How can I try to explain,
Cause when I do he turns away again
It's always been the same, same old story
(Father and Son, Cat Stevens, 1970)
Every father I know or have worked with, has, to a greater or lesser extent, but usually the greater, wanted to do the best for his children. What is hard to come to terms with is the sheer weight of the opposite. That is, fathers depicted as unlistening, uncommunicative, distant, tyrannical, I could go on (‘feckless’, ‘deadbeat’).
You would think that seventy years after Edmund Gosse’s description of "the hush" around the stern father and lonely son "in which you could hear a sea anemone sigh", that things would have changed for the better. The World Wars of the first half of the 20th century may have made men more taciturn about their feelings but, surely, the loosening of role-divisions over child care and the lessening of demands on men to be the sole breadwinner that came after, ought to have made a difference in how fathers and children got along with each other. Not so for Cat Stevens.
As a Scottish father, I am pained by accounts of unloving fathers that turn away. More so when they are Scottish. There is no end of memoirs about abusive Scottish fathers from, for example, comedian Billy Connolly, author Alan Burnside and actor Alan Cumming. Clearly there are troubling (and troubled) Scottish fathers but the sheer volume of their depiction, seems to have led to the creation of a widely held view of all Scottish fathers. Cruel fathers of the type played by Peter Mullan in the film Neds (2010) and described by Andrew O’Hagan:
Those Scottish fathers. Not for nothing their wives cried, not for nothing their kids. Cities of night above those five o’clock shadows. Men gone way too sick for the talking. And how they lived in the dark for us now. Or lived in our faces, long denied. And where were our fathers? We had run from them (Our Fathers, 1999).
Such characterisations of men stretch back many years and continue to be repeated. So, I have not only been pained by such accounts but I have also been spurred to find out as much as I can and to write about the day-to-day micro-challenges that men can face when trying to be good fathers. If you dig deep you can find contra-accounts, stories, for example of the Dundee house fathers of the 1920s. But these accounts are in a minority.
What’s the answer? Every time children (of all ages) are asked about their fathers, the one consistent thing they say they wish they could have (or have had) more of, is his time. Fathers don’t have to do anything or buy stuff they just need to be with their children. And when they are far away or absent for whatever reason, children need to know he has kept them in mind. Not much of an answer but it costs nothing and can move mountains.
On tour October-November 2017.