Once upon a time, long, long ago, people used to argue about politics. Now they argue about parenting. Thirty five years ago, the issue that defined a generation was whether American troops should be in Vietnam. Today, it's whether to follow the advice set out in The Contended Little Baby Book. Defend the War on Iraq at a dinner party and your neighbour will barely raise an eyebrow, but dare to suggest that Gina Ford is a good thing and the room will immediately divide into two warring camps.
As the parent of a one-year-old, I naturally feel quite strongly about some of these issues and I sat down to read "Fatherhood", Marcus Berkmann's new book, with a warm glow of anticipation. Most baby books are humourless how-to manuals written by po-faced American women with doctorates in child psychology, but this one promised to be different. Berkmann is the Spectator's in-house pop critic, not to mention the author of a highly-acclaimed book on cricket. He's actually a funny writer--sometimes a very funny writer. At last, I thought, a baby book I won't be tempted to hurl across the room by the time I've read the Acknowledgements.
Fatherhood starts promisingly enough. The first few pages fly by as Berkmann rattles off a series of polished one-liners about beer and sex and contraception. He seems anxious to give the impression that he's one of the lads, a man's man. Here's a bloke who's going to give it to you straight, you think.
Then, almost imperceptibly, his tone begins to shift. Gradually, the laddish persona is cast aside and a more serious, more didactic voice emerges. For instance, Berkmann's very suspicious of what he calls "medicalised childbirth", ie, having babies in hospitals. As far as he's concerned, babies should be born at home, preferably in a tub of water, and the woman should avoid any method of pain relief other than yoga or controlled breathing. He's so passionate about this he goes on at length about a "malevolent" midwife whom he holds responsible for the fact that his wife was given Pethidine during the birth of their first child. "It's four years on," he writes, "but if I saw this midwife in the street I still might have to be physically restrained." (Why? Because she alleviated his wife's pain?)
On almost every issue, Berkmann is passionately politically correct. Breast milk, he tells us, is "one of nature's little miracles", while formula is "created by huge unpleasant multinational companies". He's in favour of breast-feeding for at least the first year and rails against those narrow-minded bigots, most of them paid agents of the cosmetic surgery industry, who have the gall to suggest that firm, young breasts are more sexually attractive than pendulous, post-feeding breasts. "These people prey on the vulnerable and unconfident and must be resisted, at least until the law is changed to allow us to murder them in cold blood," he writes.
From time to time, he remembers that Fatherhood is supposed to be aimed at a lad mag readership and he pretends to be less puritanical than he really is. But even these attempts at lightheartedness are hopelessly revealing. Listen to him on the subject of nappies: "The big question, of course, is whether to go for disposables, and thus doom the planet, or selflessly use 'terry' nappies, and doom yourself and your partner to endless domestic drudgery." But I can't think of a single person for whom this is a genuine dilemma. These days, everyone, apart from the most die-hard earth Nazis, uses disposables.
I'm sure I would have enjoyed Fatherhood more if I shared at least some of Berkmann's opinions. But it was as if I'd opened a copy of Private Eye and found myself reading a piece by Polly Toynbee. I just hope I'm never seated next to him at a dinner party. I've a feeling Berkmann might regard me in the same light as that "malevolent" midwife.