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The International Writers Magazine
: What happens when you leave home

David Hill on British parents

Children present British parents with a disposal problem on the scale of nuclear waste. It’s as though we are born with an expiry date printed on our arses:
"Warning: child valid for 18 years only."

It begs the question, why did you give birth to me? So you can spend the rest of our lives acting as if I am blocking your view of the wall?
Allow me to explain.

I called home yesterday from Spain, where I live, enthusiastic about a recent accomplishment.
Those prissy UK ring tones waft the aroma of tea and muffins down the line. Garden parties. Apologetic insularity. Driving on the left. The insane worship of cats.
Someone answers. I identify myself.
"Airw, hellairw! I thought about you the other day."
Words like liquid nitrogen. Suddenly I remember whom I am talking to.
"Warning: child valid for 18 years only."

Not "You should have been here the other day when..." or "We missed you so much...". No upbraiding for not having called for weeks. No warmth.
I was thought of. Once. In passing. As you might remember someone you once sold a car to. If she does think about me more often, she’s damned if she’s going to let on. After all, she wouldn’t want to spoil me. Oh no. You see, I have a classic British mother.
Wow, you thought of me? Really? Well that’s the most extraordinary coincidence, because I’m your son, you rose-pruning bag of frozen peas!

It’s not that I’m a brat, you must understand. Rather, I have lived away from British strangeness for long enough to see why Brits are considered cold. For people from most countries, their parents are the undisputed rocks of their lives, and children the apple of their parents’ eye. But my mother has always handled me wearing the emotional equivalent of safety goggles and rubber gloves. When I once, unwisely, expressed mild misgivings about my mother to a Spaniard, he was horrified. What I had said was much worse than blasphemy or even vegetarianism. He stared at me open-mouthed and told me not to talk about my mother like that. He seemed ready to turn me in to the police. It wasn’t his mother I was criticising, you understand, but my own. To the Spanish, all mothers are sacred.

I was visiting Tony’s house in Norwich for the first time a few months ago and we were in his garden putting up a fence (British hospitality: come and help me with my domestic chores. If you’re lucky, I may throw a cookie in your general direction). As we wrestled with the fence, an uncertain-looking white-haired lady came into the garden and said something, to which Tony grunted with his back turned. She projected the vague curiosity of someone browsing a market stall. After satisfying herself on some minor issue – or it may have ben a major issue, how can you tell? – she left like a ghost.
"Nosy neighbour?" I assume out loud.
"Mother." Says Tony.
I was aghast. I had failed to guess that this woman was his mother because there were no signals to that effect. Nothing. No mother-son chemistry, so instantly recognisable in most countries of the world.

Offspring in the UK are treated as mere acquaintances. Sons and daughters leave home as soon as they can, and if they return home for a while they are routinely charged rent. Compare this with Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, or North American families, where parents are genuinely delighted to have their kids home for a while, send them air tickets or train fares so they can come, and when they are away send them a care package every week filled with goodies. It doesn’t hurt.

I think UK really stands for UnKind.
When you have lived among Middle Eastern and Spanish people, who will literally give you the last bit of food in their cupboard, no matter how poor they are, the selfishness of Brits is all the more obvious. My fiancée was born and raised to age 16 in Iran. She feeds me all day long, often cramming food into my face before I have had a chance to swallow what came before. At dinner, most of the food on her plate ends up on mine, despite my protests that I am absolutely stuffed. I have even tried covertly returning as much as I can, but she doesn’t miss a trick. If I look away for a second, I turn back to find my plate piled high again. And this is not just horseplay. Every day is the same. She simply has no selfishness. Now I have learned something of the art of giving, I always give her the best-looking strawberry and take a mouldy one for myself. She replies by giving me the last of the good wine. But here is the important bit: neither of us is expecting anything in return. And food is just one example. It’s delightful, it goes on for ever, makes every aspect of life together fluffy and bouncy, and Brits really should try it some time. The instinct to give and give and never stop giving is highly noticeable when I am outside the UK. That does not cast a favourable light on us.

Brits give a tiny bit and consider their work done. The occasional card or a small gift here and there, then they are off the hook for a while. It just doesn’t come from the right place.

My mother spends more time, and certainly more money, on her three cats than on her son. She sends me photographs of them in various poses. She adds anthropomorphic captions to the pictures. Of course; cats are dumb so it’s easy to put cute words in their mouths and treat them as pretend people.
Our family album contains three pictures of me: one when I was brand new, another when I won an archery championship at 15, and another on my graduation day. Of the cats there are endless albums. The house is full of cat paraphernalia. Their litter tray has pride of place in the kitchen. The stink doesn’t bother my parents. Love is blind, after all.
Next time I go there I’ll try crapping on the kitchen floor and check the reaction.
Cats don’t answer back and have few needs. Ideal replacements for children. Maybe if children were soft and furry and never spoke it would be easier for British parents to love them.

Brit readers may have no idea what I’m talking about, because they have never experienced the warmth and boundless love of good, giving parents. I have, by proxy, through my travels, and it makes me laugh and cry at the same time to think of the sad excuse for parenting that is part of, and which perpetuates, the British character.
British cat in displaced David's hammock!
© David Hill Feb 2004

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