A few years ago, a family friend described my father as being a bit like Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, by which he meant that he neglected his own family in favour of helping others. By way of proof, he cited the famous occasion when my father abandoned all of us on Christmas Day to spend time with some elderly widows in the local cemetery, pouring cups of tea into the graves of their dear departed husbands.
He had a point. My father wasn’t a deadbeat dad in the conventional sense of the word, but he was a workaholic. The only time I can remember him playing football with me was on my birthday — a huge treat. The rest of the time he was either at work or ensconced in his office at the top of the house. As a result, I became reliant on other people’s dads, like Max Herman, whose son Lucas was in my class. He used to take us ice-skating every Saturday at the Michael Sobell Leisure Centre just off the Holloway Road. I remember thinking at the time that it was odd of Lucas’s dad to want to spend so much time with his son. I now realise that it was my father who was odd.
Before the friend pointed out my dad’s similarity to Mrs Jellyby, I hadn’t made the connection between the neglect and the good works, but it was obviously true. If my father had been a banker, he probably wouldn’t have been able to justify spending so little time with his wife and children. But because he was a social entrepreneur — helping to set up the Open University, for instance — he didn’t feel guilty about it.
Curiously, my father often used to tell stories about his adoptive mother, Dorothy Elmhirst, that made her sound a lot like Mrs Jellyby. She was an American philanthropist — the richest woman in England at one point — who co-founded Dartington Hall, the famous progressive school. When my father became a pupil there at the age of 13, she took him under her wing and for the next five years she effectively became his mother. He remembered her inviting poor children to the baronial mansion she shared with her husband and handing out children’s toys — her own children’s toys, including much-loved teddy bears etc. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit link between the conscious desire to be kind and the unconscious impulse to be cruel.
The reason I’m dwelling on this, of course, is because I’ve started to take on my father’s bad habits, just as he took on his adoptive mother’s. I was a much better family man when I was a cynical journalist with an eye to the main chance than I am now, with virtually all my time taken up with the charitable trust I set up five years ago.
I’m at the West London Free School until 7.30p.m. every evening, and when I get home, I spend on average another two hours doing school-related admin — drafting policies, writing job adverts, catching up with my emails. My six-year-old son Charlie fixes me with his big eyes and asks me when we can play football, and the best answer I can give him is ‘the weekend’. But I know from experience that I have very little spare time at the weekend, too.
So what’s going on here? What’s the psychological pathology? Have I thrown myself into this all-consuming charitable venture in order to furnish myself with an excuse to neglect my family? That seems too perverse an explanation. I think it’s more that, like my father, I don’t experience the guilt a normal dad would, because I regard the time I spend away from home as having a strong moral purpose. There’s also the profound sense of satisfaction you get from helping someone who isn’t a member of your family. Like Dorothy Elmhirst, I find it easier to do things for other people’s children than my own because the spark of human contact you experience — the connection with another soul — isn’t freighted with that complicated family baggage. If I’m honest, I also enjoy the occasional expression of gratitude, something you never get from your own kids.
The truth, though, is that it’s easier to do your duty to mankind than it is to your family. Ultimately, there’s something more heroic about the Max Hermans of this world than there is about the Michael Youngs. One day, I will visit his grave, pour him a cup of tea and thank him for being such a good father to me.
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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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