What do I want for my children? Most parents, when asked that question, would say “for them to be happy”. It’s an understandable response, but I can’t help feeling it’s a wee bit spurious. The world is home to many people who are made happy by inflicting misery on others. One man’s mirth is another’s woe. Better, perhaps, to encourage our offspring to do the right thing, and see joy as a wonderful by-product, rather than the sole objective of a life well lived.
I’ve been moseying through this moral maze in the days after my eldest daughter’s A-level results. Edith got the grades she needed to study geology. There will be a hefty student loan. But because she’s chosen a vocational degree that often leads to a well-paid job, she might be in a position to get a foothold on the housing ladder and start a family before indebtedness stops her biological clock. Sadly, some of her friends may be denied that choice.
My wife and I, both graduates, no longer incline to the view that fulfilment and higher education are synonymous. We all know graduates whose minds do not appear to have been stretched by a bracing dose of higher education. Many end up in call centres or shops. A consensus seems to be building that, as a society, we are sending too many young people to university. They have a hoot for three years, but the hangover lasts a lifetime.
As I believe that having children is the single most educative action available to an individual, I hope mine recognise that, when it comes to university, there is a difference between short-term happiness and long-term fulfilment. My five daughters are part of a cohort whose reproductive window is unprecedentedly narrow. By the time they have got a job that pays down student debt and allows them to save for a mortgage, their fertility may be in free fall.
Of course, this is not to view parenthood as the be-all and end-all. Nor is it to place expectations on my girls that I would not place on my boy. It’s just that he can reasonably expect to have children into his 50s. His sisters can’t.
My son, John-Jo, and I recently visited Prague to meet his godfather, an Ampleforth old boy who has lived in the Czech Republic for more than two decades. My favourite part of the trip was a boozy lunch at a Serbian restaurant. The Serbs have a reputation for old-school muscular masculinity. A visit to the loo confirmed this. After a moment of indecision I realised that men used the door illustrated with a picture of a cockerel.
And the women? A picture of a sheep, natch. John-Jo’s godfather, Euan, has left a lasting mark on Prague. A decade or so ago he launched a campaign to create a monument to the Czech pilots who flew and died for the RAF during World War II. Today the Winged Lion memorial stands proudly, bedecked with flowers, in a prominent position overlooking the River Vltava.
Euan, who has taken me and a group of friends on a couple of First World War battlefield tours, now has a new project in mind. He wants to erect a statue on the Somme to the Great War cameraman Geoffrey Malins. The latter’s film, The Battle of the Somme, changed public perceptions of trench warfare. When it was released in 1916 it was watched by almost half of the population, making it the most watched film in British history at the time.
Our cockerel survives, just. We took him in when a neighbouring family moved to Qatar. There were plenty of takers for their egg-yielding chickens. Not so Rupert and his early-morning reveille. I spent a big chunk of my summer holiday assembling a coop and a run with 6ft-high chicken wire. It stopped the foxes, but not our springer spaniel, who literally quivers with instinctive bloodlust when Rupert hoves into view. He eventually penetrated my defences and left Rupert alive, but minus all his tail feathers. The cockerel has now taken to sleeping in our living room, where he is guarded by our two cats, who don’t mind him, but who terrify the springer.
Follow Colin Brazier on Twitter: @ColinBrazierSky
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