What Philip Larkin says…

25 Jun

There’s a line in Philip Larkin’s poetry that always sticks in my mind. Actually, its the only line I know in Philip Larkin – unlike many of my peers, I didn’t study him at school, though unlike most of them I did his job, for we were both librarians at Queen’s University Belfast for a spell. And it is the opening line from ‘This Be the Verse’, written in 1971:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.”

And I have to say, I agree wholeheartedly. I do wonder if every child on the planet is adversely affected by their parents in some way? And for those of us who have no parents, or lost them early, the very absence of parents is enough to mess with our heads completely.

This psychological minefield has been much on my mind of late, and over the last couple of years as I’ve gone through some very difficult times personally. There’s much soul-searching, and sometimes the therapy only goes skin deep – I need to reach my core in order to unravel the facets of my personality and the flaws which taint it.

I cannot blame my parents for my personal messes, but without a doubt, elements of my upbringing, comments and actions made or witnessed, have had a profound effect, and many things can be traced to a tension between my own desires and thoughts, and those that were instilled in me by others including parents and other parental figures.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone out there, for we are all shaped by our upbringing to some extent. That battle to claim our own identity is paramount in the human condition. No longer do we assume we will simply follow the trades and paths that our fathers trod, and for many of us nothing could be more abhorrent.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been very engrossed in genealogy – as an historian it is something which I do anyway as part of my research, and for others. But I have also been exploring the melting pot that is my own family history – a huge and complicated undertaking (damn Northern Ireland for loosing so many of the damn records). More than ever family traits and events are important. I hold not just a family surname, but also a first name. I’m the third Robert in succession, and there were more of us before me. What’s in a name? Does it dictate anything? Are we shaped by expectations simply because of our name? If I carried the surname of some of my other relatives rather than ‘Simpson’ would my work be viewed differently?

I don’t envy any parent the difficulty of bringing up a child – not knowing how they’ll turn out, irrespective of the manner in which you bring them up and educate them. No doubt there are all sorts of statistics which reinforce particular developmental observations, but there are also plenty of people who buck the trends, siblings with identical upbringings who turn out differently. Even if the parents do everything they can, they cannot control the influence of others – other family members, school friends, failed relationships etc.

I’ve said it before, I can barely look after myself, so the responsibility of my own child is something that frightens me to death. Not having one exactly, I’m sure I would love any child I co-created, but the fear of messing up its life whether I intended to or not. My brief period as a step-parent leaves me wracked with guilt, having messed up not just a life that I created, but one I merely co-curated. Has my failed relationship caused damage to that child? Time alone will tell, and no doubt I’ll get the flack in decades to come, though all of us are the product of co-curatorships. We all have parents, guardians and other influencers, and pinpointing damage can never be easy. For the most part.

I see things about myself that I like and much I don’t. Particular incidents and moments have found themselves as turning points for good and bad. There are elements of my ancestors which I admire and aspire towards, and others which I want to eradicate, and if I can’t do that, I do find myself thinking it might be better if I just stayed hidden away without interaction with anyone. And the guilt I feel isn’t just mine, it is a guilt that I have been told I MUST feel, and one which I have taken on because of the actions of others.

While I have no intention of turning this blog into a dark insight into my inner psyche, these things are part of me, and as I come to terms with myself and my future (which is looking rather positive), giving these traits names and voices is part of the advancement. There is, I’m afraid to say, more in this vein to come…


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