Opening Lines: Get it off your chest
The column OK, so he's lucky to be writing in the library, surrounded by mothers and babies. But, asks Howard Jacobson, does he have to tolerate all this breast-feeding?
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 26 September 1998
All men are sons, but some men are more sons than others. I speak as one who has always had a disproportionate amount of son in him. It's not for me to say whether I've been a good son, but I've without doubt been a lot of son. Not any more. Yesterday I cocked a snook at all mothers. Yesterday I finally said no to the tit.
My own mother hooked me up to excessive mother reverence early, with a gory precautionary ballad about a son who falls in love with a woman so wickedly possessive (all women not your mother are wicked and possessive) that she must every day devise a new test of his devotion. "If you really love me," she tells him, "you will tear your mother's heart out and bring it to me." Insecurity. The ususal stuff. Besotted, he does her bidding. Knife, mother, heart, twist - easy. But as he is running back to Miss Needy with his mother's heart in a box, he trips. Even if you don't know the ballad you know what's coming next. All sons know what's coming next. He falls, lands flat on his face in the dirt, and from the box comes the voice of his mother's heart, soft and solicitous - "Are you hurt, my son?"
Two kinds of love, you see.
And which is the higher, my son?
Yours, mother. Yours.
The miracle is that any son ever gets to trust a woman not his mother at all. But then, maybe he never does.
This, however, is not a story of thwarted or perverted love. Not this week. This is a column not a ballad. And in the prosaic way of columns I have to tell you that for several days now I have been sitting in a lovely little tin tornado-proof library in the far north of Western Australia, finishing a novel about table-tennis, set in Manchester in the 1950s. I believe in being far from the source material when you're finishing a novel, and the Kimberleys are about as far from Manchester as you can get and still have electricity. If the price you pay for that is the occasional scene set under a boab tree in the Pennines in 48 degrees of heat, well, what's an editor for?
It is exceedingly generous of the librarians to let me work in their library. It doesn't really have facilities for visiting novelists and their computers. "We only have one power point," they told me, "and that's in the children's lending section. But you are welcome to work there, if you can."
If you can. What they forgot to mention was that the children's lending section is also the children's play area. Not that I mind the innocent sounds of toddlers at play. It's the mothers who have been giving me a hard time. Mothers at play. They resent my being here. I sit with my back to them, lost, away in the past, recreating those sweltering days in north Manchester when the hot winds blew in off the Indian Ocean and even the brown snakes had to shelter under the bougainvillea bushes. I do not say, "Hush!" when they romp rapaciously with their babies. I do not glare when they demonstrate their parental gifts - "Now what have I told you about a library voice?" I do not point out that their children are, in fact, behaving like angels and that the ones who need to remember their library voices are themselves. I suffer their pestiferous maternal clatter graciously, in silence. I accept that this is their library not mine. Yet still my presence goads them half to death.
It is partly that they want me to register them and their pretty ones. See me, see how well I parent. It is partly that they suspect they should be quiet because I'm working, and then resent me for making them feel guilty. And it is partly because they don't want a man here, in any capacity, threatening the safety of their nest. But in the main, it is because they are crazed, out of their minds with mothering. Make no mistake, maternity is a psychotic condition, somewhere between schizophrenia and acute neurotropic intelligence impairment. They want to be their own children. In some cases, they believe they are their own children. They play with the toys. They ravage the shelves of brightly illustrated books, lisping through one story after another in baby tongue. Who else are children's books written for? For their part the kids would rather be reading Pride and Prejudice. And for their part the kids don't give two hoots whether I live or die. But their mothers do, oh yes. The mothers want me dead, because alive I represent a world that isn't forever kindergarten.
And then, yesterday, I turn up to my little desk and there right next to me is a nursing mother in an armchair, one breast out, and something indeterminate slurping on the end of it. Mother's milk, for God's sake, flowing in a public library!
Something snaps inside me. In the past, I have leapt a mile from nursing mothers. Mustn't notice, mustn't go near, mustn't look. Mamma victrix.
Not today, sister! Not this time. I set up my machinery; I nudge aside the bag of wipes and nappies deposited where my feet must go; and when it's time to plug in, I say excuse me, because the one power point in the building is behind her chair. And she is so outraged, so shocked that I should have dared to break the magic fairy circle round her breast, that in one movement, she rips the teat from the imploring gums, covers up, collects and leaves.
A small step for mankind, but a mighty big one for me
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