FOCUS: WHERE THERE'S NO WILL...

The hero of Middle England has more in common with members of the underclass on whom so many of society's ills are blamed

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WILL CARLING is - or was - the icon of Middle England. An intelligent man and a fine sportsman who excelled at the quintessentially middle-class game of rugby, who was everywhere known as a team player who upheld the traditional schoolboy values of bravery and loyalty, he used his athletic career to launch himself into business and to make a legitimate fortune. He gave motivational seminars to other businessmen: himself every bit as self-made as Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, his message was one that harmonised perfectly with the innermost fantasies of his audience, namely that achievement is a matter of will-power alone.

Try hard enough, and it will be added unto you. Now, by leaving the mother of his 11-month-old child, he has revealed himself to be nothing but a well-heeled member of the underclass. Apart from the presence of money, he has arranged his personal life exactly as some inhabitants of the sink estates arrange theirs, that is to say according to the whim of the moment. Frailty, thy name is Will Carling.

Of course, circumstances alter cases, and money really does reduce the practical effects of a multitude of sins. The abandoned offspring of a rich man are unlikely to suffer in quite the same way or to the same extent as the abandoned offspring of a poor man; and therefore, if consequences alone are what determine the goodness or badness of an act, the abandonment of a child by a poor man is a worse act than the abandonment of a child by a rich one. But, as Mr Carling himself so succinctly put it, "There's no right way of leaving an 11-month-old child." The fact that there is no right way, however, did not stop him, or did not stop him for long.

CARLING's ex-lover has been left well and truly holding the baby; and reading his account of his emotional turmoil at abandoning little Henry, whom he says he loves so very much, I had a powerful feeling of deja-vu. His excuses, his reasoning, his very manner of expressing himself, were precisely those of the underclass patients I meet every day. The emotions expressed are intense but shallow. They are like tropical rainstorms, drenching but quick to pass. Only a few short months before leaving the person who would be known in the slums as his baby-mother, he insisted that wild elephants wouldn't drag him away from her.

Despite the patent changeability of his emotions, he expects to be believed when he poses as the eternally fond father who abandons his child merely because of emotional force majeure. But if my experience in the slums is anything to go by, when little Samantha or little Christopher comes along by the next baby-mother, the deep feelings for little Henry will decline somewhat in strength: for apart from anything else baby-mothers do not often get along too well together, and are inclined to be a little jealous of each other's offspring, thus adding unwanted complications to the babies' father's life.

He is then inclined to throw up his hands in despair, saying, "I don't need any of this, I can't handle it" and to move on to pastures new. Like many of the child-abandoning fathers I meet - and I meet several every day - Carling dimly apprehends that the situation is not an ideal one from the point of view of the child's welfare. Alas, higher duty calls: the highest duty of all, in fact; that is to say, the one he owes himself. For we learn (and here the story takes on the quality of a Greek tragedy) that he was no longer happy living with his baby-mother. Every man has the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness; and since there are no rights without corresponding duties, it follows that Carling had the duty to leave the woman with whom he was unhappy. He would not have been true to himself had he failed to do so: he would, indeed, have been guilty of dereliction of duty. "Our relationship wasn't working," he said. "I didn't mean for this to happen."

How familiar I am with this way of putting things, this manner of declaring events independent of the actors who bring them about! The relationship exists as an entity independent of the behaviour of the people who are in it: thus it is the relationship which goes wrong, not the conduct of one or other (or both) of the couple in it. This is precisely the manner of speaking - and of thinking - of armed robbers, who attribute their resort to guns to the fact that the robbery wasn't working, or went wrong, and not to the fact that they went to the post office with the intention of robbing it with a gun in their pocket.

Like Carling, they didn't mean for this to happen, and expect credit for their lack of bad intentions. And, like most of my abandoning fathers, Carling didn't have a bad word to say about his baby-mother. "She's an amazing mother, an amazing person," he said in the typically vague and inexpressive language in which most such exculpatory public confessions are made. "When I wrote about her in my autobiography, I was trying to convince myself I loved her - and in a sense I still do." Ah yes, the part-of-me syndrome which I know so well. "Part of me wants to stay with her, doctor, and help her change the nappies and get up in the middle of the night when the baby cries, and part of me doesn't." No prizes, I'm afraid, for guessing which part of me almost always triumphs.

OF COURSE, it doesn't emerge triumphant without a struggle of Laocoonian proportions within, both emotional and philosophical, between the forces of good and evil. "I wouldn't be leaving [my son]," said Carling, "if I didn't deep inside think it was the right thing to do." And in the past, we have been led to believe, Carling is a deep thinker indeed. And what was the reasoning that made it the right thing for him to do to leave his son at so tender an age? The relationship wasn't a happy one and therefore "it wasn't creating a healthy atmosphere for him". And there is a certain method in this mystification: for it is true that it is well within the capacity of any man whose latest whim is thwarted to make his home a living hell for his child and his baby-mother. Better he should move out than that. This exculpatory language and way of thinking is not new - nothing human is new. But it is a recipe for misery.

It is one of the paradoxes of human existence that those who follow their whims, and whose sense of duty is so weak that they do more or less as they please, end up less happy than those whose sense of duty, and whose tolerance of a degree of frustration, is greater. If you doubt it, I recommend the study of our slums, where the Carling school of fatherhood is practically universal, and where misery is similarly universal. His every action, his every word is an implicit betrayal of the poor. I don't expect it to be long before someone says to me, "If Will Carling can do it, why can't I?"

The author is an inner-city doctor

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