After a hiatus, Tim Burrows’ column returns. This month, he considers the concept of fatherhood.
It’s December and I am flying home, not for Christmas, but to say goodbye to Uncle John. My mother’s little brother was the man who made me want to be a hod-carrier on a building site when I was three years old, and the man who taught me my first swear word, “shit” (it has come in handy). He was also the man who was airlifted from Southend-on-Sea in Essex to London hospital in Whitechapel, East London, after a car crashed into his motorbike in May. At first he was in a coma that nobody thought he would come out of. But he regained consciousness and although he was told he would never walk or even use his arms again he was making jokes, calling people – anyone – tarts, checking his five kids were all right, checking the nurses were all right, and just being there, a presence, from the various NHS beds he lay on.
I waved goodbye to Hayley and the children in the carpark of Stavanger airport and walked to departures thinking about John, fatherhood, the fact I’m not the three-year-old who looked up to my beloved chain-smoking uncle but a 34-year-old with little people looking up to me. I had cut short my holiday. This morning in Bryne near Stavanger we accompanied our friend Tor as he sawed down his family’s Christmas tree in a Norwegian forest. Written down this sounds more bucolic and mythically Scandinavian than it was. The trees were planted in tubing concreted to the ground, and once yours was out you took it to a kid in a car park to pay for it. Yet the event served a purpose for the children present. Tor had asked them to help him, and my two-year-old daughter Greta was thrilled at the feeling she had played a part in removing this great big exciting thing from the earth.
Earlier in the year we had crossed the Thames with a car full of our belongings as our three-week-old son slept in the back. We were moving from Walthamstow to Shooter’s Hill in the middle of a heatwave, from a neighbourhood built on a flood plain to a hill that constitutes one of the highest points in London. We now live in a terraced house on the edge of woodland – a strip of trees line the sloping backs of our gardens, and at night the clouds above them glow with the relentless light of the financial services mega-cluster at Canary Wharf.
From the front of our house, I can see Epping forest and the arc of the North Weald above the sprawl of what still feels like my side of the river. At a certain point walking down the dramatic slope of our street you see the Tate and Lyle factory in Silvertown where Hayley’s grandmother, Hannelore, worked after she moved from northwest Germany to marry her Cockney grandfather, Ernest, in the wake of the second world war after they had met when he was serving in the peacekeeping forces. Ernest was born in Becontree Heath, Dagenham, as the largest estate in Europe was ripping up the area’s rurality. His father died when he was two months old in an industrial accident in a quarry, buried by gravel and succumbing to internal injuries later on in hospital. The family moved Canning Town way, Ern an only child brought up by his mother and aunts. He grew up to become a welder, a father of four, a practical, caring man and a twinkle-eyed gossip.
Ernest died aged 89 the October before last. On the day of the funeral, I followed the cortege to the ceremony in a car he gave us for twenty pounds, a battered Rover 75 that still scrubbed up well when you get it valeted. “You don’t get anything for free in this life,” he said. The funeral was in Bowers Gifford, one of the highest points in this part of Essex. As we followed the hearse into the crematorium, the chimney of the disused but still majestic Coryton oil refinery came into view, seemingly rising out of a landfill mound at Pitsea tip. I was asked to be a pallbearer, carrying the coffin into the service with Graham, Hayley’s cousin.
By the time Hayley entered labour the following June we hadn’t planned to name our child after Ernest, but sitting in the room between her bouts of gas and air we wrote down a sequence of letters in a fit of automatic writing. Ernest Raymond Axel Hatton-Burrows came quicker and more painfully than Greta. He met this world a shade of panicked beetroot after he breathed in some meconium (unborn baby shit) and couldn’t properly respirate on his own. He was taken to intensive care. Worst-case scenarios learned from television swirled around my head as I watched his little chest move up and down. Yet since then he has grown into a gentle, smiling and tactile presence, as if making up for his first moments without contact with his mother and father. He takes things in his stride. When in August the Rover was written off by a driver who didn’t look where they were going, he didn’t even flinch. Ernest the elder never did meet his newest great grandchild. It was only months later that I realised that the name of Hayley’s great grandfather, the man who died in an Essex quarry in 1928, was Ernest too.
John Hevey, my uncle, died in November aged 61 after a brave few months with his brothers and sisters and children by his side. His funeral was held in Southend a week before Christmas. Three of his children, Steven, Maria and Paddy, got up to say some words. First up was his youngest, Paddy, a 15-year old from Cornwall who I had never met before. Paddy walked up in his suit and slicked back hair and made a motion to speak, but he broke down before he could make an utterance and his frame slumped in anguish. His half-brother and half-sister, Steve and Sian, got up to provide a physical support. He took his time. Perhaps minutes passed, his head still lowered, but all the time becoming more powerful. He was bringing together his thoughts about his dad that eventually came out like a torrent: about the man who perhaps most made him feel like himself, who he spoke to every day, who he played video games with and made bows and arrows with in the woods. The first thing John said to him after waking up from a coma, Paddy recalled, was: “You are never getting a bike.”
To watch this cousin who I had only just met conjure such a powerful articulation of the strength and responsibility of fatherhood was such a pure act to witness. A child becoming a man articulating the love between himself and his father.
Fatherhood is a fluid and misunderstood concept. On Christmas Eve I asked my father whether he regretted giving up his promising career as an artist and gallery assistant in London for the more steady job as an art teacher in Basildon once he had started a family. Not really, he said, it taught him to have authority, to impose himself. “I was a bit of a shrinking violet before.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s the school he taught at was under the cosh from perennial inspections, and art was an irritant at the bottom of a pile of problems. Basildon was experiencing complex social issues in unsympathetic times, and the kids could be difficult, sometimes violent. Dad’s strategy in class was to adopt a persona – I remember he’d come home and sometimes talk in a voice of mock authority. He passed on to me that authority should only be imposed with a tongue firmly, if sometimes discreetly, in one’s cheek.
Masks, performances, faking till you’re making. These seem to be required routes to fatherhood today. Yet fatherhood was once a given: the patriarch, the leader, the man of the house. Dads could almost have been said to have played the role of God in the living room, with their pipe and glass of sherry, accessories to the main artillery of a commanding stare and a booming voice that would lay down the ground rules of the family’s existence. Yet the hegemony of this version of fatherhood was always negligible. More likely fatherhood was, as it still is, a fragmented concept. My dad’s father, a policeman, fitted the patriarchal bill, but he broke the spell by leaving the family for another woman. My maternal grandfather Christopher Hevey was a site foreman in Southend at a time when Essex was being built in part by Irish migrants like him. From stories I deduce he had no desire to be the domineering man of the house. He went to work, put money on the table and made a second home of the pub. Along the way he gave John his lifelong skill: building.
My desire to be a builder began and ended when I was three, during the period of time Uncle John lived with us following a divorce. Instead I wanted to be creative like my dad. When I figured out I didn’t have the stamina to be a cartoonist when I was about eight years old, I decided upon something more realistic: I’d be a private detective. In recent years a friend from secondary school told me I had said I wanted to be write and perhaps be a journalist even when I was 13 and perhaps that’s what my ambitions evolved into in the end. I don’t know what awaits Ernest or Greta but I wonder whether Hayley or I will be some kind of catalyst, whether they are attracted or repelled from our roles, behaviours, traits, mistakes. I have always thought Philip Larkin was only half right: of course your parents fuck you up, how could they not? But they can lift you up, too.