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Matthew Parris

Once fathers taught their sons the mysteries of life; now fathers have to look to their sons for hel

Once fathers taught their sons the mysteries of life; now fathers have to look to their sons for help

9 November 2002

12:00 AM

9 November 2002

12:00 AM

This is a reflection on boys and fathers. It may be different for girls. See what you think. Is ours the first generation, or the first for a long time, when boys know more than their fathers?

I am not speaking of wisdom, whatever that may be. The older generation will always believe it possesses greater wisdom than the young. Knowledge that comes from emotional experience, perspective that comes from having seen it all before, can only be taught by time. Despite the bravado of youth, children dimly sense that, and will in every age. But do not exaggerate the automaticity of a boy’s assumption that in the big, abstract questions of life his dad knows best. To some degree that deference is learnt from the boy’s direct and daily experience that in smaller and more concrete matters Dad turns out to know best, too.

If you had asked me as a boy what really impressed me about my father and why I looked up to him as I did, I would have replied that it was because Dad knew how things worked. He knew about the solar system (Mum didn’t, really), and in the precious quarter-hours he would often spend talking with me before my bedroom light was turned out, he would explain. I would ask about the planets and the stars, and gravity, and what the wind was and why it blew. I would ask about plants and animals, and geography and volcanoes. I would ask about motor-cars, electricity, steam and the internal-combustion engine.

Dad told me how a wireless worked, and helped me build one. When I was 16 he bought me an ancient Morris Oxford which, together, we rebuilt, dismantling and overhauling the engine. When our own car broke down, Dad could fix it: he knew how a carburettor worked, how a distributor was put together, how you changed the bulb in a headlight.

When Mum’s iron broke, he fixed it. When her typewriter played up, he sorted it out, showing me the levers. We even fixed a faulty telephone, which in those days was a mostly mechanical device. The technology of the era (the 1950s and early 1960s) was overwhelmingly mechanical (only electronics really stymied Dad), and most of the technology upon which family life depended, and which so fascinates a boy, consisted in refinements of technology which had been around for 30 years or more, and which Dad had mastered when young. His knowledge was still applicable; the material truths into which he had been initiated as a child still current. He knew these things; I did not. He taught me; I respected him.


The up-to-dateness of my father’s grip on the world about which I was learning was not restricted to machines. Politics had not changed much since 1945. The British political parties and their outlooks and prospectuses were clear and known to him. Abroad (where we mostly lived) there was Empire – he had fought for it – and Dad knew all about that, too. In classical music it was possible to ignore most of what came after Wagner, and Dad gave me a good grounding. In popular music (though the horror expressed by grown-ups at teenage tastes is eternal) my parents did understand rock-and-roll and quite enjoyed some of it. Dad explained to me the simple progression of chords upon which all rock-and-roll is based. It fascinated me to discover then hear for myself the link.

Though every father will recall from his own childhood a different set of Hows or Whys to which his father had the Here’s hows or the Becauses, I fancy that many will share my general recollection of a father who seemed to know how the world worked; and may share with me, too, the suspicion that because Father seemed abreast of life in most practical matters, he gained moral authority as well.

Is this not diminished now? Isn’t the list of things about which boys know more than their dads growing? Doesn’t a son sense that this modern world is his world, a world of things, and relations between things, which he and his mates understand better than their dads? Their dads are prisoners of a past world, blinking and slightly baffled at what they have survived into.

Few dads could fix a car these days. Carburettor and distributor are electronic. Gearboxes are way beyond amateur repair. Windows are electrically driven, doors locked by a radio signal. The workings of an automobile are packed with dense intricacy into inaccessible spaces. Special tools are needed to work on them. The car has become a black box.

Likewise our means of travelling without moving. Information technology is a black box, too. We have passed the point when most dads could understand, let alone fix, radios, telephones or mobile phones. The personal computers, laptops, copying machines and printers that have replaced pen and ink, carbon paper, slide-rule, typewriter or Gestetner machine are black boxes even to their suppliers. We replace rather than repair. The days when you could buy a manual and work things out from first principles are gone. Not only does Dad no longer know how things work; he is struggling even to work them.

His son has overtaken him. In his element with computers and screens, texting at speed on his mobile phone, intuiting with ease how to stop the automatic oven display panel flashing after a power cut, and quickly au fait with the special functions of the new sound system – how it can find stations automatically, remember channels for the future, and even work as a clock-radio alarm – he is able to use his mobile phone like an adding machine. The boy has over his father this huge, subliminal advantage: he is not hampered by anxiety about how the thing works. He only wants to work it.

Does his father have much to teach him about 21st-century politics? The boy may understand it better. ‘Mrs Thatcher is history, Dad; communism’s finished; the class war is over; shall I explain to you about the hole in the ozone layer?’ Has Father the least understanding of modern music? How can he, if he doesn’t club and hasn’t tried E? This is not a why-oh-why? lament: how can he?

I do not envy the modern father in his quest for authority. Life as it was lent his Dad the knowledge of mysteries into which he could inculcate his son. Now life hands the key to those mysteries to our children. The boy really has become father to the man.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.


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