Football games in the Edinburgh boys clubs’ under-12s second division were, I’ll now admit, less important than those in the Premier League. But try telling that to the dads. A late tackle by one son on another could lead to displays of ersatz manliness by the have-a-go-Hieronimos on the touchline. I recall playing in a cup quarter-final that was halted when the father of the opposing right back received a corner flag to the head from the fouled left winger’s old man.
At the time of the assault my dad was back at the car park, sitting in the Ford Mondeo and listening to Radio 4. His absence from the crowd was neither a sign of neglect, nor of his fondness for The Archers. I had asked him not to watch the game – or any game – for fear of making a mistake in his presence. This was unnecessary: he has always loved, never pressured. Yet I still wanted a private space in which to fail.
Sigmund Freud would have understood, even if he was too busy with his über-Ich to watch much football. In his 1909 essay “Family Romances”, he wrote: “The separation of the individual from his parents is one of the most necessary achievements of his development.” It’s why Hal hangs out with Falstaff, why Icarus sizzled, and why I was so disturbed the other week when I received the following message: “@micromac666 is now following you on Twitter”.
It turns out my dad knows his way around 140 characters. He is opinionated: “Excessive remuneration at #RBS etc shows poor sense of return proportionate to effort/risk”. He is aware of trending topics: “#TodayisFriday Now I’m retired everyday is Friday. Yippee!” And he appears to be friends with Wayne Rooney’s wife: “@ColeenRoo Ah, Bless! And happy SPD to you and yours.”
The thing is: Twitter was my space. Social media used to be the equivalent of a locked bedroom; now your mum can follow your relationship travails on Facebook. Recently, I replied to a tweet by an Economist correspondent; an hour later my father had followed up with a tweet of his own, slamming the reporter’s view of the Budget. A virtual corner flag to the head.
I think I now feel James Murdoch’s pain. Future historians will trace his decision to resign the chairmanships of News International and BSkyB to the News of the World’s phone hacking. But I suspect the first wobble came when his dad wouldn’t let him have the final word at their parliamentary hearing. Then came the clincher: “@rupertmurdoch is now following you on Twitter”. That brings up the other problem: Rupert, like my father, is an adept tweeter. It’s one thing being suppressed by your dad; it’s another being outclassed. This can bring trouble if you choose the same profession. Just ask Charlie Sheen or George W Bush.
Or, for that matter, Sean Lennon, James McCartney, Dhani Harrison and Zac Starkey. It was revealed last week that the quartet is contemplating forming a filial tribute to their fathers, the Beatles. I want to believe this is a tender testament. John, Paul, George and Ringo were all good fathers. I worry, though, that it may be a sad consequence of being unable to escape the burden of this heaviest of paternal legacies.
So is there a way to avoid all this father-son turmoil? Two ways, perhaps. First there’s the Amis method. Kingsley had an “amiably minimalist” approach to Martin’s writing, according to the son. Only when Amis junior decided he too would be a writer, did his work “become worth correcting”. “I attributed this to sheer indolence on his part, but I now think he was obeying a parental instinct, and a good one.”
Then there is the Clooney method. George and his father Nick were arrested together a few weeks ago outside the Sudanese embassy, after a protest against increasing violence between Sudan and South Sudan. This is surely the way to go: father and son, working together on a side project, doing good and riling authority. Plus, they don’t allow Twitter in prison.
John McDermott is the FT’s executive comment editor. Robert Shrimsley’s column returns next week