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The really annoying thing about dying

In his first Notes from Solitude, the death of his dad causes Roger Bretherton to reflect on the relationship and the strange emergence of 'father’.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A pocket watch rests next to a black and white photograph of a father lying beside a new born baby.
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.

The death of my dad was sudden and unexpected. I don’t know why it is that, from the moment he died, I have had to fight the almost irresistible urge to refer to him as father- a term of address I never used about him or to him during his life.  

Perhaps in some psychotherapy session at some point my therapist referred to my ‘father’, and I may have followed suit. And maybe occasionally when socialising with those who seemed a cut above my largely lower-middle class background, I called him father so as to avoid the flat northern vowel sounds that would expose me as an interloper. But that was just to fit in- on all other occasions he was decidedly not father and definitely just good old plain, dad.  

At death he became a classic, a museum piece, a part of history, not the dad who taught me how to ride a bike.

But for some reason the moment he died, it felt like dad wasn’t enough. I now had to call him father - those were the rules. At death he became a classic, a museum piece, a part of history, not the dad who taught me how to ride a bike by panting and sweating my five-year old self round the block, but the father who taught me to be… a man, or something like that.  

The F-word has gravitas, presence, authority. Dads are human, often bewildered, occasionally pissed off, eminently huggable, easily taken for granted - just there. Admittedly, Freud would have lost significant gravitas if oedipal theory had considered common-all-garden dads and not cigar-smoking brandy-swilling fathers. And no doubt the climactic scene of The Empire Strikes Back would have lacked considerable pathos had Darth Vader casually quipped, ‘No Luke, I’m your’re Dad’.  

The curse of the martyr, write Albert Camus, was to have other people tell their story. The principle doesn’t just apply to martyrs, it’s true of all those who die. To be dead is to become a character in other people’s anecdotes. That’s the really annoying thing about dying, we become a topic of gossip, people get to talk about us without the courtesy of ever having to talk to us. We become object, no longer subject. I think that’s why I resist calling my late Dad, Father. It objectifies him, makes of him something that he wasn’t. It, most definitely fails to do justice to all that he meant to me. 

She simply said, ‘It’s your Dad’, and held me tight in a hug that lasted longer than usually permitted in polite company. 

I say he died suddenly. It was a Sunday morning. I was in church at the time. Actually, worse than that, I was on stage speaking to a church. As a psychologist working in academia, I teach and train all kinds of people in every kind of organisation imaginable, but every now and then I get to speak in churches.  

On this occasion I was talking about character, the positive qualities of being – like love, gratitude, hope, wisdom and so on – that make life worth living. When I stepped off the stage my wife was waving to me from the back of the room, which was weird given that we don’t go to that church and she hadn’t come with me. When I wandered to the back of the auditorium wearing my ‘what are you doing here?’ face, she simply said, ‘It’s your Dad’, and held me tight in a hug that lasted longer than usually permitted in polite company. For someone who prides himself on social insight, it shames me to say that it took a while for the penny to drop. We were in the car with the engine running before it finally dawned on me what she meant. 

I try not to make too much of divine timings or fate, but there was something odd in the timing of getting that news. In that month I had addressed church congregations three Sundays in a row- which, as someone who is generally lazy and prefers not to work weekends, is an unusually intense frequency. But over three successive Sundays I had reflected aloud with those congregations that there were prayers that had accompanied the various stages of my life. Prayers that I found myself praying, almost as if they were prayed through me, as if they had chosen me rather than I they.  

In my twenties I had found myself praying as regularly as a heartbeat, ‘God do whatever you need to do with me, to make me into the person you would like me to be.’ It was a radical invitation for God to put me through whatever was needed to become who I was meant to be. But then the prayer faded. Its visit was over, it had done its work and it moved on. But as I addressed the congregations on those three Sundays I mused aloud that while the prayer of my twenties had departed decades before, I found a new prayer stirring in my forties. Now as the father of teenage boys, my new prayer was, ‘God do whatever you need to do with me to make me the father you would like me to be.’  

In the weeks that followed, people asked me whether I had had a good relationship with my dad. The most accurately answer was: we had the best relationship of which we were both capable. We both tried in our own ways to deepen our connection, but we were like the lovers in a romantic comedy; we always managed to miss each other. When he tried with me, I didn’t want to know. For several years, he left a book lying around at home that he wanted me to read. I never saw anyone touch it, but it moved around the house under its own steam. It was by my bedside, in the toilet, on the dining room table…  Macavity the Mystery Cat would have been proud. It was called, Things We Wish We Had Said. We may have wished, but we didn’t say. I never read it. Years later, when I tried with him, he was too flustered to respond. Both of us in our own ways lacked the courage to connect any deeper. But I was never in any doubt that he loved me, and I him. 

When he was alive I was most aware of how different we were. I defined myself in opposition to whatever he was. If he was gentle, I was assertive. If he was indecisive, I was ambitious.

He died of a heart attack on a Sunday morning asleep in bed, while my Mum was at church. Almost immediately his absence prompted a profound change of consciousness in me. When he was alive I was most aware of how different we were. I defined myself in opposition to whatever he was. If he was gentle, I was assertive. If he was indecisive, I was ambitious. If he was inexpressive, I was articulate. If he was like that, I was like this. And yet, almost at the very moment of his death, a reversal of awareness occurred. I started to see just how very much like him I was. His gentleness, his uncertainty, his scepticism, his care, his humour, were all mine. 

There is a rule in family therapy, that adult children relating to their parents should set their expectations to zero. We never truly see our parents until we stop viewing them through the lens of our own desires; what we wanted from them but never got. Until we do that our lives don’t really work, we sit around waiting for an impossible transformation, a payday that never comes, the moment our parents become exactly how we would like them to be, not as they are. For me, that moment of acceptance for dad only came when he was gone, I accepted him as he was when there was nothing left to accept. I don’t write this with any great sense of guilt or regret at opportunities lost, more with a sense of gratitude for what was given but often taken for granted.  

Oddly though, in the shadow of that seismic shift in my interior furniture, I detected the stirrings of an answer to my own prayer to be a better father. No longer compelled to define myself in contrast to what he was, I was freed to be what I was- both like and unlike him, and to be fair, more like him than I cared to admit. At some visceral level I came to appreciate how much of myself originated with him. I came to accept myself as a dad and my dad as a father.

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Camden: what’s up in Keir’s backyard?

The new Prime Minister’s constituency has valuable lessons for the country.

Simon Walsh is a communications consultant, journalist and non-stipendiary priest in the Diocese of London.

Kier Starmer walks along a residential development's path with two other people.
Starmer and local councillors in Camden.

‘What good ever came out of Nazareth?’ was asked of Jesus. The same might now be said of Camden, which lies at the heart of the Holborn & St Pancras constituency. A safe Labour seat since the 1980s, its present incumbent is Sir Keir Starmer who has been handed the keys to Downing Street in the General Election.

His wallet apparently has on it ‘Take me home to Kentish Town’. Two buses link Kentish Town, where he lives, with Whitehall – a route of about four miles. He will go into government with a very full in-tray, and many of them are issues he knows first-hand from his own constituency. I know them too, having lived there for 20 years.

Sometimes I cover services for a clergy colleague in the nearby parish of St Mary’s, Somers Town. The church is on Eversholt Street which runs along the eastern side of Euston station, incidentally the capital’s first mainline railway terminus. Last year, as I arrived for a mass one rainy Saturday morning, a random group of people sheltered in the doorway. They were, I discovered, addicts waiting for a drugs drop. Towards the end of mass, one of the group – a young woman – came into the back of church and found a pew in which to start preparing her fix. Once I had disrobed, I asked if she wouldn’t mind doing it somewhere else.

Another time, in the same church, a young woman from Spain was asking for money. She had answered a job advert on social media to come and work on a chicken farm. Having arrived and paid her accommodation for a week, she found there was no chicken farm, and trying to find other work was almost impossible because of paperwork. What could we do to help? The church itself is in dire need of financial support too.

St Mary’s Flats... were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity.

Somers Town was transformed 100 years ago when its energetic parish priest, Fr Basil Jellicoe, created the first housing association. Dismayed by the squalor of Victorian tenements, he set about raising funds for The St Pancras House Improvement Society. Jellicoe was only in his mid-20s but had a solid Anglo-Catholic background founded on mission and a heart for the poor. The cramped and filthy conditions with extreme poverty were ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace’ – for him, the opposite to the sacraments.

By the time Jellicoe moved from the parish in 1934, the slums had been cleared and a number of the new blocks built, the first being St Mary’s Flats, with others given saints’ names. They were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity. Tragically, having worn himself out he died at the age of 36. His legacy is one of praxis – active Christianity meeting social problems where they are – and his model became the blueprint for many other housing associations since.

No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close. 

The area remains a swirl of social problems in addition to the drugs. Mental health issues are rife. There are plans to redevelop St Pancras Hospital which houses mental health services. The area suffers from traffic and noise pollution, and lacks communal spaces. Camden Council recently saw fit take one corner of a public green in Somers Town on which to build a tower block of multi-million pound flats, handy for nearby St Pancras Station. Crime rates are high with muggings and mobile phone thefts a daily reality. Last year, as mourners left a funeral one Saturday afternoon at St Aloysius Church just a few streets down from St Mary’s, a drive-by-shooting injured six people. Starmer called the incident ‘appalling’ and spoke of ‘extra patrols and community support’ after a conversation with police.

The area has become highly expensive. Local businesses are being priced out by increased rents. Very little social housing has been built this century. The average house price in NW1, which encompasses the Nash terraces of Regents Park, the council blocks and social housing of Somers Town, is £1.3 million. A two-bed flat is in excess of half a million quid. No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close – four in as many years recently. In his acceptance speech in Camden Council’s offices near St Pancras station, close to the world-renowned Crick Institute and Facebook’s UK headquarters, Starmer namechecked the mythical ‘girl from Somers Town’ and his hope for her future.

Charles Dickens went to school around here and knew these streets well. His 1848 novel Dombey & Son detailed the destruction and chaos caused in the area by the building of the railway line through it. 175 years later, it has been HS2, the great White Elephant which has dug up streets, seen whole blocks of accommodation and hotels demolished, diverted roads, and axed much-loved institutions like the Bree Louise pub. There has been no benefit to locals so far (quite the opposite, in fact) and it is a stain on both Labour and Conservative administrations. Sir Keir says he is furious at the ‘big hole’ left by the down-tools project. There is fear now that the redundant land will be subject to a ‘gold rush’ as developers circle to pick up some prime real estate.

Interviewed in June by the Camden New Journal, Starmer said: ‘The government has earmarked money for Euston. I want to see that money and obviously, if we come into power, we’ll see through all this money – and not stripped away from other projects which is the usual trick.’ He also said: ‘The other thing is we need housing. Camden desperately needs housing as many places do. So we will use it – if we are privileged to come into power – as part of our plan for 1.5 million homes.’

His manifesto has five pledges: 

  • Kickstart economic growth 

The cost-of-living crisis is biting hard here and the inequalities are stark. People need real money.

  • Make Britain a clean energy superpower 

It’s going to need more than a few on-street charging points for electric vehicles. And the carbon footprint of that HS2 project? 

  • Take back our streets 

He wants to halve crime rates but London has around 106 crimes per 1,000 people and his own constituency feels less safe than it used to. 

  • Break down barriers to opportunity 

Camden already ranks highly in the deprivation index where barriers are concerned: schools, homes, jobs… 

  •  Build an NHS fit for the future 

Again, the hospitals and GP services are cracking – high demand combined with under-investment is deadly. 

A prophet is not welcome in his own country, it was said. Although the new Prime Minister was elected with a majority in his home seat, it was down to 18,884 votes from the 2019 endorsement of 36,641 votes – a drop of almost 50%. In this election, an Independent candidate called Andrew Feinstein polled 7,312 votes with his pledge to improve life for local residents. Starmer’s constituents will be counting on him to fix the nation along with the problems on their own streets. Otherwise, safe seat or not, he may no longer be welcome in Camden either.