‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.’ 


But some do mean to.  They do it because they believe it’s best for you, though they would be loathe to admit they’ve done you any harm.   


Philip Larkin’s poem is the theme of this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, which has occurred at the same time that Julian Jarrold’s new film of Brideshead Revisited has been released. And if there was ever a novel about having your head messed up by a parent, this would feature prominently. 


You remember the story.  Charles goes up to Oxford and is pulled into the orbit of Sebastian, a foppish, though fragile aristocrat.  They become friends, perhaps lovers.  Charles is invited to the family estate, Brideshead (or for the sake of the film, Castle Howard).  He is quite overwhelmed by the architecture and situation and is charmed by Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, played with evil intent by Emma Thompson, and Julia, his sister, but slowly comes to realise the pernicious hold Lady Marchmain has over her children.       


Lady Marchmain is a Roman Catholic and insists that her children are brought up according to catholic principles.  She does not believe in joy in this life; she is more concerned with being good to merit peace in the life hereafter.  Her children attempt to rebel against their mother’s rigid regime, but with their father having fled to live with his mistress in Italy, they don’t have a chance.  Sebastian lives a wild, gay life in Oxford, but after discovering Charles kissing his sister, he seeks oblivion in drink and escapes to Morocco, where he spends his last days being looked after in a monastery.  Alarmed by the attraction between Julia and Charles, Lady Marchmain gets Julia married off quickly to Rex, whom she believes is a catholic and therefore a suitable mate.  In fact, Rex, a sharp American businessman, has only converted to Catholicism in order to get his hands on the family pile.  Charles meets Julia some years later, when he has become an artist of some renown. They plan to run away together, but although her mother has died by that time, she reaches out from the grave.  Julia cannot bring herself to live in sin with Charles.  The shame would be too much.  ‘I hope your heart breaks,’  Charles flings at Julia as he leaves.  


So the lives of Sebastian and Julia have been imprisoned by the beliefs that their mother has instilled into them throughout their childhood and adolescence.  Her power is so strong that when their father returns to the family home to die, they pray for him to receive absolution and be redeemed to them.  Charles, a self-confessed atheist, is appalled.           



It is difficult enough for children to be brought up by single parents, but if those parents are so fearful of life that they impose the control they have to exert on themselves on their children, it can be impossible.  The children have no chance. 


Children need to see their parents as fallible.  They need to learn that the one who loves them most in all the world, can also get angry, can behave badly, but most important can make reparation.  It is this knowledge that enables them to have sufficient flexibility to adapt to the vicissitudes of life and survive mentally and spiritually intact.  


Children with a monolithic and flawless code of ethics imposed by a single dominant parent may be fine as long as life does not challenge them, but when it does, as it inevitably will, they do not have the adaptability to manage and they can feel their world is disintegrating.  And if that code of ethics is reinforced by a severe God, what hope have they got. 


So, having escaped his mother’s iron grip and disillusioned by the loss of Charles’s devotion, Sebastian’s body fails him.  Julia, on the other hand, pulls herself back from the abyss and turns into her mother.  So Sebastian dies, Julia’s heart breaks and Cordelia?  She shows every sign of joining a nunnery.  They are fucked!     


Their father might have saved them, had he been strong enough to stand up to his wife’s authoritarian rule.  Children need at least two parental figures.  They need an alternative viewpoint.  They need parents they can talk to, who will listen to them.  They need parents, who are good enough to help them, but who are human, who make mistakes, get angry at times but who can say sorry.  They need parents whom they can trust to be there for them no matter what they do. 


A rigid parent rules by fear, holding up the awful threat of abandonment if their children fail to obey. 


Two thirds of marriages end in divorce.  Most of these occur while the children are still living in the family home.  Few divorces end amicably.  Parents need to justify their actions.  Often one parent is the good one – usually the mother; while the other, usually the father, is the bad one.  The children grow up with a separation in their mind; a schism of the soul.  If parents cannot reconcile their differences and accept joint responsibility for the collapse of their relationship,  what hope have their children to heal the dichotomy – the good side which is represented by their mother and the bad side as represented by their father.  And what hope have they got, particularly the girls,  to achieve satisfactory relationships themselves.  Will they ever be able to trust their partners?  Won’t they need to demand impossible devotion and honour. 


Perhaps with time, the errant father will achieve redemption – perhaps on his deathbed as in Brideshead, but heaven will never help him if he proves himself to be less than perfect. 


As Dorothy Rowe so clearly expressed it in her new book, ‘What Should I Believe’, a person’s identity is the sum total of their beliefs, garnered from their experience of life.  If they lack the stable background to be curious, to explore, to learn flexibility, they will cling to a rigid code of ethics, as a drowning man clings to a life raft.  This seriously restricts their personality.  They cannot dare to question their beliefs for fear of rejection and distintegration.  It is better to cling to a false god than to have no god at all.   Thus their beliefs become their prison that restricts opportunities and consumes all the joy, that risk can bring.     


Philip Larkin may have been fucked up by his parents, but this need not apply to our children.  So the message for parents is, dare to be human, if you want your children to love you and be free – and not fear you and be over-dependant.  The greatest gift any of us can ever give our children is the ability to take us for granted for all our faults so that they can let us go and lead their own lives. 



And the message for children, emerge from your prison, learn to forgive your parents for being too human, because some day your humanity will need to be understood too.