Real men don't hug! He loves his boys to bits, but one father is with John Prescott when it comes to keeping them at arm’s length
Personally, I hate being touched. I’m almost phobic. Anyone who touches my elbow in a friendly fashion or slaps me on the back risks a punch in the face.
Maurice Sendak, the children’s illustrator, once kissed me on the lips at Glyndebourne. I gargled Dettol and went right off opera.
I dislike even shaking hands — and admire the way barristers never shake each other’s hands but instead give a curt little bow.
Roger says he was brought up in a world where physical signs of affection were what foreigners and pretentious types went in for
Shaking hands comes from the old days when you’d want to convey to the other fellow that you weren’t going to draw your sword — and the assumption in the legal profession is that they are all gentlemen of equal rank who may go at each other hammer and tongs in the courtroom, but there’s nothing murderous or personal in it.
I shook my father’s hand twice — on my wedding day in 1982 and on his death bed in 2004. There was absolutely no hugging at any stage. I’m very glad of this. I was brought up in a world where physical signs of affection were what foreigners and pretentious types went in for. I’d have been immensely disconcerted if either of my parents started kissing and slobbering over me. I’d have assumed they were on drugs.
Lord Prescott, however, has been lamenting that though he’s got ‘two brilliant sons and I love them to death,’ it is to his infinite regret he still can’t bring himself ‘to put my arms around them’. He says he was a ‘detached’ father — too preoccupied with eating pies and shouting, his ministerial career and entertaining his secretary, perhaps.
Lord Prescott says he was a 'detached' father and can't bring himself to hug his two sons
I don’t think he has anything to reproach himself for, as surely it would give any child a serious complex — requiring years of psychotherapy — if human-Toby-Jug John Prescott had loomed at them, grinning with endearments. It’s the sort of thing Grimm put in his fairy tales and my friend Maurice Sendak would paint.
Lord Prescott saved his lads from this gruesome fate. But more than that, I hate the way you see grown men these days embracing their offspring so fulsomely and publicly, clapping them on the back, squeezing them tight. They look like gorillas — and I think it is a throwback to the animal kingdom. The father is showing, if in a kindly way, who is boss, who is the dispenser of love and protection.
It is also competitive — men at swimming pools or play parks, demonstrating what brilliant dads they are. Makes me puke. I bet all this hugging came in when everyone started to get divorced and fathers only had access to their brood on alternate weekends. They feel they have to over-compensate, smothering their children to make up for the fact they have run off with younger versions of the children’s mother.
Compared with today, when youngsters belong to a complex network of step-siblings and step-parents, and where holy wedlock is rarer than hen’s teeth, I suppose I had a deprived childhood. There was only me, and my teddy bears. My parents remained happily married, and yet if any hugging or kissing went on it was kept well out of view.
Cuddling was not something one ever saw, though there’s an untranslatable Welsh word for it — cwtch — which also means snug or concealed. The penny dropped only the other day about why I was always packed off to Sunday school, as my family wasn’t religious. But of course, with me at the Wesleyan chapel, that gave my parents a blissful afternoon hour of freedom, to have a good cwtch. My sister and two brothers were born in due course.
Despite the lack of hugging — and I was also never praised to my face or given any direct encouragement — I never felt I lacked love. This can be conveyed without anything needing to be said or shown directly. I’ve always felt that it can be devalued if said or shown directly, as if people are protesting too much.
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Though my parents never expressed pride about the fact I’d written books, for example, I’d hear that they’d march in and out of every bookshop in South Wales, personally putting my titles in the window and on the bestseller shelf.
As I don’t like to be touched, I think my own three children must have been immaculately conceived – angels must have been involved. Anyway, I was the archetypal ‘new dad’, who did the obligatory modern stuff by helping out with the feeding times, bath times and dressing, things my own father never did. He never pushed a pram, as he believed it effeminate. I still remember my absolute frustration and massive impatience with buttons, gloves, bobble hats and shoes.
My God, putting lace-up shoes on wriggling kiddies! It used to take hours to get everyone ready for the day. For approximately 25 years I was driven mad, despite, as Lord Prescott would say, loving them all to death. I don’t think I was temperamentally suited to hugging. Strangling, yes. I mastered a rough tenderness, shall we say — all done in what Dame Edna Everage would call a caring way. If I held on to the children when they crossed a road, this was to protect myself from oncoming traffic, my eyesight being poor.
I also held on to them tight when going down dark alleys, in New York say, or Caerphilly, ready to fling them at muggers as decoys or diversions, so I could run away unimpeded. Luckily, this gambit was never required.
What are these people who kiss and hug their children trying to prove I think it is suffocating and clinging. It implies an equality between parent and child. This is a huge mistake. For they won’t do what they are told. Nor, later on, will they leave home. Because why should they Life is so cuddly at home, they’ll stay put.
Keep putting your arms around them, you’ll never be able to give them a salutary boot up the backside. My idea was to shut off the heating in their rooms and start charging for meals. A wine list would be available if they wanted an occasional glass with luncheon, the tariff very reasonable.
My wife would have none of this. She said I was mad. She hugs the children. I wave at them from across the room and write them letters with a fountain pen, also cheques. And if I ever become a grandfather, my grandchildren will be allowed to visit me only by written appointment — and then only outdoors, where they can’t wreck my nice bric-a-brac.
Lord Prescott should not feel guilty about his reticent behaviour. It is dignified. As things tend to go in waves, I hope that all this caressing and slobbering will be phased out and that stern Victorian patriarchs will come back into fashion, along with the return of table manners, school teachers who impart knowledge and wisdom and wearing black at funerals.
But this is like hoping steam trains will be reinstated, an impossible dream.