William Wordsworth marvelled that he might learn from his toddler son. ’Could I but teach the hundredth part, Of what from thee I learn’ he wondered in “Anecdote for Fathers”. (It’s not his best work. In fact it’s rather droll, but then I find a lot of his stuff just so). We can learn all sorts of things from kids. But it’s babies that have been teaching me a thing or two lately. Babies are the litmus test of whether you belong. Or, as perhaps I should more accurately posit it, babies tell you where you belong. The lesson is partly a reflection of our times (men dare not risk approaching someone elses child) and an instruction to a middle aged father and grandfather as to where he really stands. The lesson has a context and therein lies the rub. The context in this case is a community quick to profess it’s a family and that we are all family together. All siblings in one big happy communal rumpus room. It’s a sentiment which is not disagreeable, even when it’s expressed in hollow, strained terms. In fact it’s a sentiment I welcome having moved from another part of town, and it’s a message I don’t press against, hoping perhaps there might be some truth in it. Indeed, wanting there to be some truth in it. But test the claims of community in this way – in the context of that professed family try and pick up someone else’s baby and see what happens next. Actually, in the first instance, it is made clear no baby in this faux family is to be picked up. But in the rare instance where it might happen, there’s a quick swoop of blood ties and the baby is ‘rescued’. Pick up a cousins baby or your own grandchild (neither are part of this professed family context) and savour the sweet connection. Though I like to think I am sage enough to rise above it, I confess the taste left in my mouth when someone else’s baby is quickly snatched back has a hint of bile in. Claims of filial connection are truly hollow and it’s taken a baby to teach me the depth of that. Auden springs to mind as he reflects on empty claims of love and connection which youthful ardour professes, but which time (and reality) desiccates and reduces to a crusty cynicism.
As I walked out one evening
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.
“I’ll love you dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.
“I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
“The years shall run like rabbits
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
And the first love of the world.”
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whir and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
“in the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or to-day.
“Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
“O plunge your hands in water
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
“Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white boy is a Roarer
And Jill goes down on her back.
“O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
“O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.”
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
And the deep river ran on.