A few years ago, while sitting in Euphorium bakery on Upper Street, I observed a couple of Islington characters, possibly undercover lawyers, enter the cafe and sit down at the table next to mine. Both were 30-something men in uniform wacky glasses, sleeveless puffer jackets and ill-fitting jeans. "So how's it going, Simon?" asked one, with more enthusiasm than I could stomach. "Great", replied the other, "I've just started writing a book!". Oh no, please, no. "What's it about?" asked Simon's mini-me. Pausing in search of suspense, Simon eventually replied, "It's about what it's like being a dad".
For the love of god, what is it that you people don't understand? Do you honestly think that the world isn't satisfied with your splurges of human reproduction, that it also needs it publicly documenting?? Haven't we finished with that whole Nick Hornby thing yet??? These are the same people who email in to Radio 6 to let the world know that they once saw a Pixies gig.
All I can say in my hypocritical defence is that I am still of the opinion that other parents are the worst advertisement for parenthood that is out there. Because in answer to the (mysteriously unasked) question 'who has destroyed potlatch for these past three months?', the answer is - she has, Martha Prior Davies, born 31st October 2012.
So I had an idea. From now on potlatch is going to be a baby and parenting blog, dedicated to questions such as "Is it ok to play Wagner to your little one, even though he was rightwing?" and "How to ask the barista nicely whether their babyccinos are made with milk from hand-stroked cows?".
OK, maybe not. But, as Charlie Brooker and Jonathan Freedland both found, with the best will in the world, it's difficult not to discover some public significance in this event. Certainly there is existential and personal significance, though whether people need to hear about that is another matter (Simon). Is there intellectual significance? It's a great pleasure to say 'not that much'. Wittgenstein urged his philosophy students to tackle the painful linguistic misunderstanding on which philosophy is based, by quitting the university and taking a job in Woolworths. He might have added: when a small thigh is so beautifully round and pudgy, that you find yourself having to stretch the skin to wipe the poo out of the creases, then you have truly escaped the curse of theory. And yet...
The existentialism is unavoidable. Maybe that's because most babies, our's included, arrive in hospitals, where suffering and loss might lurk around any corner. In a hospital, every arm around a shoulder might signal mourning. One feels almost guilty - mistaken? - to be swimming against this tide by introducing new life into such a situation. But the morbidity of having a child struck me much earlier. Crossing the Marylebone Road the day I found out I would be a father, I hesitated before running across the path of a juggernaut that was still five or ten seconds away. What if I slipped? What if I had mis-calculated its speed? From now on, life would be a series of pedestrian crossings. Thanks, Martha. That rock'n'roll suicide that I'd had up my sleeve, in case sociology turned out not to be a source of glamourous danger after all, would also have to be shelved.
And still there was more morbidity! As we carried her out into the world on the second day of her life, I had a strange feeling of suddenly understanding the Israel-Palestine conflict. She was so tiny, so fundamentally illogical and so beautiful, that if someone were to harm her, then I could only feasibly respond using violence. I would also never be able to forget that they'd done it. Something about the mismatch between her tiny capabilities and the intensity of emotion brought on a form of paranoia. If, say, the army accidentally killed her with a mis-directed shell, then waging permanent war on the British army would feel like a plausible reaction. When trying to make sense of conflicts in Northern Ireland or the Middle East, we focus on tangible, 'cultural' phenomena of territory and 'religion' - but perhaps human beings can gradually forget about the loss of land and the slow dissolution of ritual. Maybe it's the loss of their children that they simply have no capacity to forgive.
Luc Boltanski writes in Love and Justice as Competencies that what love and violence share is a refusal of equivalence. Where the grammar of justice is to treat people equally with a measure, both love and violence refuse this equality and this measure. They refuse proportionality or uniformity. Hence, Boltanski argues, it is probably fruitless to try and understand how politics descends into violence, purely by focusing on the failures of law. Misdeeds made within a system of justice can be 'repaid' or punished with proportionality. But injuries experienced within the order of love have no proportionate response. This report from Gaza came a few weeks after Martha was born, and made me reflect that the political consequences of such an event will be literally unquantifiable.
On the cheerier side of things, I can happily report that babies are conclusive proof of the fantasy of the Cartesian ego. Cogito ergo sum should actually read vomito ergo sum. Did Descartes have children? I know Kant didn't, which shows. I wish someone with children had told me this before I tried to plough through the Critique of Pure Reason. No, it turns out that there is no a priori, transcendental or ontologically separate thing called a 'subject', 'cogito' or 'consciousness', that exists prior to or in parallel to the material world. Before everything else, there is a system of organs to be constantly tended like a very loud and exhausting Tamagotchi. David Hume, on the other hand, clearly did have children: I watch Martha gradually working out that when she smacks herself in the face, the resulting pain is caused by the hand waving around in front of her. What we call 'reason' is really just the learned piecing together of cause and effect. (One day she may even work out that the hand in question is 'hers', but everything in good time).
Visitors coo over Martha in the same way that tourists gasp in awe at Manhattan. They point to the skyscrapers, central park and the delis, as if the island were a self-sufficient paradise. They show no interest in the stream of trucks that pours over bridges in the early morning, bringing fresh produce for ungrateful Manhattanites to consume, and pours back over bridges at night carrying thousands of tonnes of putrid garbage. As Freud understood, it's really not obvious where the baby ends and the parent begins. Babies, like Manhattan, demonstrate the truth of Bruno Latour's 'actor-network' theory. They are individual human actors, yet they only exist thanks to a network of constantly supportive human and non-human actors. Next time you go and visit someone's new-born, ask to see where the real action is: maybe it's time to bounce the breast-pump on your knee or get your photo taken with the bucket of Napisan.
The wonderful aspects of having a child would be difficult for me to describe without sounding trite (pay attention, Simon), and are not what my miserabilist blog is for. The tiresome aspects are too tedious to report. But all I can say is that they're better when people don't harp on about them (Simon!). "The first six weeks are the worst!" someone told my partner, who on the contrary was happily savouring nearly every moment of them. "Your life will be unrecognisable", various friends with children warned me darkly - something which is also true after the death of loved-ones, but you don't hear repeated ad nauseam at funerals.
Tiredness is difficult, but it isn't dangerous and it isn't terminal. I picked up Mark Rice-Oxley's 'depression memoir' recently (which I'm afraid I put down as soon as I came across the apparently unselfconscious line "my heart was racing like a hamster in an experiment"). With all sympathy for his or anyone's mental distress, one passage in a chapter entitled 'Is Dad all there is?' just appeared self-destructive:
Fatherhood is a watershed. The pram in the hallway is the enemy of promise. It depletes. People with small children don't generally distinguish themselves... Look at Beckham, Flintoff, Pietersen, Rooney. Look at Bowie, McCartney, Lennon. Don't tell me any of them were greater at their thing after they became fathers.
This poses the question: if parenthood turns out to be in conflict with an already bipolar culture of performance anxiety, where to turn one's ire? Towards the pram in the hallway, or the Red Bull-swilling sporting icons of neoliberalism? If one's sense of self is rooted in some myth of limitless potential and time, then, yes, a child will do serious damage to that. Time suddenly feels finite, both in a mortal sense and in a practical, managerial sense of how to carry on getting things done. That is a reality that has long preceded the post-68 culture of individual optimisation, which - Alain Ehrenberg's superb book would suggest - deserves far more blame for depression than the arrival of a baby.
One fear that I did hold, before Martha's arrival, was that parenthood would make me rightwing. I wondered if I'd suddenly start to worry about the stock market or crime-rates, in a way that I never had done previously. Maybe I'd go on anti-paedophile marches! But on the contrary, I only feel all the more resentful towards this country's elites, for robbing us of so many possible futures without care. I resent even more the managerialist nonsense that divides people into achievers and non-achievers, leaving me with the only hope that my daughter falls into the former category, and the Newspeak of an education system that uses the term 'excellent' to mean 'acceptable', and the term 'acceptable' to mean 'non-acceptable'. And this is quite aside from the massive NHS-love-in that accompanies child-birth.
That's enough about babies now. We shall enjoy Martha, privately (unless you happen to be friends with me on facebook, in which case you'll have learnt to stand well back), and I shall henceforth get back to blogging about what ads on the tube tell us about the crisis of capitalism and stuff, perhaps with just a tinge less anger.