Illustrative ad verbatim #12

J: What shall I be when I’m big?

A: What do you want to be?

J: Um… Maybe a wolf.

A: A wolf?

J: But how will I get all fluffy? [Pause] Or maybe a chin scientist. Or a builder. Or someone who makes sand.

A: Would you like to have children, like me and Daddy?

J: Yes, if I find my own mummy, I’ll have children. [Pause] Or someone who makes trees. Or a robber. Or an animal killer, but I would only kill the animals that are going to eat someone. A police. Someone who builds slides. Or a chair builder. Or an eye scientist. [Pointing at eye] You know, for your eye.

 

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On Obsolescence

As parents, we’re slowly coming round to the idea of obsolescence, aren’t we? By ‘we’, I mean of course those of us that are parents. And by ‘obsolescence’, I mean the process by which we do such a bang-up job that we render ourselves ever more useless to our progeny with every passing year; that they take on all our strengths and none of our faults (much like Wesley Snipes in Blade), to the extent that eventually they don’t need us at all. We become literally obsolete, beta versions of ourselves on the scrapheap of history, while our spawn stride out into the world to iterate new and better versions of themselves in turn.

It sounds utopian and a bit weird to put it in those terms, but isn’t that really what this is all about? The best we can legitimately hope for is that our kids are better versions of us, Nexus 7s, if you will, ‘upgrades‘.

I like to think that’s quite a modern take on parenting. I know that my own parents never really looked at it like that. There was too much ego back then. Perhaps the baby boomers assumed that it was their destiny to live forever, to be permanently young and attractive, even when measured against their own children. It wasn’t, of course, no more than it is ours. And, tempting as it is to take some kind of Olympian view of parenting, to believe that we will always be the Zeus and Hera to their Athena and Hermes, the truth is that we’ve already sown the seeds of our destruction.

My dad clung to the idea of his residual superiority, even well into his later years. ‘Even now’ was a phrase he repeated often during my adolescence, as in ‘even now, I’m stronger/faster/better/more skillful than you are’. But I think he missed the point. Because it was so often mere braggadocio, bluff and bluster, which I always felt compelled to massage, or at least appease.

Instead isn’t it better to acknowledge that your aim, really, is for them to usurp and outpace you? Isn’t the time when we realise that we’ve done ourselves out of a job the time when we appreciate what a bang-up job we’ve actually done?

Sure, it’s hard on the ego. We’d like to think that we’ll always be indispensable, but I’d like to make the case for dispensability. It’s a damn-fine machine that renders itself useless, an excellent worker that kills her own job. Isn’t the point of parenting to reach that golden moment when the subject of all your attention and decisions and care requires these things no longer? Is that not the basis of human survival? Is that not, in microcosm, the definition of progress?

On Rereading

When I was eighteen I went to an Oxford University open day. I remember an English Literature admissions tutor giving a speech about life as a student at the University. The thing he said that has stuck with me (although I can barely remember what he looked like now, never mind his name) was that no-one really reads anything properly, or at least that no-one reads anything well the first time they read it; it is only on rereading that we pick up structural ironies and see the author’s design. It’s a line I have repeated over the years, when trying to encourage students struggling for the first time through a difficult text. It certainly seems true to me: it’s hard to imagine anyone getting much from The Waste Land the first time around, or Gravity’s Rainbow, to name just a couple of texts that don’t reward rereading as much as demand it.

This afternoon I reread Orwell’s short essay Shooting an Elephant and have come away with a sharp sense of how rereading a text can throw your own life into relief. I first read this essay as an undergraduate and saw it (conventionally, not incorrectly) as a terse indictment of British imperialism in India, with Orwell casting himself as a microcosmic personification of that brutal and foolhardy project. Not once did I think of the person in the story, but rather of the story’s significance within the history of questionable British ventures overseas.

Earlier today, I might not have said that my outlook on life has changed that dramatically since being a twenty-year-old student. But clearly a decade or so of nine-to-fives has taken its toll on my sensibilities. Rereading the essay, with the evils of imperialism more of a given, my overwhelming sentiment was more individualistic: what an awful dilemma Orwell describes in the moments before the titular shooting, and what a horrible position for a person to be placed in by the institution by which he happens to be employed. What a shit thing to have to do as part of something so mundane as a job.

Secondary to this is a feeling of gratitude to be living now and not then – a not uncommon feeling in my experience of reading Orwell. It’s currently a popular (and compelling) belief that the world of work fails the young. While this may be so, and while the modern workplace may dump us into some sticky quandaries, surely none is ever as utterly devoid of a hopeful outcome as the twenty-something Eric Blair’s was in that water-logged rice paddy. And, one hopes, the institutions of today’s world, while they may be robotic, structurally moronic, callously pecuniary and ultimately doomed to fail the individual – young or old – in almost every meaningful way, are never so venal as the British Raj depicted in Orwell’s essay.

My status as a working stiff was not even on the horizon when I first read Shooting an Elephant. My high-minded twenty-year-old self would probably be horrified by how things have turned out in the intervening years, but he might at least be grateful not to be in Orwell’s shoes.

 

Illustrative ad verbatim #11

J: [Running into the room holding a Lego Batman] I’m gon rescue you.

D: Good, I could do with being rescued. Are you going to rescue me via the power of a big cuddle?

J: No. Not gon rescue you. Gon put you in danger.

D: Oh dear. How are you going to put me in danger.

J: Whack you.

D: I thought you might say that.

J: Gon not shut the door and just leave it open.

D: Oh dear. That does sound pretty dangerous.

J: And your car will break.

D: Well, how will I get to work if my car is broken?

J: [Thinks about this for a moment, then wanders off] Gon rescue someone else now.

D: Well hang on a minute. Who’s going to rescue me? And who’s going to fix my car?

J: You can call a builder-man. He can do it.

D: Aren’t you a builder-man?

J: No, I’m not builder-man. I’m Batman.

 

Illustrative ad verbatim #10

L: Do you think some people would die from a crushed bone?

A: No. You probably wouldn’t die from that.

L: What about a falling off ear?

A: No, probably not that either. Anyway, people’s ears don’t tend to just fall off.

L: Well, my teacher’s dog Sally only had half a tail.

A: Really?

L: Yes.

A: What happened to the other half?

L: Don’t know. Just sort of fell off, I suppose.

Illustrative ad verbatim #9

[Sitting in the bottom bunk of the boys’ bunk beds, with a blanket thrown over the top bunk to create a den.]

J: We need that lion.

D: OK. Isn’t he a bit fierce to come in our den.

J: No! He very friendly.

D: OK. I’ll get him.

J: No! I’ll get him. You stay here. I must go.

D: OK. Go on then.

J: [Clambering out of the den, grunting] Look out from lions.

D: OK, I will.

J: And bears.

D: And bears, OK.

J: And ladders. You might fall down them. [Drags toy lion into den, grunting] What vat noise?

D: It’s just the radio.

J: It’s a monster.

D: Oh dear. We’d better tell it not to come in our den.

J: Whack it with a hammer.

D: Yes, we could whack it with a hammer, I suppose.

J: Dandad got a hammer.

D: Yes, Grandad has got a hammer.

J: For whacking monsters.

D: Well, among other things, yes, if you like.

J: Dandad not whack bunny, or vat dog.

D: No, he wouldn’t do that.

J: Or bunny, no.

D: No, he wouldn’t whack your bunny.

J: Just monsters.

D: Yes, just monsters.

 

A first foray into flash fiction

Well, probably ‘post-it fiction’ or ‘twitter-fiction’ really if we’re being pedantic, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration. And besides, I closed my Twitter account.

I’m running a flash-fiction competition at work in honour of last week’s National Storytelling Week. Some of my efforts are below.

Domestic Bliss

When the fire started I went straight for the photos of the wife and kids. Far easier to live with than the real thing.

Ballardian Dystopia

It was the food shortage that brought the hungry dog to my house in the first place. Funny how things turn out.

Love Story

The lipstick she found on the glass was the wrong shade of red. Later, she mopped blood off the floor, wondering if hers was the same shade of red.

Horror Story

‘There’s no-one under the bed,’ she said and bent down to look. She never got a chance to tell him she was wrong.

Post Mortem

Digging the hole, I realised: my feelings had always been inconvenient to him. Now his remains were inconvenient to me.