Growing pains

`People say children keep you young, but that's not true. The person who stays young is the person who leaves his children or is ever busy elsewhere.' Tim Parks reflects wistfully on the generation gap. Illustrati on by Toby Morison
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"That is no country for old men," wrote Yeats.

I am in my daughters' bedroom. About once a month, Sunday mornings, I order a clean-up. One must begin with great impetus,

and even then there is little hope of finishing. The toy boxes under the bunk bed. The clutter under the cot. The big wicker basket to be opened, if ever you can sort out the junk on top. Shelves groan under a terrible promiscuity of papers and pencils and books and dolls and bricks and counters and playing cards and - oh - here's one of Barbie's ski-boots, here's the pirate's hat! Shall I try to stick the pterodactyl's beak back on? "Stefi? Stefi!" But my daughter is pulling things out of the waste bin. "Not my drawing of the Hunchback, Dad! Not my Sailor Moon catalogue!"

Appetence was what Yeats meant, of course. There will come a time when it is no longer appropriate. Not that I'm at that stage yet, but rapidly growing children do help one sense that all too soon...

"Mine!" Little Lucy appears and tugs at a horse's leg. Stefi disagrees. The hamster scrabbles when his cage is kicked. "Kids, cassettes in the pile on the left, books on the pile in the middle, dolls' clothes in the plastic case. Lego things..."

I look up to find my son leaning against the door, grinning. "You're ancient, Dad." This is a prelude to his asking for money. He wants to go fishing. "The salmon-falls". I remember Yeats. "The mackerel-crowded seas. Whatever is begotten, born and dies". "You're going cuckoo," he tells me. "Take a break."

I would have been 13 or 14, I suppose, when I began to feel sorry for my own parents. It was a new pathos and worked on me strongly. My father started to take a nap after lunch. Sprawled on his armchair, he would remove his dog-collar, loosen his trousers. A thrombosis in her leg, my mother had begun to diet. Shoulder pains forecast what weather we would be under. Apart from church functions, they rarely went out in the evenings. He read his Bible commentaries, she knitted. Come 10.30, they were yawning over cocoa.

To me, this inertia seemed unforgivably melancholy, and I was angry with them. Life must be whirl and appetite. Life was thirst for life. Not only beer, and (in hope) girls to laugh with and older people's cigarettes, but books and music, too. I read, as I ate, voraciously, but out of the earshot of my mother's clicking needles. They were a clock marking wasted time. I could never have imagined that there might be more going on behind her concentrated frown than in all the busy pubs of north Finchley.

Now the same gap opens between myself and my son, who doubtless feels I'm just deciding whether to be mean or not. There is a complacent plumpness about his 12-year-old flesh, a radiant, unconscious confidence. "Out with the loot," he demands. My own skin is looser now beneath the razor of a morning, and shrinking slightly to the skull. Already there are evenings when he stays up later than I do. Handing him a note, I think, as he surely cannot, of the gesture of passing a baton. And simultaneously, something else comes to mind: that such thoughts are compensation; not life straightforward and simple, but vitality savoured in reflection, his eager bustle with jacket and tackle held for a moment in the pupil of my now-not-quite-so- blue eye. Then my reflection on my reflection.

Stefi sorts a muddle of books. Lucy's come in such various sizes as makes shelving problematic: pictures of teddy bears among animated toys, Little Red Riding Hood before the trip down the digestive tract. All hauntings and fantasies are here externalised, as if the brain were not aware of its horrors till objectified in the wicked witch, whose broomstick you can touch with your fingertips and find it tough and wiry. Stefi's more sober volumes restrict themselves to a line-drawing, perhaps, at the beginning or end of each chapter. Her favourite now is The Hobbit, in which a middle- aged fellow is persuaded to act as if he were young and spritely. To kill a dragon, of course. And, if my son does not read quite as voraciously as I did, still his appetite resembles mine when I retreated from my mother's ticking needles. No longer witches and goblins for him, but real-life adventures.

In the pocket of his jacket, he slipped a copy of The Flight of the Intruder. Vietnam fighter pilots roar over the narrow streams of the Veneto, waiting for the trout to bite. Where there is reflection on the war, he skips, he tells me, as I once skipped perhaps half of Vanity Fair. But, this morning, the post informed me that an American publisher had rejected my latest novel. Too internalised. "It all happens within the mind," they complained.

Perhaps it is not surprising that a culture devoted to youthfulness should have begun with an explosion of huge and hugely detailed novels: Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot. The young in one another's arms. The fury and the mire of human veins. Plot is the most obvious fodder for literate appetence. As young men see only the most obvious qualities in a girl, the most obvious outcomes. And even those great novels are now abridged. "Where's the other cassette of Great Expectations, Stef?" "There's only one, Dad! It's not a long story."

We're trying to match story-tapes and their cases now. Sherlock comes sheared of much of Watson's admiration. Winnie the Pooh and Piglet are spared even Christopher Robin's affectionate condescension. Pinocchio has shed his pathos. It's as if an infant's antics had not been gathered in his mother's eye, or my daughter was plaiting her hair without me to see and contemplate. A present without past or future, provincialism of the immediate. If there were once two birds on the Vedic Tree of Life, one eating, one watching him eat, these days they are both busy pecking the plant clean.

How long is Stefi's attention span? She keeps getting distracted. Wasn't this drawing good! Mum and Dad are queen and king. How did this puzzle work? She turns the pages of The Three Musketeers, then enjoys a moment of righteous anger because Lucy is taking the clothes off the dolls and tossing them up in the air. "All our hard work!" she wails, then says proudly: "You know, I'm getting hair in my armpits, Dad. Soon I'll be a woman."

Children are eager to grow up, of course, I tell myself, dividing crayons from felt-tips, but this is neatly severed in their minds from the idea of getting old. They will never be more than 25, I think, sitting Barbie and Ken together by the goldfish bowl. After which all the world will urge them to stay that ideal age. Reflection is not encouraged, I reflect. The preface to a new edition of Chateaubriand's Memoires d'outre-tombe tells me that they have cut all "the writer's meditations on the destiny of man", and kept in "accounts of facts, descriptions of men and houses and palaces, dialogues." In this way, it becomes obvious what a modern writer he was. A children's writer, almost.

Our culture has an implacable aversion to age - something that goes beyond its physical ugliness and infirmities, beyond the selfishness of those who have no time for declining parents, beyond the understandable vanity that would reverse hair-loss or lift a drooping bosom. Beyond the fear of death, even. People seem to appreciate that they have to die, but resent the idea of ageing. Yet the process is well underway. Already one has to be careful about what one eats. Already one loves young women without being in love with anyone in particular. Suddenly, appetite is no longer quite part of me - or yes, it is, but a potential enemy, too. A scission is taking place. Do I have to make decisions? Throw myself into appetite or renounce it? Stay in "that country" or pack my bag against eventual departure? Where to? Sail the seas with Yeats "and come to the holy city of Byzantium?" City of art and intellect. Of hammered gold and gold enamelling. What kind of a trip would that be? Stay young, the bias of my culture tells me. Look around. Don't think too much.

Lucy has gone into a trance. The sun has turned a corner and the little girl sits staring into a beam of light, hands uplifted, faintly gurgling. Children do this till they're about three, I've noticed, as if still intermittently in contact with something that came before, something other. Then the concrete world overwhelms them: the brightly coloured toys and tinkly tunes. Fish, flesh and fowl. Stefi has sneaked off. For all the help she was. I can hear her skipping rope slapping on the terrace.

Finding that a hump beneath the carpet was, in fact, a dusty copy of something called Shakespeare's Stories, I am suddenly reminded that probably the first hero to perplex my adolescent reading was Hamlet. All that paralysing reflection? Why? Get on with it! Until, for O-level, I read somewhere that Hamlet was not as young as modern performances depicted him. Yorick had been dead 23 years, and Hamlet remembered him well. Some scholars even placed the prince at 40-plus. On the way to my parents' torpor. All was explained. Yet I could never beat my father at chess.

"I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact," says Nietzsche, "namely, that a thought comes when `it' wants, not when `I' want." As if the more thinking that goes on in a head, the less easily one can talk of that famous old `I' as its subject. Or you could say that the more powerful the mind becomes, the more it is like a series of highly polished surfaces, ever more capable of receiving and reflecting, back and forth among themselves, whatever is around. But less interested in action, in fishing or skipping or revenge. Instead, it is thinking of itself thinking of fishing, skipping, revenge. No need for externals now, for wiry broomsticks, or Gandalf with his fireworks, which might be tracer bullets over 'Nam. But rather as when Michele looks at me, asking for money, and I remember myself looking at my own father and imagine Michele's son looking at him, and, indeed, all the sons who will soon be fathers looking at their sons. There is a point where, if not quite confused, passive and active seem somehow less important, interchangeable in time. Deep down, Hamlet knows his problem is not cowardice, or even thinking too precisely on the event, but that thought is his chief pleasure. He wants to be left alone to soliloquise in peace, without ugly problems to resolve. A seductive fatalism calls to him. "May not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bunghole?" " 'Twere to consider too curiously," the practical Horatio objects, "to consider so."

Then I'm just beginning to enjoy thinking about Hamlet, whom I haven't thought about for years, and to reflect that it is perhaps this that our culture will have no truck with, the idea that the greatest pleasure might come, not from consumption or action or doing good or passion, but merely, wonderfully, from the mind's play with itself, from withdrawal - when all at once I find no less than seven chocolate cake wrappers under Stefi's pillow. For heaven's sake! "Stefi! Stefa-ania!" Her way is to burst into tears and confess at once. Unlike my son, who lies blind. "Horrible Daddy," Lucy pummels my legs, "to make Tefi cry."

"Michele said to do it!" This is always Stefi's line. A reversal of the original garden scene. And she takes me upstairs to show me even more wrappers tucked away behind Michele's tape-recorder. "But where did they come from?" There are more than 20 in all. Eventually, it turns out that Mummy's money drawer has been plundered. My children have started stealing.

The garden was paradise before appetite came on the scene: with it, sin, then history. And some would have us believe that withdrawal from appetite can restore paradise. "Meanwhile, the mind from pleasures less/ Withdraws into its happiness". Thus Marvell, approaching Byzantium in a Yorkshire garden. And I remember when my father read his dusty commentaries - and how fat they were - he would occasionally say, "Ha!" out loud and snap the tome shut to stare at the Victorian mouldings round the ceiling. I felt I would die of shame if ever my friends saw how ridiculous he was. Only recently, reading Coleridge's remark that his pleasure in reading was as much the pleasure of observing his own mind at work as his passive response to the content on the page, did I appreciate what Dad was up to. He had retreated into that world where "the mind is its own delight". A place one can only begin to glimpse at a certain age, perhaps. He would have been as lost as Hamlet had he found himself dealing with a murderous stepfather, an adulterous and complicitous mother. Certainly, he was always annoyed when the phone rang. Forced to engage, the paradise of reflection becomes the paralysis of inaction. What do I do with stealing children? Stefi is already sobbing into a cushion, moaning that her whole life is ruined.

How kind modern movies are with the likes of Claudius and Gertrude! I have seen three or four recently which dwell with affectionate indulgence on appetite in old age. Octogenarian nuptials. We must arrive at death in the bright blaze of unjaded appetence. Falstaffian, but slim. Busy. Still contributing to neighbourhood projects. "He was an active member of the Rotary Club to the very end". Whereas Hamlet was appalled. "You cannot call it love... at your age." Mother! And on dispatching the ever busy, old Polonius: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!"

"Getting down to doing something," remarks Cioran, no less savage than the Prince of Denmark and definitely on the same wavelength, "means getting down to the false and fictitious." And again: "The capacity for renunciation constitutes the only criterion for spiritual progress." But how can I renounce? There's so much I must get down to. Still three drawers in the dresser to sort, the shelves above the bed, the heap of clothes behind the door, a great mountain of fluffy teddies and dogs and cats and rabbits. And now this awful business of their stealing. "What are you going to do?" my wife demands, red in the face from her morning run. And, of course, it is wise of her to keep fit. I am thankful she looks so young.

Perhaps maturity is some imperceptible moment when two worlds are in perfect equilibrium. Those birds exactly balanced on opposite branches: the eater, his observer. Mind powerful enough to catch and reflect every gesture of still active appetence, unready to retreat into itself as yet, but wonderfully enriched by the growing knowledge that such pleasures lie ahead. Oh, the books, the explorations, the new intensities! "You'll have to do something," my wife repeats.

And now we're sitting together over pasta. On the terrace. The bright Italian sun. Above a garden too parched for Marvell's ecstasies. Too naked beneath the glare. But with a bird or two to rustle the twigs. A white cat to make the shadows conscious. Michele is describing the fish that got away. The way a thought sometimes is the more present for having escaped you. Trembled the hook then lost, before you could even guess what species it was. Unless golden, perhaps? Of such a form that Grecian goldsmiths make. My wife is staring at me over her glass.

"Michele, I believe you stole some money."

How lush it all is now! His quick glance at Stefi. Her eyes going down to her plate. His appreciation that the game is up. Her chest heaves. His lips harden. Betrayed! Then quiver. He's wringing his napkin in his hands. Lucy, oblivious, spears her pasta, shouts "Tina" at the cat. And the explanations begin, the back and forth: recrimination, confession, punishment,forgiveness. Not much communication, though. What do you expect between the old and young? "I wish I hadn't, Dad. I wish I hadn't." How Dickens would have relished the tears gathering in his shrewd, blue eyes.

People say children keep you young, but that's not true. The person who stays young is the person who leaves his children, or is ever busy elsewhere. Rather, children give one an opportunity to become old, reflecting them, reflecting on them. For the lives of the young would be nothing without the old to observe them. As some once believed our lives were nothing unless gathered in the infinite mind of the divine. And it might even be there is - who knows? - some universal mind beyond the mercurial fragments trapped within these globes of bone. Our inability to locate it in the cosmos can mean very little if we still haven't found the thing inside our heads.

"Of course, we love you," my wife insists. Is that the force Nietzsche remarked on that pops the thoughts into our minds? So that we then ingenuously claim, "I think!"

As the meal progresses - my stern voice, the wine, the children's sheepishness, the cheeses, a dog barking, the fruit, the empty promise to repay - it's as if I heard, very faintly, my father cry "Ha!", and the knowing click of my mother's knitting needles. After which, we retire to ping-pong, where the ball flies back and forth between our bats. Back and forth. And Stefi says: "You never finish tidying my room, Dad. You always say you will, but you never do"