Shocking news this week emanating from a health select committee. Amy O’Connor, who leads a campaign that focuses on men’s health (it’s called Movember and encourages men to engage in that revolting ritual of growing a moustache) offered a reason as to why men’s life expectancy had fallen further than that of women since the pandemic.
It’s the fathers, you see, she explained. Dads have a tendency to pass down unhelpful attitudes to their sons, particularly when it comes to seeking help for health problems, or rather not seeking help.
The message being: dads need to wise up and start offering good advice to their boys. Which, in my experience, seems to fly in the face of logic. Is that really what fathers are for, to offer good advice? My brother and I often muse that our late father’s advice was indeed spot on, but only if you did the exact opposite of what he suggested.
Most fathers who love their sons offer advice to their offspring framed by the perception that the children are reproductions of themselves. Thus, with their own experience of life they look at their boys and hope they can become superior versions.
That gaping hole of nothingness that teenage boys exhibit, no clue of what to do or how to get there, is easily answered by the father who knows that a specific profession is in the blood.
So the son can be, like them: a doctor, lawyer, soldier, engineer, horticulturalist or entrepreneur but a better one. They can learn from their father’s mistakes and be even more successful.
Hence parents urging future successful musicians, actors or pub landlords to seek alternative career paths, such as the one they took. It appears a safe and sensible route. But, as I have suggested, as a son, one should listen carefully and respectfully to one’s father’s advice and then completely ignore it.
I should add that my family has considerable form here. My great-grandfather, George Sitwell, was an Edwardian writer, thinker, politician, philosopher, businessman and designer of gardens (only his own) who spent much of his time shut in his study writing and smoking strong Egyptian cigarettes.
He abhorred the idea of friends and preferred to eat alone; the distraction of other people, he felt, prevented, he said, “the gastric juices from following their normal course” and thus prevented him from sleeping properly at night.
As his eldest child Osbert matured, George watched and waited for him to betray, as Osbert put it, “those symptoms of extravagance, weakness and self-indulgence which from my family history he so confidently expected”. An early and essential part of the young boy’s training by his father featured the visit of a man who taught him how to take a large clock to pieces and then put it together again.
He wrote to Osbert in the trenches in 1914 offering his advice on dealing with enemy gunfire: “Directly you hear the first shell, retire to the Undercroft, and remain there quietly until all firing has ceased,” he wrote.
“Bombardment is a strain on the nervous system, but the best remedy for that, as always, is to keep warm and have plenty of plain nourishing food at frequent but regular intervals. And, of course, plenty of rest. I find a nap in the afternoon most helpful…”
In 1919 Osbert, with his brother – my grandfather – Sacheverell, organised an exhibition of modern art in which they showed their discoveries of artists including Matisse, Picasso, Utrillo and Modigliani. After which the opportunity arose to buy over a hundred of Modigliani’s works.
The brothers approached their father to borrow funds to acquire the paintings and sketches. But his advice was it would be “a shocking waste of money, much better spent in other ways. Most selfish!” A single painting of Modigliani’s sold just a few years ago in New York for $157 million.
As for my father, while we avoided his advice, what remained, and remains with us 20 years after his death, is his example.
He was terrible at business and at making money, his favourite clients in financial PR were poorly funded charities or musical outfits. But he believed firmly in the concept of a long lunch.
He had huge numbers of friends who adored him, he had few enemies – if any, he was gentle, sensitive, kind, funny, constantly interested in others and showed endless love and interest towards myself, my brother and my sister. I can do the lunch bit and if I can ape some of his other characteristics I think I might be on to something.
And as to my own advice to my three sons (aged 19, five and three): “Just listen to your mother.”