The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 24, 2002
Time Off

What wilful sons achieve
Manohar Malgonkar

A LINE of verse written by an 18th century poet, Charles Wesley, runs: Sons of men and angels say. It just shows what besotted romantics most poets are that they should believe that sons of men and angels can have something in common.

No way. Sons of men are, as a rule, boisterous, unruly, full of pranks; just waiting to spring surprises on their parents. One thing they’re not, is angels.

It was always so. Adolescence has always been a time for breaking rules, showing wilfulness. True, in the mid-eighteenth century when family life in England was still governed by the prototypes of the Pilgrim Fathers, English children may have been a little less unruly than they are today. But still — angels? — oh, no! History, from Herodotus onwards is full of instances of quite outrageous behaviour on the part of the growing siblings of the rich and the powerful. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire too has some juicy examples.

Richard Burton who was one of the most idolised heroes of 19th century schoolboys seems to have excelled in, well, excesses, in his growing years.

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His father, Joseph Burton, was a lifelong asthma sufferer, and spent most of his life in health resorts in Europe. He was a rich man who overlooked his favourite son’s misdemeanours, such as ‘incessant’ smoking, and even the thrashing he administered to M du Pres, whom Joseph Burton had employed as a tutor for his children. It seems that even after that thrashing, M du Pres continued to act as tutor to Richard Burton and his younger brother.

Joseph Burton was keen that his son Richard should go to a university and learn to become a priest. The son, already a highly skilled swordsman and boxer was determined not to spend his life in a parsonage. So, when he found himself forced to go to Oxford, he devoted his energies not to his studies but to devising ways to make the authorities compel him to leave Oxford.

He got his chance when the college authorities declared a ban against its students going to a nearby race course for a much-advertised race. Richard and a few friends defied the ban. When they were all summoned to appear before a board, all his companions took their ‘moral drubbing’ in silence, and were merely rusticated. Richard, totally unrepentant, harrangued the professors on their highhandedness in treating college students like schoolboys.

Predictably enough, he was singled out from among those who had broken the ban and told to leave college and "not to return to the university."

Richard Burton’s plan had succeeded. He rejoiced, and left his college with fanfare, riding in a hired carriage to the railway station, and blowing lustily on a tin trumpet.

His father was furious; "cruelly shocked at the disgraceful behaviour," we’re told. But he got the message. He told his son that he was free to choose his own career.

Nearer our own times, we have an equally glaring example of another wilful son giving up a university education which his father had planned for him and without giving a thought to the effect that such an action on his part would have on his father’s political ambitions. Ron Reagan, the son of Ronald Reagan.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan who had been a dashing Hollywood film actor, had become the Governor of California and was widely known to be a presidential candidate in the next election. At such a time, everything, but everything had to go just right. One false step could ruin his chances of becoming President. Ronald Reagan had gone to special trouble to get his son admitted to the Yale University.

So imagine his shock when, within two months, his son came home and told him that he was leaving Yale because he had decided to become a ballet dancer.

It is well-known that Ronald Reagan had assiduously cultivated an image of himself as a tough, pistol-packing cowboy, crackling with the spirit of maleness. If his son had decided to give up a university education for say, joining the Marine Corps or becoming a bullfighter, he might have swallowed hard but approved. But ballet dancing — for a red-blooded American youth? His private fears are reflected by his anxious inquiries from a friend who enjoyed his confidence: "... there are so many homosexuals in dance that it is largely looked upon with disdain. Male dancers! You know what I mean."

But his son was adamant and was not dissuaded from his resolve even by the threat that his father would not pay for his education. In the end, like Colonel Joseph Burton, Ronald Reagan, too, gave up trying to dominate the life of his son. Ron Reagan went on to become a professional ballet dancer, and his career choice did not prevent Ronald Reagan from becoming President.

Are the sons of men in the public eye especially prone to do something to cause embarrassment or dismay to their fathers? — or is it the other way round, that outlandish pranks on the part of growing sons are picked on by the media because their fathers happen to be men in the public eye?

Would, for instance, a sixteen-year old boy found "drunk and vomiting" in a London street, and arrested by the police, have made the headlines at all in the local papers let alone the major international dailies if he had not been Euan Blair, the son of Britain’s Prime Minister? At the time Tony Blair was seeking to bring in tougher laws to discourage drunkenness; and perhaps in a well-meaning effort to hide his true identity, Euan had given the police a false name, and thus, as it were, compounded his offence. But the police had no difficulty in finding out who he was, and, after administering ‘an official reprimand’, they delivered him at the Prime Minister’s residence.

But what might qualify as the crown jewels of youthful follies, was the case of Britain’s Prince Harry, the second son of the Prince of Wales. At the age of seventeen he not only drank alcohol regularly, but "also smoked pot with his buddies", as Time magazine reports. After he was given a serious talking to by his father, Prince Charles, and also given a round of a drug-clinic to show him what terrible effects drug-abuse can cause, young Prince Harry is said to have promised to give up drugs.

So far so good, except that history also tells us that it is these wayward sons who seem to cause varying degrees of distress to their fathers who, in later life, turn out to be fabulous achievers. The extreme example of course, is that of a boy called Alexander, the son of a Macednonian prince called Phillip. He actually quarrelled with his father and may even have had a hand in his murder; and his private life as a teenager would have shocked the most permissive of space-age fathers. He, Alexander, became Alexander the Great, world conqueror, no less!

But then the achievements of Richard Burton when he grew up were also staggeringly spectacular: Scholar, linguist, author, translator, master swordsman, explorer but, more than all these, he, surely was the only man ever who, while he remained a practicing Church of England Christian, had also qualified himself to wear the janua or the sacred thread of the high-caste Hindu, had been accorded the freedom to pray at Sikh shrines, and actually lived as an Afghan Muslim for long periods in Muslim lands, calling himself Mirza Abdullah, and even performed the Haj pilgrimage. Richard Burton would not be believable even as a fictional character.

Is that the kind of fantastic future that awaits Ron Reagan, Euan Blair, and His Royal Highness Prince Harry?

Watch out, world !


This feature was published on March 17, 2002