Boy is planning his gap year. Every few hours he rings from school to give me a progress report. ‘I’m allowing three days for Denver. Is that long enough?’ ‘We-e-ll, it’s pretty key in On the Road. Maybe five?’ ‘And I’m definitely stopping for a day in Farmington.’ ‘Where?’ ‘It’s where the Horace Walpole library is.’ ‘Oh, of course. Silly me.’
Actually, I don’t much mind where he goes so long as it’s nowhere near where I went for my gap year: Africa. I love Africa. I’ve had some of the most amazing, thrilling, dramatic experiences of my life there: climbing the Great Pyramid before dawn and seeing the graffiti left behind by Napoleon’s soldiers; nearly getting shot by drunken guards at an army base in Jinja; throwing up with altitude sickness on the crater rim of Kilimanjaro.
But the big problem with Africa, from a parent’s perspective, is that it’s so sodding dangerous. It was bad enough when I went there: from chiggers (those insects that lay their eggs in your feet) to amoebic dysentery, from civil war in Sudan and Uganda to psychopathic Boers who ran over our tents in South Africa. Since then, what with al-Shabab in the east, al-Qaeda in the middle and Boko Haram in the west, the whole place has been turned into a virtual no-go zone.
Did my own parents worry this much when I was a teenager? Well, probably, yes they did, but there were fewer mechanisms for parents to interfere. For example, when you went to university, your parents dropped you off at the college gate with your stuff and that was it. There were no touchy-feely induction sessions. There was no parental contact with the university authorities. It wasn’t school, for God’s sake. You were an adult.
Same with gap years. You told your folks which hellhole you were heading for — bosh! — and that was it. At a push, they might do what mine did and arrange for some family friends to accommodate you at key points on your journey. In Nairobi, for example, I was greeted by a lovely couple called Rennie and Christine Barnes, who arranged a dinner party in my honour. Halfway through, I was hit by an explosive bout of tummy trouble which I only just contained long enough to reach their loo, at which point I effectively redecorated the room. I was nursed back to health by their manservant, Pota, who fed me dry toast because it was all I knew how to ask for in Swahili: ‘Pota, tafadhali. Toasti mbili.’
Of course, were I not such a wuss where my kids are concerned, these are exactly the kind of character-forming experiences I would be wishing on them. ‘Why don’t you just let the boy get on with it?’ asked an ex-military friend on Facebook. And he’s right: Boy is now nearly of an age where he could be commanding a platoon in combat, if he were so minded, which thank heaven he isn’t. Surely the time has come to cut the apron-strings, let him get his mistakes in early, acquire some war stories, so he becomes a better man?
This, apparently, is how they do things in Germany. German parents just let their kids get on with it. They don’t even try to interfere with their kids’ career choices. Which is another thing that is worrying me greatly at the moment, even more so than Boy’s gap- year itinerary.
You see, from what I can gather, in the future decent-paying jobs are going to become so incredibly rare that if you don’t get your kids internships in their holidays, then that’s it, you might as well accept that they’re joining the underclass. But how are you going to get your kids these internships if, like Boy, they’re not really sure what they want to do with their lives?
The other day, we bumped into one of Boy’s friends at the station and shared a train journey with him, and I almost wanted to swap children: here was someone’s son who knew exactly where he was headed. First he was going to read something businessy at university, then he was going to make his mint in the City, then he was going to go into politics. What put me off was when he admitted he didn’t have strong ideological beliefs but said this was not a handicap in politics, which was all about accommodating your party’s current position.
For better and for worse I haven’t got one of those sons. I say to him: ‘Look, just tell me what you want and I’ll try and fix it for you. Do you want to be an intern at Goldman Sachs? Do you want to go and work for the Trump administration? Or do you want — urgh — something in journalism?’ ‘I think I’ll have a better idea once I’m at university,’ he says.
No he won’t. I can see it already. He’s going to be just like me, because he is like me. His whole life is going to be spent completely winging it, never doing anything that he senses anyone wants him to do, always forging his own cussed path for the sheer perverse hell of it.
‘How in God’s name are you going to put your sons through Eton with an attitude like that?’ I ask him.
But he doesn’t seem as troubled as he ought to be. And I guess ultimately that’s the problem with having kids. No matter how hard you work to smooth the path of life ahead of them, there’s one overriding problem you’re never going to resolve: the wretched genetic input with which you cursed them before they were born.