How Richard showed us what being a parent means
Just occasionally, in the litany of bad news about the economy, and bad news about the government, and bad news about the environment, and bad news about the general collapse of everything all the time, you hear something that makes you want to cheer.
For me that moment came yesterday morning when I was brushing my teeth. I was listening to an interview with a man called Richard Cass, whose son, Jamie Neale, had just been found after 12 days lost in the Australian bush.
“When I've seen the mistake after mistake he's made,” he said, “I can't say I'd kill him, because that would spoil the point of him coming back, but yeah, I'm going to kick his ass, because I appreciate the millions that have been spent on the search, the man (and woman) hours, that have gone into it, the people that have been injured, the people that have been exhausted, all because he goes out on a walk without his mobile phone. “His plans,” he added, “were to go to South East Asia, but he can forget that now. I think he's put his mother through enough.”
Quite how Jamie, who's recovering in hospital from dehydration and exhaustion, will respond to his father's (extremely public) assessment of his behaviour, is anyone's guess. Or, indeed, the tax payers of New South Wales, or whoever it was who coughed up the “millions” for the casual stroll that turned into an awfully big adventure. But for Cass, it was clear. His son, who he clearly adored — and, touchingly, according to news reports, kept “cuddling” — was a “stupid kid” who had “screwed up”.
It was refreshing precisely because it was so rare. While the world sniggers at councils who cut down horse chestnut trees in case a falling conker should blind or maim a passing child, and which won't allow a peanut on school premises in case it proves as lethal as a knife, many parents still cling to the belief that if anything happens to their child, it's somebody else's fault.
Middle-class parents, who ferry their offspring from oboe lesson to Mandarin conversation to junior Tai Chi, somehow believe that the web of neurotic over-protection that they weave around little Ella or Sam should extend — miraculously, seamlessly — to every object, or person, they meet.
Working-class parents (or, to be more accurate, the non-working ones) sometimes seem to think that everything is everyone else's responsibility, that structure, and discipline, and motivation, and manners, are something that the state should provide, along with money for food and rent and guarantees for their child's eternal safety.
While they're the ones most likely to see the terrible consequences of, for example, gang violence, they're also the ones most likely to demand that “they” do something about it. Like good parenting, perhaps? Like offering children models of gainful employment and stable family life?
Rich or poor, neurotic or “chilled” to the point of neglect, we're all swift to allocate blame. But accidents, as a judge told the Court of Appeal this week, “do happen”. He was revoking an earlier ruling that awarded £25,000 compensation to the parents of a toddler who drowned in a pond on a caravan site. The parents had sued the owner of the site for breaching its “duty of care”.
“I just hope,” said the father, after the first verdict was overturned, “people will realise that you cannot relax on holiday with children”.
Well, no, tragically, you can't relax, on holiday or anywhere else, if relaxing means knowing that your children will always be fine. When did we start thinking that they would? Was it when child mortality rates in this country (but not in great swathes of the world) dropped so that the death of a child switched from being an agonising, common event to being an agonising, rare one?
Was it when the welfare state — that defining feature of a civilised society, but one with some unexpected consequences — sprung into being? Was it when parents started seeing children as a “project” to enhance their status, mini-mes that could be coaxed, stroked and bribed into success?
Who knows? The truth, of course, is that children are subject to the same slings and arrows of fortune as everything else and that love is not an insurance policy against contingency. Nothing, in fact, is an insurance policy against contingency.
We live in a culture which offers us more control over our own lives than most, but not all ponds can be covered, and not all gap years can be incident-free. And not all teenagers, as Richard Cass wonderfully pointed out, can be made to carry their mobile phones.