“They f*** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.” Philip Larkin: “High Windows”
Having teenage children can be a painful experience. They are breaking away from the family, discovering new interests, using technology that you don’t understand. In the evening they don’t want to spend time as a family, preferring to spend hours in their room streaming the latest social media “influencer” (whatever that is). When they are with you, they hide behind their phones. When they go out of the house, they no longer have to be with you – indeed they would die of shame to be seen in public with someone who wears the clothes you do or looks like you.
I realised recently that the disappointment I feel when I can’t persuade my daughter to come downstairs is exactly how my father must have felt when I rejected his offers of companionship at the same age. I must have been a fairly typical snarling, morose adolescent.
Like many teenagers, I felt cursed by the parents I had, not just because of the usual exhortations to do homework, tidy my room or answer questions with more than a monosyllabic grunt. I had the additional burden of a strange surname that no one can spell, and few can pronounce correctly. For years I replied “Jones” when asked my name at left luggage booths in railway stations – it’s so much easier than laboriously spelling out M-A-U-G-H-F-L-I-N-G, emphasising the ‘f’ and getting the comment back that this is an unusual surname (as if I don’t know or haven’t been told that a thousand times before).
In Herefordshire where I grew up, I was instantly placed as “Mr and Mrs Maughfling’s son” – I remember going into a pub when I was sixteen, being spotted by a group of 18-year-olds who slowly chanted “Maughfling” until I left, red-faced and uncomfortable.
My mother taught English at the local 6th Form College, having previously been head of English at Hereford High School for Girls. Generations of pupils passed through her classrooms. She was outspoken on social issues and a fanatical letter writer to the Hereford Times (she’d taught the daughter of the editor) on nuclear disarmament, care for unmarried mothers, the noise of cathedral bells. I wanted to disappear into a hole every Friday in case there was another entry on the letters page carrying her name.
And yet now, many years later, I realise the advantages of that silly surname and, as a result, what wonderful parents I had and how lucky I was. Having moved back to the part of the world in which I grew up after many years away, when people hear my surname they tell me of their experience with my parents from the past, and I appreciate more the value they brought.
At Tesco Click and Collect last summer, when I gave my name, the middle-aged woman standing by the next car told me she had worked for my father as a 16-year-old and how he had given her the first step in a successful career. Outside a yoga class in Cheltenham, the aunt of one of the other attendees heard my name and explained how my mother had encouraged her to read English at university.
The internet has increased these contacts with the past. Someone tracked me down on Twitter and wrote about inspiring English lessons and encouragement that were an early stage in her becoming a successful author. Another woman wrote to the Editor of West England Bylines with memories of my mother telling her class about my latest antics as a 5-year-old. She described the parental pride from 50 years previously of which I was completely unaware.
This connection reached its peak overnight when I received an email from Canada from someone taught by my mother when she was pregnant with me 59 years ago (my mother was not one to give up a career and become a housewife at a time when a woman’s place was definitely within the home).
So, this person met me before I was born – not so strange, given we see pregnant women the whole time. What is less usual was her detailed recollection of my mother in the classroom and her keenness to open the eyes of her pupils to the possibilities of a wider world, to think bigger and as an example that life could be different. She described my mother as an ‘influencer’, long before the phrase ‘social media’ had even been coined.
That is what the best of our teachers are: they influence the next generation, they encourage, they inspire, and they keep doing so despite the ideologically driven mismanagement of politicians. And that is why a woman with a funny surname is still remembered 25 years after her death when most around her are long forgotten.
Unlike Philip Larkin, my parents didn’t f*** me up and I still miss them, deeply.