When my wife was pregnant with our first child, back in – can’t have been that long ago, impossible, seems like yesterday, let me think, using both hands – back in l964, I got a call from the Royal Free Hospital to ask if I would like to come along to something brand new they were just starting: fathers’ classes.
My first reaction was not great. I can learn about this wonderful act of nature and help my dear wife but, hurrah, that must be 1,000 words. Which it was. I did a piece for The Sunday Times’ women’s pages about fathers’ classes. Don’t remember how much I got for it, but I was well pleased.
Don’t remember much about the birth either. It took forever and I got awfully hungry, so I decided to pop out and have a pie. When I got back, my wife had given birth – to Caitlin, and I had missed it all. I’ve never been forgiven.
Our second child, a boy, was born in 1966, and he never slept for five years. That’s how it seemed at the time. Almost every night he appeared to have decided to fight the world, determined under no circumstances to give in and close his wretched eyes.
I eventually did an article, about all the ruses we had tried, and failed with, which was called Jake the Wake. It got 500 letters in response. Letters? Came in rectangular bits of folded paper called envelopes. Now you remember them.
After a gap of some eight years, we had a third child, Flora – our little flower, who, of course, quickly grew up, so by the time she was eight she was desperate to be 16. Or at least a teenager, like her big brother and sister and do all the awful teenage things they were enjoying. And she wanted to be 16 NOW, not have to wait another eight boring years.
I did a sequence of books about her – long out of print, so I might as well mention them – about a girl called Flossie Teacake who, by a piece of magic, can go from eight to 16. At one time, they were bestsellers in Japan.
Meanwhile, I had started a series of articles in Punch – now also gone – about my three children. It was suggested to me by the then editor, Alan Coren, who had observed that on the women’s pages it was always mothers grinding on about their family and their funny little ways.
Why didn’t a father have his say? It was called Father’s Day and somehow it ran for 10 years and even became a TV series.
But I made one awful mistake. In this series of article I always used the family’s real names, for I hated and still do columnists who use silly made-up names like Treasure, He Who Must Be Obeyed, Yummy Mummy, Alpha Dad or The Old Trout. Hold on, it was me who referred to my wife as The Old Trout, so delete that example.
Made-up names always sound so, well, made-up, so you can’t believe anything they write. I wanted my little domestic saga to be genuine, to be the truth, as much as you ever can, or ever want to tell the truth.
There was a time when Jake got really furious when masters at his school made snide remarks in the corridor about something I had written, which of course he had not read. Why would he be interested in such rubbish? So for a while I had to change his name to James, till he forgot about it.
The problem with using real names, and real ages, is that they grow up. You can’t keep them at the same age and place and stage for ever the way Richmal Crompton could with Just William. So in the end, I ran out of copy. At least copy about my dear family and what it was like being their dear father.
Which brings me to now. It has taken me a long time to admit to myself that I am old, which of course I half do not really believe, I am just saying it for effect, for you to say: “Really? I don’t believe it”.
But from this year I will be forced to go along with the prevailing perception that someone of 75 must surely, undoubtedly, be – OLD.
Actually, that’s a fib. I was 76 on January 7. See, still lying to myself. When I woke up that morning, I thought: “Hmm, that is old, I’ll have to admit it from now on.” But then I didn’t immediately go on to think: “Oh no, whatever will become of me? This new knee really has not worked. It’s downhill from now on with far worse to come – which old folks’ home should I put my name down for, or should I just book myself into that place in Switzerland?”
Nope, I thought none of those boring, depressing, thoughts. What I honestly, genuinely did think to myself on admitting I was old was: “THINK OF ALL THE COPY!”
There are now more people over 60 than under 16 – I just made that figure up, but it looks right – which means there are 10m people roughly like me, another fabricated figure but who’s counting?
The point is that there are far more of us oldies than ever before. We are all living longer, and we will continue to live longer.
And we have all the money. Oh yes. Young people, har har, don’t have nuffink, not got two houses to rub together, hardly ever take swish Caribbean holidays or run a Jaguar or manage two luxury cruises a year or spend small fortunes on their potty football collections like some people I know.
They don’t even have jobs, so many of our young people, far less any savings. Serves ‘em right, I have to stop myself saying, for being young and attractive with unwrinkled skin and no liver spots.
We are so lucky, we modern oldies, luckier than any other oldies who ever lived, with so much to look forward to. I got 10 years out of Father’s Day. If I can’t get 10 years out of writing about being a granddad, I’ll be spitting.