw the RSC’s production of Oppenheimerstarring John Heffernan in the title role (I am also enjoying watching him as Lascelles in the BBC’s stunning serialisation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norris, which is screening on Sunday evenings and is worth catching on iPlayer, even if only for the impressive CGI. Three of us went to see Oppenheimer – my youngest son, and also my friend Michael and me. Michael’s being with us was a real treat and a privilege as, despite being in his early 40’s, it was the first time he had been to the theatre. Theatre has been part of my life since childhood – family trips to the pantomime, acting in local dramatic productions, flipping a coin between a career on the stage or studying Law. The impact of seeing a play for the very first time when you already have a wealth of knowledge, an adult perspective and other events against which to gauge the occurrence, must be extraordinary. Michael is very well read and a film and music aficionado. I was actually quite jealous of his ability to have the experience, as well as nervous at the responsibility of being his introducer.
Thank goodness the play was good – superbly acted and full of depth. I hope that one day he will blog about his impressions, as he had an artistic encounter that most of us reading this will never be able to undergo. 
A connecting thread for all the productions I have seen was the impact of childhood incidents on the future lives of individuals. The RSC  production of Death of a Salesman was stunning and a core theme is the impact of parents on their children. However I will cover it in my next post. Eric Clapton was born to a single mother – his father was a soldier stationed in England during World War II, who returned to his wife in Canada, leaving a pregnant sixteen-year-old girl to cope alone. Her parents stepped in as surrogate parents to the infant Eric and raised him – indeed he believed for many years that his mother was his sister. The discovery of the truth, when he was aged nine, had a profound impact on Eric, plunging him into a period of self-distancing and rebellion, this resulted in his failing at school. He fell in love with the guitar, spending all his time listening to the blues in his early teenage years, this lead to his being expelled from Kingston College of Art, as he had done no work. He had always felt “different” from others and dropped out to become a musician, commencing as a busker in Richmond and Kingston (to the west of London,) whilst supporting himself by working as a labourer on building sites alongside his grandfather. He played pubs in the evenings and soon became the most talked about R&B player on the circuit. His local notoriety lead to him being offered a place with a band, the Yardbirds – where he gained his nickname, “Slowhand”, and this saw the start of his musical fame. 
Guillem and Nureyev - Giselle, 1988
Sylvie Guillem is another artist who has always felt herself to be different and, despite her talent and immense global success, she has remained removed from mainstream classical ballet. She was Rudolf Nureyev’s protégé at the Paris Opéra Ballet, which she joined aged 16, becoming the youngest person to become an “etoile” at the age of 19. Like Nureyev, she was happy to stand apart from the crowd, gaining the nickname “Mademoiselle Non” and she left the Royal Ballet in London when she feared that a change of management would compromise its approach towards productions. Guillem, like Clapton, was impacted by her childhood and to this day remains shy, rebellious and socially awkward, until the moment she steps on the stage. She has humble roots - she grew up in the suburbs of Paris, her father a car mechanic and her mother a gym teacher. There was no music in her home and she was devoted to her family. Her aspirations as a child were to become an Olympic gymnast. She loved the free-expression available to her in gymnastics and found the authoritarian approach and discipline of ballet training tortuous – mainly due to the teachers’ lack of open-mindedness and vision.
She trained with ballerinas because her gymnastic coach felt it might enhance her performance, but it soon became clear that she possessed exceptional talent as a dancer. She hated having to board a ballet school and, deeply homesick, nearly threw her future away, until her mother challenged her to stop crying and apply herself or leave. With steely determination, for which she is famed, Guillem made a conscious decision to change and progress – from then onwards she started drifting away from her roots, but became a star. 
Sylvie Guillem by Erick Labbé, 2011
Sometimes a hard start in life makes you more determined and resilient.Oppenheimer, (the central character of the play that Michael came to see with my son and me), also made a conscious decision to change and become removed and resilient, following a disturbing incident when he was 14. Robert Oppenheimer was the American theoretical physicist selected to head the US’s Army’s secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, during World War II, which developed the atomic bomb. He is claimed to have quoted from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (XI, 32): 
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
when he watched the first nuclear explosion test in the US dessert, although his brother Frank (also a physicist) claims that what he actually said at the time was “it worked”. Oppenheimer was apparently deeply disturbed by an event that occurred in his early teens that, like Guillem, encouraged him to become detached and personally driven.  
He was an academic child, encouraged to be so by his father and grandfather. Being a bit of a know-all, he was not a popular child at school. One summer, during his early adolescence, his parents sent him away to summer camp – to boat, do sport and play in the countryside with other boys. It appears that Oppenheimer commenced making friends and enjoyed the camaraderie and smutty discussions in the dorm at night. However, he wrote and told his father, who was shocked, drove to the camp and demanded that such behaviour had to stop. The boys were summoned, publicly dressed-down and ordered to desist. It comes as no surprise that this made Oppenheimer very unpopular. Shortly after the boys turned on him, stripped him naked, trussed him up, painted his genitals and buttocks green and left him locked overnight in an icehouse until found by an attendant. Instead of demanding to be allowed to go him, Oppenheimer stuck it out until the end of the camp, enduring daily taunts. This experience had a profound impact and from then onwards Oppenheimer deliberately detached himself from those around him, at times being deliberately obnoxious and at times offensive in his intellectually arrogant (such as the time when a university student that he finished reading a paper by his professor and handed it back to him saying “I couldn’t find any mistake – did you really do this all alone?”). We are moulded by the way our parents impact our lives.  
On Wednesday it was announced that Philip Larkin, who died in 1985, is to be commemorated with a memorial stone set in the floor at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. To my mind there is no doubt that he is one of the exceptional English language poets of the 20th Century, although I suspect many only know one of his poems (or can at least quote its first line). I wonder if Larkin was aware of the influence his own mum and dad had had on him when he wrote this: 

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
  This Be The Verse, by Philip Larkin, 1971
The first four lines were recited by a British Court of Appeal judge as part of his judgement of a particularly acrimonious divorce case involving the future custody arrangements of a nine-year-old child. Lord Justice Wall referred to the emotional damage caused to the child, saying: "These four lines seem to me to give a clear warning to parents who, post-separation, continue to fight the battles of the past, and show each other no respect.”

“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged pieces beyond repair.” - Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
I do fret about how I have impacted and continue to influence my sons – I can see and feel the marks and smudges of my parents’ impact on myself and my siblings. So many of my friends have suffered as a result of their parents: interpersonally crippled by unduly authoritarian and aggressive fathers; emotionally damaged by hypercritical, obsessive and destructive mothers; beaten and assaulted by adults to the extent that they had to run away or take legal action to rescue younger siblings. What is interesting is that many of those who had the toughest times are now the ones that stand out as successful, but they are frequently also the ones most aloof from the crowd. More of that to follow…
(This is the first of two posts that look at the influence parents have on their offspring. I trust you enjoyed it.)