Jobs for the Boys

farm boy

From ‘The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes’, collected by Iona and Peter Opie, Puffin, 1963

Today is the eighth birthday of my eldest child. This time eight years ago, I was giddy with tiredness and wonder, nestling in bed with a round-faced little sun of a boy. The first night I noticed how his chin would shudder forward like a tortoise’s, with that newborn quality of skin that is lost so soon – softer than air, and slightly bath-wrinkled.

I still see the same boy when he is asleep, though now a thousand preoccupations flit through my head at various times that obscure the view: mostly it’s when he’s lounging about the house after school reading comics, pestering me to play videogames, or – my biggest bugbear – to watch YouTubers play Minecraft. Really. Blue-haired twenty-year-olds who probably still live with their mums but who are gods to squillions of kids who aren’t even bothering to playing the game themselves. Agh.

I am realising that I place so many expectations on my firstborn, which were perhaps placed on me as a firstborn, or which I place on myself. There are vague notions of integrity and resilience, thinking-outside-the-box – which is in tension with the need for respecting authority (i.e. MINE) – and all sorts of health issues, from not eating tons of gacky sweets and Cheeto-type polystrene-covered-in-cheese-powder to going to bed early, changing socks regularly, getting fresh air (do children even notice when air isn’t fresh?), not staring at screens for long periods, and doing ‘improving’ things such as learning to play musical instruments or doing sports. No wonder all he feels like doing is flopping out and reading comics.

(I have to say I read them too when I was young – I was the one who introduced him to them. They are very funny, if you like surreal slapstick Spanish violence.)

But I wonder how children, boys in particular, are meant to get a ‘healthy’ picture of work, when there is no-one around – particularly men, their prototypes – to show them how it’s done, until they’re already adolescents and way too interested in squeezing their spots to be learning how to use a radial saw.

Basically, work is either too dangerous, or too child-unfriendly to be able to involve kids in, which is all to the detriment of children’s future working lives. By contrast, both of my parents worked from home: my dad had an office in the attic where he did graphic design, and my mum ran a shop on the ground floor (part of our house) from which she also sold books mail order.

This gave me a strong image of self-employment, which seemed as attractive then as it does now. My dad would take breaks from tiresome computer work to go into the garden and dig up potatoes, while my mum would play Motown, soul and country on a tape recorder and sing along loudly whenever she could get away with it. It seemed like the perfect way to balance different interests without having to be overburdened by any of them for too long – just right for a person with a lot of interests. Who needs a steady income, right?

Now, though, my eldest son sees me working on a computer or iPad – emails, translations, etc. – and the only work he sees my husband (his stepdad) doing at home is emails too. (My husband manages a mobile restaurant which he takes to trance festivals…not really the ideal environment for an 8-year-old to do work experience in.)

His father, on the other hand, is a carpenter, which might offer plenty of wonderful imaginary opportunities to whittle things together, but in practice usually involves heavy machinery that could slice your arm off if you’re not careful, as well as late nights keeping to deadlines and dusty, noisy site work. It’s all a bit stymying for a kid who wants to get stuck in and learn first hand, quite the opposite of the bad old days where boys of six would be expected to look after herds of sheep (“Little Boy Blue, go blow your horn, the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn…”)

The general idea nowadays seems to be that kids should avoid all thought of adulthood until they near the end of school, by which time the classes themselves will have shaped their interests and nurtured their skills enough to give them a bash at choosing a career. But I don’t buy this one bit. I knew I wanted to be a writer, to live abroad and learn different languages, from my son’s age, and I never really wavered in that decision. Careers advice at GCSE told me I should be a prison warden.

Having time to daydream, play music, study, travel, make things, meet people…that always figured heavily in my career plan. Since leaving university I haven’t written a single CV. I can’t say I’m earning bags of money, of course…or that I even have that much time on my hands, with three kids on them too…but, you know, it’s the principle of the thing.

So how do we show children the realities of the adult world without stultifying them with computers from a tender age? I don’t really have any answers, but I get the feeling that we need to be less stultified by computer work ourselves, for a start. Maybe combine it with gardening jobs, or painting and decorating, all the manual labour jobs that self-made intellectuals look down on but which actually provide a neat bit of income, as well as mental space to stretch out in.

Then there are all those dreaded afternoon kid’s activities, which parents have to practically have a PA just to organise, especially with several kids who all want to go in different directions at once. Take my advice: have quintuplets, then you can just take them all to tennis and read a book in the stands.

Maybe what we need is activities that adults and kids take part in together (a tricky one to achieve when you have a toddler who rips everything to shreds, but one can dream). Perhaps pottery, or swimming, origami, or forest school outings where everyone can learn something and/or teach something to someone else. It all seems too separate, the pre-teen’s world and the adult’s, and yet there’s this terrifying gulf in the middle called Teenagehood to traverse without a canoe let alone a paddle in sight.

The blame often goes to peers luring kids off in the wrong direction, but peers only take the place of adult role models when those adult role models aren’t there, or when their lives are protected by plate glass. Apprenticeships could help for older kids, but the imprinting starts much younger. The very nature of modern adult work is at fault, and no-one can hope to change it but us.

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Two States

Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.

The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
working glitchlessly
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.

The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.

The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
hidden aquifers
and while my hands are
pairing socks
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
earth-to-be
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
edible gemstones
the ore of that ground called home.

The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.

Living Room In Palestine

I speak with Palestine on Skype
from a dining table in East London
an Arab friend in Israel
translates a tourism brochure while I type
in Arabic so slow my fingers creak
her living room is brightly lit
a three-month old baby squeals
in another room while we discuss the right word
for pergolas and romantic
the agaves that Lorca called petrified octopi
and lanterns in Granada’s Moroccan quarter

Our sadness flits behind outbursts
of geraniums on balconies
hides in vaults of the Alhambra and hammams
flavours olives, avocados and almond cakes
things brought to Spain by Muslims
who were then crammed into a province
as populous as the rest of Spain put together
and finally exiled, massacred or muted

Now an airplane flies over her village
a fragment of Palestine in the middle of Israel
my heart stops for a second that lasts years
but she goes on looking up words
the dictionary pages lisp
and the adhan goes for ‘isha
loudspeaker overpowering our work
for a minute that I wish
would last an eon

We return to Sacromonte and prickly pears
armoured sweetness loaded with seed shrapnel
Palestine as far away as news reports
and distant as home