Father’s Day


I played golf today, 21 June 2015. Father’s Day.

My father died in 2005, two days after Christmas. Father’s Day, never something we went big on anyway, became just another stabbing pain nestling in the calendar, another landmark of our loss. For a while the only way I could strike back against it and release some small squab of my compressed emotion was by replying to each of the automated marketing emails I received asking me whether I was ‘ready for Father’s Day’ or whether I knew ‘what every Dad wanted’ with messages saying ‘My father is dead. Please stop emailing to remind me that my father is dead’. These emails went into the void, as did my rage and my sorrow. The emails kept coming and they still come and I still feel pain at every loathesome one of them and my father is still dead.

In early 2013 I became a father. That year, and the one that followed, I still dreaded Father’s Day, as I would dread forced contact with an open wound. Father’s Day, for all the people who still have fathers, is a miserable crutch, a day of excuses and ‘will-this-do?’s. If you love your father, tell him. Tell your mother too, should you be lucky enough to have one. Tell your friends you love them, if you have beloved friends. Tell your children, if you yourself are a parent. If you have love, share it and express it. Sharing is one of the things love is made for.

This year we went away, a surprise organised by my wife and her friend. Although Father’s Day was only the peg on which to hang a weekend in Cornwall, it did afford the opportunity for myself and a fellow father to be given some time to do something ‘for ourselves’. This, it was decided for us, would be golf.

When my dad used to take me golfing as a child it filled me with weird, directionless excitement and, ultimately, a bit of boredom and a sense of duty. Even if I couldn’t properly express it, I knew that it was important to him that I was there, pursuing this thing with him. He poured some significant part of him into the, arguably pointless, game of golf, and as someone who gave 20 years of his life to chasing a frisbee around the sports fields of the Western world, I can relate to that. He started playing, as I recall, when he was in his late-thirties/early-forties. As far as I remember, he didn’t do so for any ulterior motive, to climb some hitherto ungraspable social ladder, or even to carve out some time to hang out with his friends. Instead, he just did it because he thought it might be absorbing. And, having started, he worked hard at it, again something I can relate to. He worried at it until he became fairly good at it. And when it became something he became fairly good at he wanted to bring his two sons along so they could share in it, so they could see him doing this thing he had come to love.

Now. It seems to me that swinging a golf club and trying to hit a little ball as far or as accurately as possible is a challenging, damnably slippery and intrinsically fun thing to spend time doing. That’s a fact, I would say. Meanwhile, the inherent conservatism of capital ‘G’ Golf, the stale, deflated male-ness of golf culture, the sheer destructive, some would say criminal lunacy of irrigating, falsifying and beautifying chunks of the countryside only to economically prevent most people from enjoying them, is horrible. Those are facts, I would say. Some people say that one of the things that defines human psychology is the ability to hold two dissonant beliefs at the same time. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Either way, golf is pointless and lamentable and I feel an significant sense of calm along with real pleasure when I play it.

Golf is the church where I go once or twice a year to feel a communion with my father.

I feel it in the tight, tough grass beneath my feet, sending spikes down into the earth and receiving a reassuring sense of solidity in return. I feel it in the touch of the contents of a golf bag, the tiny, arbitrarily vital pieces of the jigsaw that is necessary to construct a viable round. Wooden tees, plastic markers, stubby pencils, a bag with pockets with forgotten contents, cards marked with scores you have no recollection of compiling. Scraps of grass which may have fallen from my gear, or maybe still be there from when Dad used to use the bag.

Clubs. I still use my fathers old clubs, mostly. They are a set that came from I don’t know where. I think my brother got Dad’s newer set, which means this set must be at least 25 years old. There, marked on the grips, are the words he would have pondered, the strange topographical markings he would have idly gazed over. There, on the shafts of the clubs is the tape he applied. There, in the wear to the handle of the putter, lie the imprints of his hands. I can slip my different hands into place and feel as if he is holding me in his hands, and holding me suspended in his dream of what the world had to offer, of how time could be used, of what pleasure and satisfaction could feel like, of how a sense of self could be chosen and grown and nurtured and shaped.

It’s there in the scents that seep across and out of the landscape of golf. The bitter dune grasses, the lip-smacking sea fret, the rising particles of a fairway evaporating in the sun, or sinking weight of a mist drifting down to wet a green.

He is there in the rituals, the modes of movement. As I address the ball on the tee, I form angles between my feet and the target, between my knees and my hips, between my arms and my wrists and the shaft of the club. These shapes and alignments are part of an occult semaphore I developed under my father’s direction. Only he and my brother would truly recognise them, but I know they still would. They are as much a signifier of me as my walk, the way I scrunch my eyes when I blink, the hopeless, helpless way I dance.

In constructing and executing my swing, I build and release tension through my shoulders, back and legs as my arms are pitched around by the resultant forced. I feel each time, for around a second, that I have briefly become my father. The golf shot as transubstantiation.

When I was a child golf, like the life of my father it formed a part of, was an alien world I could not interpret. Now, once or twice a year, I want nothing more than to escape back into that alien world and to be able to look around and live within it for a time. The more distant in time my father’s life becomes from my own, and the more similar in shape my own life begins to feel to my father’s, the more familiar and welcoming this place begins to feel.


Father’s Day


Today, June 15, is Father’s Day. It’s never been the biggest deal for me, although the family marked it. I never felt the need to rebel against it. Saying ‘thanks’ to your father seems like a good thing to do and since no-one in their right mind would remember to do that every day, then having a date in the diary helped, I guess.

The ‘day’ itself isn’t much of a tradition, having sparked into life a hundred years ago in the USA and slowly gained footing around the world. As designated days go, it seems one of the less Hallmarked.

My Father died in 2005, at Christmas, after the family spent a week at his bedside. In the couple or three years that followed that holiday was hard to get through but Father’s Day didn’t really trouble us. Just a day that you didn’t have to worry about remembering, and we were thinking about Dad every day anyway. In the years since it’s become more of an irritant. Each year I try hard to resist the urge to reply to emails which come unbidden to my inbox with subject lines like ‘Remember to tell your Dad you love him on Father’s Day!’ Once or twice I’ve sent responses saying ‘please stop emailing me to remind me that my Father is dead’. The machines at the other end seem happy to ignore them and carry on so long as their numbers still stack up.

This year, and for the second year running, I’m a father myself on Father’s Day. Since our daughter arrived last year I’ve felt renewed reticence over such prescribed family celebrations. Each time they roll around my instinct it to ignore them. I don’t want to give in and to tempt fate. She’s only been with us just over a year and, at the moment occasions like these serve mainly as reminders that nothing is permanent and that I can’t relax just yet. Don’t worry about it, I know it’s me.

Today I went for a long bike ride in the sunshine, which I loved. I met my wife and daughter for breakfast at a cycling cafe down by the river and we spent a happy hour eating and just hanging out together. That stuff means a lot to me these days.

Once I’d ridden back home again I decided to build some shelves for the shed to help organise some of the stuff that’s piling up on the floor in there. Somewhere in the back of my mind that seemed like a nice, stereotypical Father’s Day thing to do, so I did it.

I’d had an idea about putting in some big, triangular-shaped corner shelves which would give lots of space for storage but also not block off access to the back of the shed where the bikes hang. I took measurements, drew diagrams and tried to remember maths as I strained to put together the details I knew must be critical to making sure this was actually going to work. Mainly I was trying to work out what sized piece of wood I needed to make two right-angled triangles and to minimise the waste.

My head is foggy when I stray off the well-worn paths these days, and every time I found myself struggling to see the way ahead I stepped back. Thus I drove to the local DIY store knowing that I only had this planned out about 75% of the way, that the remaining 25% could be vital, and thus I could be about to rashly plough on and build something completely unusable. I also knew that I was incapable of sitting down and actually working it out properly as this would require me to temporarily set aside the stronger urge to just get on and do it.

Of course, no-one sells wood in 1200mm x 1000m rectangles, so I ended up buying untreated planks, having stood in the shop wondering how many I would need to make up the same area and how I could lash them together. I got them home and spent a couple of hours measuring, scoring, drilling, screwing fast, and eventually sawing. At several points I had to pause and look at my original diagram, compare what I was looking at, turn paper around to the right orientation and reassure myself that the things I seemed to be putting together would actually fit into the spaces I needed them to. As ever I got 75% of the way to confirming and then couldn’t reassure myself enough in the available time, so ploughed ahead, all the time knowing that I might be heading for a total failure, waste of money and general humiliation and frustration and that it would be no-one’s fault but mine.

After a couple of hours, nearing the end, it occurred to me that I really hadn’t spent much of this Father’s Day with my daughter. That’s okay. I know we can’t spend every hour of every day together, much as I’d like to, and instead I had done some things I wanted to do or which I told myself needed to be done.

As I got to the very end of today’s work, using a rusty old electric jigsaw to cut the very rough plank-braced 1200mm x 1000m rectangle I had screwed together along it’s diagonal to give me my two triangles, two things occurred to me. Firstly, this huge wooden slab, now inexpertly being cut into two, was likely to be way too heavy to actually stay up on a flimsy shed wall. No doubt it would be back down again within days. I made a mental note not to put anything heavy on these unexpectedly heavy and unsustainably sturdy shelves.

Secondly, as I cut across, dividing the piece in two and seeing bits fall away which I hadn’t quite expected to, I realised that I had spent the past two hours being my own Father. He was not a talented DIY practitioner, but he was a tryer, even when his family suggested he might like not to try. I had thought that inexorable feeling that only comes when you know that a job you’ve been doing is heading for failure and yet you cannot stop, had been uniquely mine. Now I realised that he too must have felt it often, whenever one of his fix-it jobs began to turn bad, as some, certainly not all, did.

As I stacked the two shelves inside the shed they had been specially designed and crafted to fit, wondering how they could simultaneously look so solid that they were likely to bring the walls down, and so shaky that their immediate collapse seemed inevitable, rather than the boiling frustration of an afternoon turning from productivity to futility with no-one to blame but myself and my untrammelled incompetence, I felt happy.

I knew that in some way I had spent the day in the sunshine communing with my Dad, and knowing that my daughter, too young though she currently is, may one day look out of that kitchen window and view me hammering and sawing with the same concern that I used to feel for my Dad. Although my Father’s Day focus has shifted from me thinking about him to me thinking about my daughter, from being a son to being a Father, he’s still here so long as I am, a chip off the old block.