Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Parrot on the shoulder moments

The children are back in the jug agane, whizz boo, I can resume my usual regime of quiet desperation and chicken surveillance.

I was prompted, in conversation with M today about veal escalopes (thank god we are both free from the bonds of ghastly vegan-slash-juice detox and can return to our normal staple of conversation: what animals we are going to eat and when and how), to reflect on the contrast between their holidays and mine. Since my parents were separated, school holidays would always, or almost always, involve a trip to stay with my father. The longer ones would involve several weeks in Yorkshire succumbing to trench foot and studying the decomposition of small mammals, or even some more exotic foray aboard, but shorter holidays normally meant a trip to visit him in London, where I would basically sit around his Imperial College office while he worked.

I wouldn't be totally idle: he would always devise some task for me, sorting papers or tidying in return for pocket money. As I got older the tasks became progressively more complex - one summer I remember having to interview someone in Tanzania for a job monitoring fishing on Lake Tanganika in French on a very haphazard satellite connection - but the key element remained that I had to be around his office, because he simply couldn't get away and, I don't know, take me to the zoo or whatever.

They're actually very jolly memories. My father's office was treasure trove of fossils and bones and photographs of friendly whales and he was surrounded by young, jolly, patient biologists. For a few wonderful years, he even worked with someone who would bring her parrot, Casper, into the office every day. Casper would sit on a sort of jerrybuilt perch outside my father's office, clicking, shredding monkey nuts and squawking if he didn't like the look of you:  he could, occasionally, on high days and holidays of which there were many, be persuaded to sit on your shoulder. At lunchtimes, my father's tremendously posh secretary would escort me over to Knightsbridge to buy me a Pizza Hut pizza for lunch (a great novelty, this, in the early 1980s), then we would perambulate briefly around Harrods, so that she could check out the new arrivals at Country Casuals. On one glorious occasion, she even took me to get my ears pierced in the sixth floor 'salon', an event of such ineffable sophistication I dined out on it back in York for months. Sometimes other kind, obliging (or conceivably put-upon) souls would take me to the Imperial College shop for biscuits, or to the Polish Club on Exhibition Road (it's gone posh now, it emphatically wasn't then), or the V and A caff. When I got older, I could roam the ludicrously expensive shops of Knightsbridge all by myself or eat a sandwich in the Brompton Oratory garden.

A couple of times a week, when my father decided to escape, he would walk me (and anyone else he could inveigle into coming; I don't think I was a sparkling conversationalist at ten) briskly to the Piccolo Venezia trattoria next to the Ismaili Centre, a haven of red carpets and giant pepper grinders. This was my very greatest treat : the most proper of lunches with a proper tablecloth and wine for my father and a Coca Cola for me. There would be Saltimbocca alla Romana, with crispy rosemary sauté potatoes, for both of us (or just for me, and my father would have the liver), served with four token green beans, followed by the portentous rumble of the dessert trolley. I can still taste the wet boozy sponge and coffee and heavy cream of the tiramisu, the tart-sweet gently furred raspberries my father always encouraged me to have as well. Sometimes there would be orange slices in caramel, topped with those neat, thin, curls of peel: my mother made them too, but hers were cut thicker, the oranges were chewy and pithy and tasted of actual orange. At the Piccolo Venezia they were soft and medicinal and strange, like the Turkish Delight in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I remember being intermittently quite bored, and increasingly awkward as I shaded into the teenage years, but it never seemed odd that I was spending my holidays in the corner of his office: I quite liked the faintly superior sense of purpose I got from setting off early in the morning and whooshing past the meandering, rucksacked groups outside the museums. My mother took me to work too when she couldn't find any alternative. With hindsight, both my parents were apparently quite unapologetic about me whiling away my holidays with a box of stolen biros and some index cards (remember index cards?), but also about imposing me on their colleagues. I can't imagine ever being able to do this in any environment I've ever worked in, possibly because I was never important enough to brazen it out, but also, I suppose, because I worked in huge organisations and you're hardly going to sneak your kid into your shared office past 500 other people. They both worked in small, friendly, self-contained units within university departments where, apparently, you could get away with this kind of thing.

Since the 1970s and 1980s were hardly more enlightened, child-centred times, there was presumably less scope for palming me off on some kind of organised childcare, but also, I think, they both had a conviction that what they were doing was sufficiently important that it shouldn't be interrupted by, well, me. Objectively, that was right: my mother was researching and influencing policy on provision of services for families with handicapped children, and on the role and burdens of child carers. My father was saving whales. And it's not as if these times were any kind of hardship for me: they felt special, grown-up.

I don't really know what I'm saying with this - uh, it was different back then? But also, I suppose, that it's ok for your children to fit around you sometimes rather than the other way. I'm not particularly susceptible to guilt about how my children spend their holidays: I mean, I'm here most of the time aren't I? Quality be damned. But it is hard not to succumb to the sense that you should be constantly laying on a smorgasbord of age-appropriate and improving activities, when in fact, some of the best and most enlightening times of your childhood can be neither of those things. I felt a lot closer to my father - who could be a rather distant, intimidating figure on the end of the phone from York - after those strange, chaotic weeks. I liked how we'd hop on and off the 52 bus, or drop into Patisserie Valerie to buy croissants on grey summer London mornings with that particular smell of warm city dirt and diesel. I loved our skiving saltimbocca lunches and I liked discovering him in that other, adult context, at home in the big, glamorous city and at home in his work. I liked to see him being impressive, concentrating, or laughing, pink cheeked and tipsy with Casper on his shoulder. You discover your parents in another light in those moments: I remember too, opening the front door at home to my mother, joyfully staggering drunk having just been awarded her PhD. It's instructive, important, sometimes slightly shocking, to see their life beyond you.

Both my father and mother were better than I am at remembering to be themselves rather than simply being parents: their love for me was never for a second in doubt, but their aspirations were greater and broader. That's what comes from having a vocation, having ambition, believing what you do is important, I suppose. Those things have proved bewilderingly elusive for me, which is not at all what I expected based on what I absorbed in those childhood holidays. Maybe it'll change, eventually and maybe it doesn't actually matter (the wonderful Prog Rock didn't have a passionate professional vocation: he looked after us and learned 17 languages and cooked curries and read Le Monde Diplomatique and Heinrich Böll smoking a roll up in the garden and he's the most magnificent person I know). But every parent should have the odd parrot on the shoulder moment.


mountainear said...

A fabulous and evocative piece. I've memories of sitting in my father's office 'sorting' and 'tidying' things which didn't need sorting and tidying. Index cards of sheep come to mind. A year later, being the eldest and a girl I was deemed sensible enough to leave at home while both parents worked. What I got up to I can't remember but the dressing down I got for not washing up the breakfast things (which were still on the table when my mother got in at 4.30) still rings in my ears.

soleils said...

Dear Waffle, one of your best posts EVER. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and so full of truths I don't know where to begin.
Yes to our children fitting around our lives once in a while (or most of the time) - modern ways only breed entitled little tyrants. Yes to realness and allowing ourselves to be flawed and brilliant humans.
Thank you, this has made my day.

Sal said...

Soleils said everything. Just beautiful.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely wonderful xxxx

breakfastlady said...

Lovely lovely piece Waffle. Brought back lots of memories of my dad's office. Well it was a lab, actually (he was a biologist too) with chameleons and other exotic things in it and a very particular smell of soil and chemicals and moss.

I fear MrB and I have absolutely no mystery or glamour whatsoever in our children's eyes. Having read this I think that might be my mid-year resolution: more mystery and glamour. Fewer visits to the skate park.

Alan said...

That was beautiful, thankyou.

Lauren said...

Wonderful post, absolutely stunning - evocative and meaningful, whilst managing to balance any saccharine. Lovely.

Anonymous said...

Your writing is exceptionally moving, it really strikes a deep chord. This piece is exceptional. I feel immensely privileged to be able to read your words.
I'm filled with tenderness for your parents who no doubt loved you very dearly, for the girl you were then navigating your parents' worlds and finding your own way and your own place in the world... and also for you now that you're raising your own lovely boys and looking back on your own childhood.
I'm reading Karl Ove Knausgaard at the moment, in random moments stolen from work and the humdrum of daily parenting. I find his intense recollection of seemingly insignificant childhood events and exchanges very moving, perhaps because somehow it shows there is meaning and significance in even the dullest days of our lives and those of our children.

Stacy said...

I couldn't agree more that children should see their parents doing their own thing more. I remember my mother telling me she wished she'd been able to stay home with my brother and me. Instead, she worked as a nurse, but I always thought it was pretty great that she loved her work (if not her specific job). When I was older, I would go have lunch with her at the hospital. Good times. Lovely piece.

Laura said...

I've been ranting about child-centred living for weeks and this is just the perfect expression if everything I'm too inarticulate to get across. It's just - well - glorious.

frau antje said...

My dad spent untold hours at a university, but I remember vacations spent driving vast distances in an old mustang, and listening to him tell me that the candy bar I'd just bought at a gas station--he of the "you're going to want that quarter someday"--had probably been there forever and was loaded with worms...better just give it to him.

I never planned to have anything to do with a child, and it's been the best, blah, blah and all that, of course. It would be nice to think that it truly does take all kinds, and those that give what most find absolutely prohibitive are equally valuable.

Was already feeling nostalgic for the wasteland of my youth, as I just put some Insta-Cling Limo Dark on the upper windows in the kitchen. Summer is Coming, G.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post - and made me think about how child-centred my parenting style can be, even as a working mother.

(Amazingly, I too came down from York to work for Imperial College)

Jo said...

Wow,I love the way you write, such an evocative piece. Please,please hurry up with your book.

Antje M. Rauwerda said...

Beautiful, lovely. Thank-you for this one.

Betty M said...

This is brilliant. Really really lovely. I am somewhat lost for words in the face of your ease with them.

Xtreme English said...

glorious post! And what lovely parents you had. prog rock, too.

Nobody in my youth ever planned activities for anyone. We went outside and got into trouble! and our mothers stayed inside, cooking, smoking cigarettes (not mine, though), and listening to the radio.

Summer was fun, and we never ever thought about school until the days got cold.

Anonymous said...

Just lovely, Waffle. Beautifully written and so evocative of growing up in the 80's/early 90's. My sister and I were just the same. No child-centred parenting for us, lol. We were of the "be seen but not heard" generation….and, in fact, the "seen" bit didn't really happen either! Not altogether healthy at the extreme but it has it's place.
Ash :-)

Anonymous said...

"its place" not "it's place" Sorry about that!

Bryony said...

Just perfect. Off to feed my parrot.xx

Sinda said...

That's a beautiful essay, Emma. My father worked at a university as well - in a much lower capacity - but I also have very fond memories of going to work with him every day. I would spend my time in the library, which was vastly better than any other library I'd ever seen, reading every version of every fairy tale I could find.

I get your point about how much more effort we put into amusing our children than our parents ever did, but I don't correlate it with personal success. I think that these days, the more successful you are, the more money you spend sending your kids off to have rarefied experiences.

It's a common tendency at our school among the teachers and parents, to respond to children who say they are bored with "Good!." Bored children will come up with something to amuse themselves - we don't have to do it for them, every time. It sounds like your parents knew this too.

And that said, your boys will have similarly amazing memories of time spent with you, at home in every day life. xx

Scunder said...

Ach Waffle I'm feeling a bit misty eyed after reading that.
so evocative . You're really very good you do know that don't you?

Unknown said...

Really beautiful piece, was sat in garden with glass of something chilled after shittest day plus week ever and drank in your beautiful writing, tears in eyes, honestly it was beautiful and touched every chord in my life.
Had been in awful guilt over not enough time spent with my 3 boys, drove home from my new shop that in last two months has meant I have ignored every urge and need to be with them and do normal things, was lovely piece and brought up so many memories of being sat in my dad's antique shop probably playing with index cards after my parents divorce , sitting in auction rooms and just bring there as my dad got on with business, it was just the norm , no parks, zoos , organised child activities, just get in with it , learnt a lot probably but it us only surfacing now as I approach 40, YES, v valuable in childhood , didn't know it at time, wow love lots of emotions and thoughts brought up after reading this xxxxxc

ganching said...

You must have written a book by by now if you amassed all of this. A really lovely piece of writing that made me think of how my own father took us to work occasionally. He drove a lorry and would take two or three of us out with him to give my mother some much needed peace.

Anonymous said...

God woman you write well.

grey summer London mornings with that particular smell of warm city dirt and diesel

Actually I should just quote the whole post. Amazing. Beautiful. Evocative. Poignant. Perceptive. Thank you.

WT Softie

nappy valley girl said...

Really lovely post. I have memories of visiting my Dad's office as a child, and spending half an hour at least crawling around the place, examining pencils and checking out the Telex machine (a sort of predecessor to the fax). No-one suggested that we should be doing something to entertain me on a Saturday morning instead. But it was great fun.

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