SOME GUYS JUST AREN'T CUT OUT FOR A 9 TO 5…
My father was born and raised in Jaffna; a small, Tamil town in northern Sri Lanka. And like many Tamils of his generation, he was determined to leave from an early age; not just for a better life but for a safer one too.
He first came to the UK in 1970, armed with his suitcase and £50 in his pocket. And after an initially tricky period adapting to a new culture, a new environment, pretty much a new everything, he landed an assistant teaching role at the University of Bath.
In the years that followed he would obtain his PhD, essentially be forced to return to Sri Lanka to marry my mother (she wasn’t too enthralled about it at the time either), have three boys (of whom I’m the youngest) and take up employment with an American oil firm that saw the family bounce between Sri Lanka, Norway, Thailand and finally the UK, which we’ve called home since 1984.
I have mixed feelings about it. For the most part it was a happy one. Don’t get me wrong, we were raised in a very safe, loving environment and we never went without. I was incredibly close with my brothers and had a great relationship with my mother. But I had no real connection with my father. The part he chose to play in our lives – as far as I could see – revolved around two things; education and discipline.
I get it now. He simply wanted the best for us and felt that that was the only way to achieve it. But as a kid this was very hard to understand. And of course this was also a reflection of how he himself was raised.
I never really knew my paternal grandparents but I gather my grandfather was particularly hard on my father. However he would also heap praise on him for his successes; of which there were many.
Unfortunately, this not only made ‘him’ extremely strict but also controlling and impossibly demanding.
He worked hard to send us to a private primary school. But being the type of man he is, from day one he was already thinking about our entrance exams to secondary school. Consequently, we were assigned additional work on an almost daily basis.
I remember the routine like it was yesterday. We’d come home from school. Have maybe an hour or two to act like regular kids before first completing our actual homework and then the additional assignments.
He’d make us stand in a line as he marked our work at the dining room table. Being the youngest, I had to wait and watch as he smacked my brothers for every mistake they made before he even got to me. And when I say smack, I don’t just mean a slap on the wrist.
It was usually across the face or the back of the head and it fucking hurt.
In today’s world a lot of people would be quick to call it abuse. And whilst I absolutely felt it was uncalled for, I wouldn’t classify it as such. But there is a fine line.
When I was about 8 or 9, I destroyed a telephone in his study as some form of protest against my mother. My punishment?
I was marched into the living room, made to take my shirt off and using the same cord I’d previously cut (doubled back on itself), I was flogged repeatedly across my back until my mother finally intervened. I counted 12 lashes before she stopped him. He definitely crossed the line.
I fucking despised him after that. It wasn’t just the physical pain but the humiliation of it all. My maternal grandfather was living with us at the time and witnessed the entire thing. But of course he said nothing as it was my father’s house. Plus that was also just ‘their’ way.
A few years ago I found out that when my father was a teenager, he and a cousin had snuck into another relative’s home and taken his motorbike out for a spin.
When they returned home, my grandfather tied ‘both of them’ around a tree – facing outwards, binding their wrists together – and proceeded to cane them across their entire bodies.
No child deserves that kind of punishment and I feel for the pair of them every time I think of that story. But that still doesn’t make what he did to me okay.
That incident was probably the only time I thought about running away seriously. I told one of my friends at school and he suggested calling ChildLine.
I packed a bag but only made it as far as the driveway. I didn’t call ChildLine either. As with all families; you make mistakes, you learn from them and you move on over time.
My father made a huge one that day. And whilst I’d be lying if I said that he never hit me or my brothers again, things were definitely different after that.
We’ve all moved on.
Given his academic achievements and the fact that we were ‘his children’, he placed an unbelievable amount of pressure on us. And in spite of our successes, we still usually felt like we’d failed somehow.
In 1993, I needed to score at least 230 in my 11-plus exam to gain entrance to the state funded grammar school he wanted me to attend. He was so embarrassed about my 232 that he lied to people about it.
A week earlier I’d received a full scholarship to a reputable private school (something neither of my brothers had done) and don’t forget, my score ‘was’ good enough to attend the grammar. Yet there I was at age 11, feeling like a useless, under-achieving piece of shit.
Fast forward ten years and nothing had changed. I studied Statistics & Economics at University College London, graduating with Upper Second Class honours.
From 2000 – 2003, UCL was ranked amongst the top 10, if not 5 universities in the UK. I’m not saying this to impress you. Personally I don’t care what university someone attended or if they attended one at all; as once you land that first job, it becomes fairly irrelevant. But some might say obtaining a 2:1 from UCL was a pretty good achievement.
My father thought I should’ve got a 1st and didn’t even come to my graduation. Admittedly he asked if I wanted him there but if he had to do that…
Long before I’d even gotten to that stage in my life, I was still considering which subjects to specialise in at school.
Now I’m not saying I would’ve made it as an actor. But when I mentioned to my father that the head of drama had specifically pulled me aside and asked me to seriously consider pursuing it further, his message was pretty clear:
“Music, art and drama are subjects for dreamers and certainly not for any son of mine.”
To my father, professional success means one of two things; working for a firm or in a profession that garners instant respect/recognition. Or earning a shit load of money.
Though I guess I can’t really fault him for that as my oldest brother is earning annually what most people would struggle to see in their entire lifetime. And the other one is a fucking brain surgeon!
Like my dear friend Northern Monkey once said, “short of becoming Prime Minister or a super hero, I’m afraid you’re screwed mate.”
After graduating I didn’t know what I wanted to do; preferring instead to go travelling. But my father and oldest brother convinced me to apply for a Masters in Finance, as surely with one of those under my belt, the big banks would come knocking and all would be right with the his world?
That was probably the worst year of my life. I had no interest at all in the subject matter but at the same time, didn’t want to disappoint the old man. Yet again.
Some of you may be reading this thinking ‘why didn’t he just grow a pair and tell him how he felt.’ But in our family, that was a lot harder than you might think.
Ironically, there was a Tamil girl on the course who felt entirely the same as me and I encouraged her to speak to her father about it. She did; and subsequently dropped out after the first term. I didn’t and subsequently wasted a year of my life.
I eventually found work in the financial industry and though it ticked neither of his boxes and wasn’t at all what I thought I’d be doing with my life, I stuck with it and forged a pretty decent career for myself over the years.
Being financially independent from my father made it easier to deal with his disappointment but the problem was; I still had feelings of doubt. On a sub-conscious level; whilst it must seem crazy to you, there was still that need to finally obtain his approval. But the more pressing issue was: “was this how I wanted to spend the rest of my life?”
There’s a saying “there are those who work to live and those who live to work.”
I’d been married and had also owned a home. “Working to live” wasn’t for me. And so around two years ago I decided to quit my job.
Seeing this as an opportunity to wield his influence again, my father suggested applying for an MBA. Hell, he even offered to pay for classes to prepare for the GMAT.
But thankfully, with the encouragement of three of my closest friends*, I finally grew those balls and spoke my mind. And using the money I’d been saving for that house society dictates I should buy, I eventually made that trip abroad.
* Basis, Unit, T-Money; thank you so much
That trip was a game-changer for both of us. Without question it was the best year of my life. And the two months I spent volunteering in a mountain village in India was probably the most meaningful, eye-opening period of my life.
I fully intend to go back one day and have even been asked to become a trustee of the charity. But I can’t commit to them fully until I’ve sorted out the other things in my head.
One of those ‘other things’ was a desire to write a book, which is something I wouldn’t have felt brave enough to discuss let alone attempt before. It’s also something that I’ve wanted to do since about 2009 but it was only whilst I was away that I started to really believe in it; writing my first story in that same village.
Buoyed by fellow travellers I was meeting along the way, I decided “fuck it, I don’t know how but I’m actually going to do this.”
Unfortunately people back home weren’t as receptive to the idea: “Is this a joke?” “Since when have you been interested in writing?” “What? Full-time?”
‘God only knows how my father was going to react’, I thought. His response blew me away.
A lot of you have probably formed pretty negative opinions about the man, which is only natural as I’ve only talked about my negative memories. I could list a bunch of positive ones but that’s fairly redundant as whilst I’m grateful to you for reading this (and I really am), he’s ‘my father’ and your opinion of him won’t change that.
What I will do however, is share what he said with you:
“This past year; reading your emails, listening to you talk about your experiences, I realised that I got it wrong all these years. I pushed you too hard to be someone who I wanted you to be instead of considering what was important to you.
The past is the past and there’s nothing I can do about that. But going forward I will support you, even if it’s something I don’t really understand. So fuck everyone who is questioning what you’re doing. You’re my son, not theirs. If you’re happy and this is something you really want to do, then do it. Just don’t fuck it up!
And you never know; if it’s half decent, you might even make some serious money like that Harry Potter fellow.”
Okay so some things will never change but still?
And with his unwavering support, I’ve spent the last seven months really working on my writing; not just for the book but also this blog. Obviously I’ve been doing other things too but the word-count on this piece is already too high so I’ll spare you the details.
In the early days of the blog, I wanted to accompany each post with a cartoon. I couldn’t afford to pay a professional so resorted to doing my own illustrations. One day my father saw me struggling to trace an image from my laptop screen and without asking, bought me a light-box.
I’ve since realised that I’m still shit at drawing and it’s a lot easier to just ‘borrow’ images from the internet. But I don’t think he understands just how much that gesture meant to me.
Although our relationship is so much better than it used to be and it must’ve taken a lot for him to say what he said, I still don’t think I’m ready to do the same. So I’ve put it in writing instead:
I’m not sure if you’ll ever read this but if you do, I’m sorry if you’re hurt by the way that I’ve portrayed you.
Yes, I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me and the opportunities that have subsequently been afforded me; I really am. These were just feelings that I’ve supressed for too long and this blog has given me a means to let them out.
I won’t lie; remembering how you used to be has not been easy. But this piece also serves as a reminder of how much you’ve changed and I love the guy that you are today. If only we could’ve known him 30 years ago… Things could’ve been a lot different.
As you said though; the past is the past.
I’m still not sure what the future holds in store for me. Maybe this writing gig may lead to something bigger and better. I suspect not but even so, I hope that you’ll read my book one day and be proud. Not because it became a bestseller and made a stack of money. But because it was written by me. Though I should tell you now that it will probably lose more money than it’ll make!
A return to India is never far from my thoughts. Or maybe Northern Monkey was onto something and the two of us can start up the UK branch of the Avengers.
Whatever path I eventually choose to follow, I see now that you’ll have my back; even if it’s not what you’d envisaged for me as a child. And for that I truly thank you.”
I appreciate that this was a fairly lengthy piece so my sincere thanks to those of you who made it all the way to the end.
Before I go, there’s one more person I wanted to mention and that’s my mother. Without whom, I probably would’ve run away that day. Unlike my father, I have no problem saying these words to her face but I wanted all of you to know just how great she is:
I don’t think you give yourself enough credit for the part that you play in this family. You’re definitely the Beauty to his Beast and without you; the walls of his castle would’ve come crashing down years ago.
Thank you for being you.”
Oh and if you’re worried that this blog is taking a new direction, don’t be.
My continued thanks for reading, particularly to those who share these stories and/or leave comments. For more reasons to put-off what you were doing before you read this, click the icon below.Or if you fancy something different, why not check out some of the bloggers to the right (full site only).
Amateur drinker with a writing problem. When I'm not in a bar regaling stories of unsuccessful hook-ups, I'm writing about them AND other things right here.
Sean Smithson © 2013