THURSDAY OCTOBER 19 2000
Dirt and domestic anarchy
Simon Carr is a single father who believes that boys thrive without too many rules. Catherine O’Brien meets himby Catherine O’Brien
The writer Simon Carr tells a story of how, two years ago while shopping, his son Alexander, then nine, started sulking. “I sulked back,” says Simon, “and eventually I walked out of the shop. He followed me, dawdling about 20 paces behind. I was so irritated that when I reached the car, I just got in and drove home.” As he glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw Alexander, rigid and open-mouthed, there was, he admits, a momentary pang of remorse. After all, the boy had inherited his propensity for mood swings from his father. But still Carr did not feel compelled to put his foot on the brake. He drove home, leaving Alexander to walk. Simon recalls: “It was just over a mile and took him about half an hour. I think a mother would have found that hard to do — in fact, I don’t think a mother could have done it. But he survived, and it put a marker in his mind. When he arrived home he was very pleasant and we never mentioned it again.”
Simon Carr with his sons Alexander, 11, and Hugo, 17, near their home in Oxford
Carr is the head of what he calls “a statistically insignificant family” — the sort one arrives at only through catastrophe. He has two sons: Hugo, 17, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce, and Alexander, now 11, whose mother Susie died of cancer six years ago. Simon and the boys now live in a Victorian semi in Oxford and their set-up is the subject of his latest book, The Boys are Back In Town, which, despite the naff title, should be required reading for all anxious, hectoring, routine-driven mothers of little boys.
For what Carr proves, irrefutably, is that it is possible to raise sons to be polite and presentable while at the same time allowing them to spend hours lolling on a carpet submerged by videos, comics and Lego, playing computer games called Resident Evil 2, making absurd and disgusting noises around the house, and going for days — sometimes weeks — without cleaning their teeth or having a bath. “Actually, we haven’t a bath at the moment,” Carr confesses sheepishly when I raise the subject of hygiene.
So seduced was he by the garden of their new home, which backs on to the Oxford Canal, that Carr remained resolutely undeterred by the fact that the previous owner had ripped out the tub, leaving only a feeble shower in its place. He says: “You know, cleanliness is very over-prioritised by mothers. If you don'’t wash very much, it is surprising how clean you remain. Once, as a student, I went 36 days without a bath and I was not offensive.”
It would be interesting to ask some of his student contemporaries — he read English at Oxford alongside Tina Brown, Mel Smith, Ann Widdecombe and Simon Walker, the Queen's new communications director — how much truth there is in this. Suffice to say that at 48, Carr, who has worked variously as an author, journalist and political speech writer, is looking scrubbed and wholesomely respectable in a smart wool suit and freshly polished brogues.
Likewise, though his book paints a picture of domestic anarchy (no bleach, no sock drawers, dirty plates in the sink), his home is reassuringly ordered with cushions plumped, books neatly squared on the coffee table and the whiff of Domestos emanating from the kitchen.
“The arrival of Lenka has changed things,” he concedes, nodding gratefully in the direction of their Slovakian au pair. “But the anarchy was important in the early stages to develop a household that was ours. We appear conventional, but we didn’t reach this point by any conventional means.”
Carr’s parents have been together for more than 50 years. However, any idealised notion Carr had of creating his own nuclear family evaporated with the breakdown of his first marriage, to Angela, when Hugo was one. Angela, a New Zealander, returned to her home country with their son and Carr visited annually, on Hugo’s birthdays. After five years of transworld fathering, he hatched a well-meaning plan: he would move to Auckland and buy a house in the same street as Angela and Hugo so that they could bring their son up together while living apart.
The plan proved unworkable, but he did see more of Hugo, and he also met Susie, whom he went on to marry. Only two years later and a year after the birth of Alexander, doctors discovered that the griping pains in Susie’s abdomen were not fibrous growths but inoperable cancer. They gave her two years; she survived for four.
When it was over, and the house fell empty and silent, Carr packed an overnight bag, loaded some beers and Alexander’s bicycle into the boot, and set off for a 500-mile drive around the country. He says: “They say that running away is never the answer, but it turned out to be a reasonable thing to do. Grief is so unpredictable. Every time I tried to start a conversation with Alexander, he would close down. I found that the best way was not to try to talk about it, so that whenever he did want to talk, I would be there to bring him on for as long as he wanted to.”
Hugo joined them a year later. It was a “phased entry” — he went back to his mother’s twice, once at her behest, once at his (out of loyalty to Angela, Carr is sensitive about the details). Gradually it dawned on Carr that if the three of them were going to get on together, they would have to adopt some sort of routine.
“The more rules you have about tidiness and hygiene, the more there are to be broken, the more nagging that goes on and the more friction there is,” he says. “So from the outset I thought the best thing to do was to keep it loose. As long as they didn’t do any of the things I didn’t like, we could just concentrate on the business of trying to be happy with each other. I think it was the right strategy.”
Most parents appreciate that to a young boy, nothing is more desirable than the one thing that you cannot have. Carr has developed a novel tactic to deal with such contingencies. What he describes as his “Just say Yes” rule struck him the day he allowed Alexander, after repeated pleading, to ride his bicycle in the house. “I had my reservations, but in the end I let him ride around the living room. After 20 minutes, with no harm done, he had had enough and he never asked to do it again.”
Skating in the kitchen, cricket in the hall, screaming insanely and throwing water bombs at the windows have all been similarly countenanced. The unbreakable rules are: no interrupting adults, no unreasonable, erratic demands for food, drink or attention, no drinking alcohol or smoking or swearing and no idling when it comes to schoolwork. (Hugo recently achieved eight As and three As in his GCSEs.) Since moving back from New Zealand to England two years ago, Carr knows that several mothers of his sons’ friends have viewed him with suspicion. He explains: “They think we are ‘free range’. They can’t understand how my boys can be so well behaved without a bath-and-bedtime routine.”
The underlying problem, according to Carr, is that such mothers see him as a threat to their own domestic disciplines. “Tone of voice is fantastically important. I see a lot of mothers bearing down on their sons, saying ‘Have you done this . . . remembered that?’ or trying repeatedly to prise them away from a friend’s house. The thing with boys is that they do not like being swamped. My boys are not malleable, but they are perfectly biddable. I speak to them like adults, try to give them a little notice of what is about to happen. Then I expect them to get on with it.”
There is, Carr acknowledges, no surpassing the ideal of growing up with both a mother and a father. “A mother’s infinite caresses — Alexander will always miss those,” he says. But he has found some advantages to being a single father. He doubts whether the three of them would be able to enjoy their particularly robust brand of male intimacy with a woman in the family. It is, he says, easier to discuss the mechanics of sex with your sons when you know that they will not immediately be convulsed by the thought of “Mum and Dad doing it”.
They have even, with a little practice, got the hang of shopping together. “The boys are keen on shopping now, but then we shop differently from mothers. There is none of this ‘Try this on — I know you don’t like it, but just try it’. If they don’t like it, they’re not going to wear it, so we don’t bother. Usually we are in and out within eight minutes. They know that when I say ‘Let’s go’, they must either come with me or be left behind.”
- The Boys are Back in Town, is published by Hutchinson, £10.
Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.