So long, then, 2006. And good bloody riddance. It’s possible that I have had more miserable years, but I doubt it. The worrying thing is that there is a suspicion of “it all starts going a bit pear-shaped from here on in” about it, which is related to being middle-aged (there, I’ve said it). Death, dementia, disease, delinquency, redundancy and incontinence are the things to look forward to now, with this doom-laden diet only being leavened by good company, material wealth and the prospect of one of my children becoming a TV star, albeit on Crimewatch.
Lest I begin to sound like Kevin Warne, let me say that it is not all bad. I remain married to the fantastic Mrs. Fiendish, I still have a boring but tolerable job and I appear to be in reasonable health, cholesterol level notwithstanding. Most of my travails stem from a pincer movement on my stress levels by my father and my children.
Father and son
The year started with the realisation that my Dad’s mental health had deteriorated to the point where our default explanation “he’s in the early stages of dementia” was beginning to sound like an exercise in denial rather than a valid assessment of his mental faculties. Sure, he could find his way round to our house and back home again (virtually every day!) by bus, but he was beginning to do weird things and his repertoire of conversational subjects had diminished to single figures.
My brother and sister live out in the sticks so, as the nearest child, the burden of care fell largely on me. Without the stentorian assistance of Mrs. Fiendish I would have completely stressed out over the situation but somehow we managed to get power of attorney, oversee the sale of his house and put him in a care home up the road from us in Enfield. He’d still be there now, only he was being sexually harassed by a fellow inmate who was in her seventies. It sounds laughable, but it was clear that my Dad was not enjoying the situation and was increasingly spending more time in his room to avoid this woman. Given that my Dad was paying a premium for the “social activities” on offer in this care home there did not seem much point in continuing to pay a fortune to the care home when he was not taking full advantage of the facilities, so we moved him out of the care home with a view to putting him in care in a home near where my sister lives.
Least, that was what I thought the plan was. My sister, who works as a carer in retirement homes, had the notion that she would see if she and her husband could look after Dad in their house out in the sticks, even though Dad – in his more lucid moments – had expressed a strong preference for continuing to live in a town environment. Anyway, three or four months of looking after my Dad have worn her to a frazzle and it’s now got to the point where I am more worried about her than I am my Dad. Without wishing to sound callous, my Dad is now pretty much a lost cause. Not only has the short term memory and the bladder control gone, but he is getting the violent mood swings too; the other day he punched a 90 year-old woman on the chin at a Day Centre after she poured water on his head. This time next year I am expecting him to barely know who I am. So, the top priority for January 2007 is to get him in a care home, though now he is showing signs of violent behaviour, that won’t be cheap.
The kids are all right (not)
I think it is fair to say that whilst Mrs. Fiendish and I were focussed on sorting out my Dad, we took our eye off the ball a bit with regards to our parenting responsibilities. Number one son needed a lot of support and encouragement (i.e. a kick up the arse) to get through the last year of his GCSE’s, and we weren’t always around to give it to him. When he started talking about leaving school at 16 and joining the army as they would pay him wages while he studied for his “A” levels, we mounted a rescue campaign, with the result that he passed all 8 of his GCSE subjects. Imbued with a bit more belief in his academic abilities, he has since decided to forego spending time in Afghanistan and is taking “A” level Business Studies instead.
I have a very middle class attitude towards the army which basically goes along the lines that it is all right for thickies, and it can be good for bright kids who never got a fair shake at a decent school, but it is no place for bright kids from middle class backgrounds. Plus I don’t like the idea of my son’s job description including the words “killing people”. Evidently there are some smart cookies in the army, however, for the lure of “being paid to study” is hard for many 16 year old boys to resist, especially in this age of student loans. Number one son has always been one for instant gratification: give him the choice of total lifetime earnings of £500,000, starting with £200 a week now, and total lifetime earnings of £2,000,000, starting with £400 a week in two years time, and he’d forego the extra £1.5m to get his hands on the £200 a week now.
School's Out - forever?
When all is said and done, though number one son may be a high maintenance, lazy, whingeing git – like his father, but with better dress sense – he remains essentially an obedient and conformist son, as is often the case with the eldest child, apparently. I don’t think anyone would call number 2 son conformist. Most of the time he is as sweet as pie, but when he comes across a pointless rule, mindlessly enforced in an authoritarian manner, he rebels, forcefully. To give a trivial example. At school, depending on whether you are doing gym or field activities, you either wear white shorts (for gym) or black (for outside). Were number one son to turn up with the wrong colour shorts, he’d shrug off the bollocking from the PE master and keep his head down. Number two son would argue “what difference does it make what bloody colour the shorts are?”. Woe betide any teacher who thinks “because I say so” or “those are the rules” is going to satisfy number two son as an acceptable answer; that just puts his back up even more.
In retrospect, sending him to an all-boys traditional (400 year old) state school might not have been the smartest move we made. I say “we”, but it was largely my choice. With its emphasis on music and sport, plus its excellent “league table” position, it looked a good choice for our sporty, musical, eldest son, but when it came to choosing a school for his two younger brothers we took the easy route of sending them to the same school as their elder brother. That goes down as one of the dumbest decisions I have made in the last 20 years.
If we had not been so preoccupied with looking after my Dad then we might have pulled him out of the school before things came to a head back in May, but we botched it totally, things went into a rapid downward spiral and so number two son was permanently excluded. Now, the law states that if I don’t provide schooling for my child, I can be prosecuted, but it seems it is perfectly OK for the education authorities to take their sweet time about finding a new school for number 2 son. It’s now been 8 months, and they have still not found him a school place, so we did what any middle-class family would do in this situation: we upped sticks and moved. Ordinarily when one moves outside of London, one can expect to get a similar sized house for less money; not so when one moves from Enfield to Hertford. We’d just got the mortgage paid off and were looking forward to a bit more flexibility in terms of the option to “downshift” when the requirement to move somewhere a bit less urban meant we are now saddled with a mortgage of £150,000. Surely it would have been cheaper to send number 2 son to public school?
He Fought The Law (and the Law Won)
Except it wasn’t just for the schooling that we moved. In 2006, number 2 son made two appearances in the magistrates’ court for criminal damage. Our friends have been very sympathetic and suggested he must have got in with bad company and that it is all down to peer pressure, but it is entirely probable that number two son is the bad company other parents warn their kids about. Still, it won’t do any harm moving him to a new town and making a fresh start. For one thing, Hertford does not appear to have scores of community policemen patrolling the streets each night, so if he continues in his stupid criminal activities, at least he will be less likely to get caught.
Paint It Black
The woman at the Youth Offenders Panel seems to think this might all be a cry for attention, and maybe she is right, but number 2 son doesn’t seem to think so. Then again, he hates all that psychological stuff anyway, which is a bit of a blow because his mother is a qualified psychologist. Mrs. Fiendish seems to think every problem must have a solution, and in number 2 son’s case she thinks there must be some magical approach we can take to cure him of his criminal tendencies. I broke a few laws in my youth, and I take the view that maybe he is just getting his kicks through being a bad boy, and there’s not much his parents can do about it, save the usual stuff about setting parameters and moral guidelines.
On the other hand, maybe the Youth Offenders woman has a point. In the new home we are experimenting with having a family meal every evening, where we sit round the table and bicker, just like families do on TV shows and in films. I don’t know if it is having an effect on the kids, but I am certainly enjoying it. We've also bought numnber 2 son some paints and canvases and introduced him to the novel concept of painting on something that isn't made of brick or concrete, and he's already done one (very good) painting since Christmas. For a child with no real household hobby (other than staying in bed until 3pm) this is a bit of a breakthrough. Maybe he'll grow out of the "graffing" habit and realise that a criminal activity where you leave your signature at the scene of the crime is a daft pursuit.
High School Confidential
And number 3 son? Touch wood, he’s turning out OK, but he’s only just hit puberty, so who knows what will happen when the hormones kick in?
Today he has just started at his new school. So far as we can tell, it is the best school in the area in terms of academic achievement, and I think he will do all right there, as he is generally a compliant type who likes to fit in. I am not sure if this is the right school for the free-thinking number 2 son, however, and from the induction interview we had for number 3 son it is pretty clear the school don’t think number 2 son wil fit either – though what they were doing discussing number 2 son when we were supposed to be there to discuss number 3, I don’t know. Their whole attitude was a bit arrogant, to be honest. Their first question to number 3 son was “why do you want to join our school?”
The honest answer was “because this is the school I have been allocated by the local education authority” but clearly he was expected to say what a wonderful institution it is, and how he was looking forward to learning to play the nose flute or find a cure for herpes.
What really got my back up was when they asked him what he did of an evening or week-end. Not unreasonably he replied that he goes to the park most evenings to play football, and at the week-ends he likes to go to the cinema. The teacher in charge of integration said, “Well, you won’t be doing any of that when you come to our school.”
Who the fuck is he to tell my kid how to spend his leisure time out of school? If the intention was to highlight the vast array of after-school activities on offer at the school or to emphasise the importance of homework, then he made a pretty cack-handed job of it.
Mrs. Fiendish said that had I been a cat, the fur on my back would have been standing on end at this point. However, I bit my lip. No point getting off on the wrong foot, and it does look like an excellent school. Going to the right school, or living in the right area can make such a difference. My junior school years were mainly spent in Ilford, a very “townie” environment. I suppose I was a bit of a tearaway with no real interest in school, but it seemed pretty normal to me - Nasser Hussein went to my junior school and looked what a violent thug he turned out to be! When I moved to Hornchurch – now a chav haven but in those days a town with pretensions of being a village – I got in with a smarter crowd; passing the 11+ probably helped. I retained a few rough edges – still have many of them, I expect, though I have managed to give up the shoplifting, the smoking and the spitting – but a good school knocked me in to decent shape. Or so I think; I’m seeing four of my old class-mates tonight, perhaps I’ll ask them if my presence in the group damanged their reputation! Anyway, the new school and new area, plus a few lifestyle changes on the part of Mrs. Fiendish and myself, are our great hope for 2007. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Meanwhile, let me wish you a belated happy new year.