Giles Coren on fathers (him) and sons (Sam, aged 4). This month: do as you would have been done by
In his new column, Man & Boy, the editor-at-large reflects on how his past will inform his fathering skills
Imagine being offered the chance to start again. To go back to the very beginning of your life and do it one more time, knowing what you know now. Would you take it?
I think most people would. I think at the very least we would go back and make a few tweaks: be kinder to our baby sister; try harder to make friends in the first year at school; pay more attention in maths; tell the girl we love from afar how we truly feel; not marry the psycho or get the tattoo or drive the car after 14 pints. Maybe write the book or build the log cabin in the woods or simply not give up karate/cricket/Japanese/jazz guitar just when we were getting good (because we were 15 and anything that wasn’t video games or wanking seemed pointless) and thus have the chance to arrive at this point in our lives, now, in the summer of 2017, happier, more fulfilled, more successful professionally, spiritually, romantically, sexually…
If you wouldn’t, well then hats the fuck off to you, Romeo, because, at the very least, every man I know would go back and do an awful lot more shagging. If you think you have done so well with the hand God gave you that your life story is one long list of happy events, good fortune, excellent decisions and optimal outcomes, then you’re going to have to piss off right now. Because I don’t write for people like you. Nobody does. You just go and sit down naked in front of the ballroom mirror of your
enormous house in Chelsea and bang one out while winking at yourself, like you do every morning.
Because me, if I had the chance to go back, I would change everything.
The first week of my life went broadly OK: I do accept that I was lucky to be born into a creative, liberal and reasonably wealthy family in the greatest city in the world. But I had an angry father and a full-time working mother, two things I would change if I could. Not change who they were, just what they did. My mum would be around more and my dad wouldn’t smack me.
And I wouldn’t be born at the end of July and thus always be the youngest and smallest in my year at school. It meant I felt stupid in class and overcompensated by showing off, which made the teachers and pupils dislike me. And it meant I struggled to make sports teams for which I was suitable in terms of ability, on account of my relative smallness. The knock-on effect has been that I still feel short even now, despite being of perfectly average height for a 47-year-old.
And then I wouldn’t be circumcised. I’m cool with it these days but it meant I didn’t shower for five years at boarding school for fear of being beaten up. And I didn’t start having sex until I was 18, for shame, pushing away the hands of every girl I snogged at 15, 16, 17, the moment they went for my cock, because I didn’t want them to see that someone else had got there first, with a knife.
Did I say boarding school? Yeah, well, that wouldn’t happen either. Who brings children into the world just to send them away? Nor would I be in single sex education from six to 16 — a ridiculous warping of priorities, with effects from which I have never fully recovered. And at whatever school I ended up attending the second time around, I would not try so hard to do well academically, at the expense of having fun and making friends.
And if I had my time again I would — though born at the wrong time of year to the wrong kind of parents, genitally mutilated, separated from the opposite sex, banished from the family home, friendless and terrified of girls — accept the invitation to Nick Rayne’s 12th birthday party. The first time around, alas, I declined it because I was scared I might have to meet girls and/or dance. Everyone else went to the party, met their first girls and danced their first dances and took off on that great romantic adventure without me.
I was so traumatised by being left behind that I have still never danced. True fact. Not a step in the 35 years since then. Though I have talked to some girls, with mixed results. Leaving aside sex for a moment, I would choose, at 13, to take Spanish for GCSE, not German. That was a massive mistake. I have never once been to Germany on holiday, but have visited Spain many times because it is much, much more fun. Unless you’re standing alone at the fiesta with a beer, muttering, “Spricht jemand Deutsch?”
I wouldn’t drop the piano before Grade One because I was shy of having to sing a Middle C in my impending test, leading to a life entirely free from the joy of music. And I wouldn’t repeatedly refuse to go on the school skiing trip for fear of being bad at it, and miss out on a lifetime of larks in the snow.
Offered the chance, at 16, to spend a year at an American high school as part of an exchange programme, I wouldn’t turn it down (turn it down! A year in actual high school!) because, finally, I had a girlfriend, Laura Jessop.
And having stayed behind on account of Laura Jessop, I would not, this time, when she took all her clothes off and got into my bed at home, with my parents out at work, and said, “Fuck me”, say, “Um, actually, I won’t thanks, Laura. I’ve been reading the papers and it says you can get Aids from that sort of thing.” Yeah, from 16-year-old, privately-educated, female virgins. Fuck you, puritanical Eighties sex education!
If I had my time again, I would start therapy younger (though after my perfect childhood maybe I wouldn’t need it so badly). I would drink less in my twenties so as not to stall my career and I would do no drugs at all, ever. I’d go on a plumbing course. I’d have my eyesight surgically corrected at 25 not 45 and do a course of Roaccutane to cure my “bacne” at 20, not 40. And I’d hold back on the hack journalism to make a serious go of fiction.
But it’s not going to happen. Because, like Nick Carraway said to Jay Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past.” Then again, like Gatsby replied to Carraway: “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!”
And you can, if you have a son. Which, as it happens, I have. But is he winter-born, uncircumcised, the child of a non-violent father and full-time mother, destined to be large for his year, educated locally in a mixed environment and not pressured too much to do well academically?
Will he dance and sing and ski, play jazz guitar, speak Spanish, travel widely, fuck even wider, play Test cricket as an amateur with his perfect eyesight and spotless back and eventually write prize-winning fiction? Well, I guess that is going to be down to me, and how I raise him. They say that you should never make the mistake of using your children to right the wrongs of your own upbringing.
But he’s my son, so I’ll do what I damned well want.
They say that you should never make the mistake of using your children to right the wrongs of your own upbringing. But he’s my son, so I’ll do what I damned well want
At home with the Corens: “just remember these words, Sam — ‘clear history…’”