Labour first

When I’m not busy working, which is less and less these days, I’m online browsing news sites, or finding recipes, or reading the plethora of excellent articles on a range of different subjects.

Just before I was reading of an interview last week with Clive James on the Guardian site. Regular readers will know that James has a special part in my personal cultural landscape. I’m a great admirer of him, his erudition and learning, his poetry, his wit, not to mention his ever genial presence. Filtering through all that is his Australian identity, which he has never let go of despite his long-term expatriation. He figures as a substantial cultural icon in the UK certainly, and in Australia too, whether we know it or not.

Clive James is dying. He has leukemia, which so far he has managed to survive 5 years of. He’s doing okay considering, and has just published another small and received book. Long may he survive to delight us with his thoughts.

After reading the article I clicked on a related article focusing on James’ daughter, an artist. Affable as Clive James is, it’s no secret that he was an unfaithful husband, and often remote father. It’s a common story, the driven individual who sets other things to the side without really considering it.

There is a poem in this article that references that:

“All of my life I put my labour first.

I made my mark, but left no time between

The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,

With no life, there was nothing I could mean.

But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air

As if there were not much more of it there.”

The result in this case was a strained relationship between James and his family. It is James’ illness that has brought the family together again, and the article in large part describes the reconciliation between him and his children in his waning years. Ultimately there is something very reassuring about this – but it made me quite melancholy.

It is a melancholy story for all James’ success, the lost years with his family. It is redeemed near the end in this warm reconciliation between them. It’s sad for me because in my case I have all the melancholy of an estranged relationship, but with nothing to redeem it.

I’ve never been close to my father. He’s a difficult man, and from day dot we’ve had a difficult relationship. Over the last couple of years there have been some well documented bust-ups. We made up, then bust up once more. That was about August last year.

If I can’t recall if I wrote of it at the time, but a few months ago I reached out to him. I have felt the aggrieved party, but I have never seen much sense in carrying grievances or bearing grudges too long. Many do, and seem to take purpose out of it. It’s always seemed self-defeating to me. And so, without prejudice, I sent him an email proposing that we should re-connect, wipe the slate clean. My one condition was that he had to know how I felt, and why. I needed him to know that, for him as much as me. To cut a long story short, he basically refused that. End of story.

Now it never meant enough to me to be upset. I don’t have a high regard for my father outside of familial affection (and little of that). I lose fuck-all in his refusal, because I got fuck-all from him even when we were speaking. I took some comfort knowing I had made the gesture.

I was saddened though by his attitude that put ego and self-regard before his relationship with me. I thought it weak that he could not face up to his responsibilities as man and father. It’s almost beyond dispute that he has been a very poor father. I regret that has been the case, but it’s not something I’m hung up now. I don’t need a mea culpa from him. All I ask is for acceptance. As it turned out, that was too much to ask for.

Once more then I am given cause for melancholy. I’ve felt it in the past observing the fond relationship of so many sons with their fathers – something I never had. There have been times it felt very poignant to me. Now I am given cause to be melancholy reading of James’ reconciliation with his family – the same reconciliation I hoped for, but cannot have.

What James wrote of himself in large part applies to my father – he was too busy becoming the man he wanted to be, overlooking what he had there in his home. Ultimately my father is not good enough to accept, as James has so eloquently, that he was not the father he could have been. Not yet anyway.


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