I was taking my son to Durham.
The youngest one. Not Tom. He was still working in the Midlands, doing clever things I’m not bright enough to understand.
It was a few days before the end of the school holidays. We were off to a climbing wall. That is, Ben was off to a climbing wall and I was off to yet another session with my laptop, a latte and the never-ending struggle to avoid a slice of cake. Will power, will power, wherefore art thou…
“How far, dad?” There’s something that I missed. I didn’t mark the defining moment in family life when one of my children said ‘are we nearly there yet’ for the last time.
“Twenty miles or so. 160 furlongs as we’re coming up to Sedgefield.”
“Sedgefield. There’s a racecourse. So 160 furlongs.”
“What’s a furlong?”
I couldn’t believe it. My own flesh and blood and he didn’t know what a furlong was? Then again, Ben’s always refused to watch the Grand National…
“Don’t they teach you anything at school?”
“Yes. Metres. Kilometres. Sensible measurements.”
“Sensible my foot.” There was something fundamental at stake here. This was the eve of St. Crispin’s Day. “Ben, there’s something beautiful about imperial measurements. They’re part of your heritage. We built an empire on Imperial measurements. Rods, poles, perches…”
My son wasn’t listening. Astonishingly he appeared to be more interested in his iPhone.
“Talking of heritage,” I said, “I have to go to Stamford Bridge next week.
Where Harold defeated Harold Godwinson before he marched to Hastings.”
“Harold was Harold Godwinson, Dad. He defeated Harold Hardrada.”
Was he? I’ve always been confused by all those Harolds. “Just testing,” I said.
Still, no need to worry about History at the parents’ evening… “So how many furlongs are there in a mile?” I asked him, the dog refusing to leave its bone.
“Eight. Duh. One-sixty divided by twenty isn’t exactly rocket science. Even for you.”
“OK, smart Alec. How many chains in a furlong?” That’s one of the utterly useless facts I’m proud of knowing. It’s an absolute connection to the past.
And it’s sporty as well.
Ben sighed. “I have to answer, don’t I? You’ve gone into let’s-have-a-quiz mode. We haven’t had a family trip in the car for five years and you’re taking it out on me. You really want to play I-Spy again don’t you?” Not long, ladies and gentlemen. Ten years and he’ll have his brass plaque up. You’ll be able to pay good money to lie on his couch and be insulted.
“Yes I do want an answer. And it’s not a quiz. It is your destiny, Luke.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Ben, there aren’t sixty-three anythings in anything.”
“I don’t care, dad.”
He didn’t either. I obviously told him the answer – “ten, it’s a cricket pitch” – but the Dementors in charge of the national curriculum had done their work.
All my children want to do is shuffle the decimal point around.
“What about liquid?” I asked, heading off up another blind alley. “Gills, quarts, pints. You must have done bushels and pecks?”
“No, dad. We’ve done the causes of the First World War 103 times. And oxbow lakes. But bushels and whatever-it-was are even more useless than oxbow lakes.”
“Groats?” I offered weakly. “About fourpence? In old money, obviously.”
“Not even groats, dad,” he said gently.
Ben went back to his iPhone. I concentrated on my driving. I didn’t even bother with long division of pounds, shillings and pence.
The soul of Olde England had been weighed; it had been measured. And in the eyes of my youngest son, it had absolutely been found wanting…