For family reasons I had my son Barry staying with me over the weekend which was a rewarding experience as these days he lives abroad, often totally out of contact, and only makes two or three brief visits a year to these shores.
By most standards he had a tough time of it as a kid. He was/is badly dyslexic and lost his mother to cancer when he was ten years old. However, from his earliest days he was always resourceful, self-reliant, independent, streetwise and mentally very much his own man (I could add the adjectives headstrong, stubborn, pig-headed and at times impossible – but won’t). As a result, perhaps inevitably, he and I often clashed. Between the ages of about seven to twenty we regularly argued – and badly – because of our different approaches to life.
I was brought up, perhaps it’s a product of my era, to obey my parents – I just accepted this as a fact of life – and I found it difficult to deal (let alone reason) with a child possessed of a quite different attitude to mine.
To give an example, when I arrived at a new school and was given ‘the rules’ I naturally accepted them and also the scheme that, if I breached those rules and then got caught, I was going to get punished. Since I didn’t much want to get punished, I tended to obey the rules (but obviously not always). Barry’s approach was noticeably different. Whenever given sets of rules, he dissected each one and, if he found any of them (in his opinion) stupid, ridiculous or absurd, he totally ignored them and did his own thing, irrespective of any punishment that he might receive if caught. He just took the punishment and then carried on as before.
At his first primary school – he would have been about six or seven at the time – I got home one evening to hear from my wife that during the day she’d been called to see the headmaster because Barry had single-handedly blocked up both the boys and girls toilets with massive amounts of toilet paper. The head had seemed relatively relaxed in the circumstances. He quite liked Barry and explained that he was sure that Barry was not ‘the brains’ of the project. Some other little oik had plainly hatched the scheme and, the word around the school was, when you’d dreamed up something spectacular but didn’t have the guts to ‘do the deed’ yourself, the school’s ‘go to’ man was Barry. Because Barry both accepted no boundaries and had no fear.
Then, at his boarding prep school, Barry and trouble were fairly constant bedfellows. In the winter term during which my wife died, two memorable things happened. Firstly, a fortnight after her funeral – having received no advance warning this was going to happen, when I popped in to say hello to the headmaster, he announced that he’d asked the visiting school doctor to have a chat with Barry just to see how he was coping with his mother’s death. Afterwards, reporting back, the doctor had told the head “If you hadn’t told me that Barry’s mother had just died, I can honestly say that, from talking to him, I would never have guessed it. He came across as perfectly normal and completely at ease with the world”.
Secondly, the following Saturday I arrived to pick Barry up for an exeat weekend only to be advised that he was currently serving a two hour detention. That morning the school’s 1st XI football team had been unable to depart for an away match on time because Barry had let the school bus tyres down. The remarkable but typical thing about the episode was that, when eventually let out and we were in conversation on our way to spend the weekend locally with his grandparents, Barry was phlegmatic in the extreme. He was neither upset nor resentful at his punishment. It was as if he regarded it as of no consequence, merely a minor occupational hazard.
The following year, I travelled down to the school with a female family relative and Barry (now approaching the age of twelve) joined us briefly in the car before the school match in which we had come to watch him play began. Our conversation commenced as follows:
“So Barry, has anything exciting happened this week?”
“Well on Wednesday I was interviewed by the police …”
He explained the circumstances. A pal – let us call him B – was deeply unhappy at school because his parents’ marriage was in the process of breaking down. He had decided to ‘escape’ and make his way home, situated somewhere near Three Bridges.
Having previously taken part in several (five or six boys strong) midnight-plus ‘commando raid’-type expeditions down the school fire escape and then off the school grounds under Barry’s leadership, B had therefore approached Barry for assistance in planning his break-out.
Together they had worked out the plan. They’d break out via the school fire escape in overalls, with faces blacked up … cross the dual carriage way about half a mile away at the traffic lights … and make their way into the local town and its train station. They’d then board an early morning train … change at a station on the way to Worthing … and bingo, arrive at Three Bridges before lunch. B had never been on a train on his own before but was relying on Barry’s leadership to deal with any issues arising.
Come D-Day and – as they were on the point of leaving – Barry pulled out. B nevertheless then set off solo, made it to the town’s train station and boarded a train. I’m not quite sure how far he got or exactly what happened thereafter, but it did involve the school discovering the escape attempt, getting the police involved and a police helicopter.
But why hadn’t Barry gone with B, I wished to know (pulling out of an adventure was not the kind of thing you’d normally expect of him).
“That’s easy. When it got to it, I could see why B was going – he was unhappy and worried about his parents. But why was I going? I wasn’t unhappy – in fact I’m really enjoying my life …”
As mentioned above, during the period when Barry was between the ages of about seven and twenty, he and I had a generally strained and difficult relationship. At times I was metaphorically tearing my hair out, almost at the end of my tether.
For example, I’m pretty punctual. We’d agree that we were going to leave to go somewhere for a family commitment at 9.00am the next morning. Come 8.30am, my daughter and I would be up, washed, dressed, breakfasted and ready to go. There’d be no sign of Barry. I would then knock on his bedroom door and take him a cup of tea. 9.15am would arrive and still there’d be no sign of Barry. I’d go in and announce “We are leaving at 9.30am at the latest and – if you’re not ready – we’ll leave you behind.” No response. Barry would then emerge … at 9.40am, 10.00am or 10.20am (i.e. only whenever he felt like it). He just always did everything in life his way, or not at all.
As an individual, let alone a parent, it used to drive me crazy.
All that is, of course, now well over a decade ago. Today Barry is a workaholic and demanding employer who sticks rigidly to ‘the rules’ of his profession and (as it happens) is, as far as I am aware, extremely punctual for his meetings.
Over the years, thankfully for both our sakes, our relationship has been transformed. I’d venture to suggest that is rather akin to that of a nephew and uncle, or younger and older brother, than parent and son. On a daily basis Barry now deals with issues far more important than I ever did in my career – whether they be business ones or even matters of life and death.
I have to say, though, that one aspect of his character has never changed. He never does anything any way but his own and, I strongly suspect, never will. I sometimes give him advice – or indeed he asks for it – but, after giving it due consideration, I should estimate that he rejects it at least as often as he takes it. That’s how it is with Barry – he’s his own man.