Cole Moreton: He was first a hero and then he was a joke. Now, he's a real hero

On Father's Day, our writer admits he's one of many who will always feel a sense of inadequacy when compared with their dads
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The Independent Online

My son is becoming a man, and frankly it's doing my head in. He is only just entering his teens but already I know I am being found out, as a loser and a fraud and just another embarrassing Dad.

I have a nagging sadness at losing the little boy who once loved me so directly and unreservedly. Not to mention, on those days when all he can offer is a dismissive grunt, the frustration of being unable to communicate like we used to. Oh, and the sense of having your mojo stolen, let's not forget that. Jake – known as Joe to his mates for some unfathomable reason – is handsome and cool and it feels like whatever I might once have had going for me has swapped bodies. Marvellous.

But balancing out all of the self-pity, thankfully, is a sense of amazement and pride at watching my eldest boy grow. Upwards, outwards, in his head, in his heart. Sniffing the air, tasting the world, trying stuff out. Sometimes failing, sometimes finding something that he likes, that he gets, that he's good at. Then there is a look on his face that I love, that says, "Yes! This is me!".

Lately, it's windsurfing. At such times I turn into a bit (more) of a sentimental old fool. I start thinking about my own Dad, and wondering if this is what it was like for him when I was growing up. All I can remember for myself is the teenage rage, the confusion and the eagerness to escape.

That is how it works, for many of us. We start out thinking that our father is a hero (even if the rest of the world can see that he's not). Then we grow up and realise he's a bit of a joke. Maybe we fight and maybe we stop speaking. Maybe we leave home. For a lot of us, that's where the story ends. The next stage never happens. There is only longing and regret, for things said or unsaid. I was lucky, though. My dad had a heart attack.

The phone rang early in the morning, which is never a good thing. He was in an emergency ward, all wired up and tearful, but mercifully still alive. In the months and years that followed, he told me things that had previously been locked up inside him. One prompt was a photograph he put up on the wall of his bungalow in Essex, taken from a German bomber on the first day of the Blitz. It shows the payload falling down towards south London, where I know my nan and grandad were out walking on a towpath at that very moment. They both thought the planes were friendly, until Bert saw the ack-ack fire and said, "They're not ours, Vi. Run."

They took cover under the canal bridge, and survived, along with the embryo in Violet's womb – and eight months later my father, Arthur, was born in exile in Dorset as an evacuee's baby. He was back in London before he could walk, though, even though the bombs were still falling. As he grew, they became doodlebugs and then V2 rockets – massive explosions that came without warning.

By the end of the war every third house in his street had been destroyed. The rest looked like ruins anyway. The rats and the poverty and the horror were shocking when he first told me all about it. I wrote a book in reaction, with his permission, which was described by one critic as "like Angela's Ashes with bombs". The book was called My Father Was a Hero – which was ironic because the really heroic person in the story was my nan, who coped with trials I would find unendurable.

The Blitz has become more of a myth than a memory, and it will be mythologised again in this anniversary year, but when you get down to the individual stories, one can only wonder at the strength and endurance that people showed. Every day. Without fuss. The scars are still there, though, all these years later, in the minds of the children of the war.

Hearing my father's stories changed my attitude to him dramatically. I was lucky enough to enter that third stage of the cycle, which can be so elusive. It happens when we grow up, perhaps become parents, and realise that many of our struggles were their struggles, too. We even start to admire the way they coped.

I am a child of the Sixties, born in peacetime to a man who had already hauled himself out of poverty. Arthur had left school without qualifications and become a jellied eel boy, but he retired having been a public relations expert, a leading player in the regeneration of Docklands, a long-time Labour activist and local councillor who turned down the chance to become an MP for the sake of his family, and an honorary fellow of the University of East London. How could I not admire all that? He is extraordinary, and I love him.

But I'm not telling you all this because I think the story itself is exceptional. Just the opposite. This Father's Day I am thinking of that feeling so many of us have – whether we're sons or daughters – that we will never be as good as the people who brought us up.

I know very well that this is not true of everyone. If your father was absent, a waste of space, an abuser or hurt you badly in some other way, then I am sorry. Still, though, even in suffering we are partly defined by how we rise to the challenge of who they were.

That's also true for people born into privilege. Take David Cameron, whose childhood seems to have been semi-idyllic. He is the son of Ian, who was born with severely deformed legs but was still a keen sportsman and dancer, as well as a successful stockbroker. Despite having both legs amputated eventually, Ian Cameron did not take to a wheelchair until he was in his seventies.

"He is my role model," David is said to have told a friend at the age of 13. "Dad has never let his disability hold him back. He has proved you can do anything you want to in life." The quote appears in the biography Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative, which says Ian was not a pushy parent but "his unstated determination made him a hard man to live up to".

Perhaps he still is. Ian Cameron made a public appearance during the election campaign, when his son embraced and kissed him. OK, so it was before a speech aimed at the grey vote, but it did look natural and sincere. I have met the Conservative leader at his home and can say that he appears relaxed and at ease with his own kids. Nobody could doubt his love and commitment to Ivan, the severely disabled son who died last year.

Dave looks a good Dad, in other words, despite the pressures of high office. But here's the thing. As the son of a father who showed equal drive to overcome hardships, I know that sometimes it doesn't matter what you achieve. Even when you stand outside No 10 as the new prime minister, deep down, you'll still feel like you're doing it for Dad. There will still be that dogged feeling that you'll never be the man he was.

Does it ever end? Friends who have lost their fathers say they struggled with the sense of stepping up a generation, feeling suddenly unprotected and exposed. I am dreading that day, and I bet the Prime Minister is, too.

Before this gets too maudlin, though, let's be clear on one thing: admiring your father doesn't mean you want to become him. Not in appearance, anyway. I look down and see my father's hands typing this, and it horrifies me. I bridle when anyone says, "You look just like your dad." So will both my sons, no doubt. And as for my daughters, God help them if it's true.

I don't know what they're getting me for Father's Day, but I know what I would love. Not a bottle of whisky or a pair of slippers, but a promise. The one thing I know about fatherhood is that you always mess up. You may not know how or why or when – a misplaced word, a burst of temper, a bad habit – but one day it will be held against you by a grown-up child who yells: "Why?"

I know because I've done it. I also know that the yell happens only if you're lucky. That means you're still talking. So I would like Jake and the others to promise that if and when they feel that way – as they all must, eventually – they will come and tell me and talk about it. However harshly. At least then we will have a chance.

Maybe after that, in time, they will be able to say what I can at last say of my father: "The old man was not perfect, he got it wrong, but he is still, and always will be, a man I love and admire and aspire to match."

So, Dad, if you're reading this, the first pint's on me.

Cole Moreton is the author of 'My Father Was a Hero'. His new book, 'Is God Still an Englishman?', is published by Little, Brown