Things My Father Taught Me: Paul West

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Motorcycle mechanic. Gun-seller. Coal miner. Yoga teacher… Paul West’s dad enjoyed a diverse range or careers. Here, the presenter of River Cottage Australia reflects on his father’s shape-shifting life and the changing nature of fatherhood.

“Dad started off as a motorcycle mechanic, then he was a Harley Davidson retailer, then a firearms’ retailer and then he was working in the coal mines in the Hunter Valley for most of my childhood. Now he’s a yoga teacher.”

“It does seem like a big career change but it came about pretty logically. He was doing shift work and he was struggling with some sleep issues, as so many shift workers do, and someone put him on to some breathing exercises, with breathing being a core component of yoga. I guess when he gets into something, he gets right into it. The breathing techniques led on to the physical practice of yoga, and I think it really worked for him.”

“It’s made him more self-aware – not only physically but emotionally as well. It certainly seems to have calmed him down somewhat. It’s the best I’ve seen him in a long time. It’s smoothed off the rough edges a bit – and it just makes him happy.”

“Dad’s dad was a Second World War veteran and very distant.”

“I think, for a lot of men of Dad’s generation, there was no real template for fathering. They grew up with stern, returned soldiers for dads – men who were emotionally destroyed after the experiences of war – and that was their benchmark as to how to raise children. So . . . mainly, the mothers did it. Dad wasn’t particularly paternal – I mean, he wasn’t in there changing nappies and nursing me and feeding me and that kind of stuff – so I think that providing for us financially through working really hard was a way he could do something very practical and I’m really grateful for it.”

“I’ve only got two memories of my dad’s dad. He was about 6 foot 8, so he was a tall, lean man – very serious. One memory is of when we were camping, in the middle of winter, and I must have been about four or five years old. We had a campfire and it was all misty and smoky and very beautiful. My grandfather had boiled some billy tea, and he took it from the fire and swung it around and around to mix the tea leaves from the bottom. Because it had just come off the fire, all this steam was floating around in the air, and I just remember looking at him and his arm spinning this boiling hot billy and thinking, ‘woah’. He was very impressive.”

“Emotionally, Dad’s still getting there. He’s not a big talker but he’s getting better. I know he’s amazed by the way I parent my son. It blows him away. I don’t think Dad was super-comfortable with young children. Mum would have just done it all herself, I’m sure. So when he sees me with my son and how comfortable and happy I am to be involved – even though my wife is still the primary care-giver, I know he thinks it’s fantastic. It boggles his mind a bit and probably causes some reflection about the way he was with me. Things are different now. He’ll say something like, ‘Geez, you’re comfortable with him.’ It’s not something he’d wax lyrical about. But I know he’s proud.”

“What I’d like my own children to take away from Dad is the idea that you can do whatever you want – become whoever you want. You don’t have to be defined by one thing in your life. We’re valuable as people and we change throughout the course of our lives.”

“Sometimes I think he’s happy – other times, I feel there are mistakes he’s made that have lasted with him. What happened with him and my mum separating was his fault, and I believe he has some deep-seated regrets about that which will probably never go away completely. But overall, he’s a happy guy. He’s certainly forward-looking, anyway. You can’t escape the scars of the past. You can dwell on them, or you can look, optimistically, to the future, and I think that’s what he’s doing.”

“As a dad to my own son? I’m bloody awesome! I’d like to think that I’m there for him – I’m not a distant, ominous presence. I want to be that consistent, loving presence that my kids can rely on and relate to and have fun with. I hope I can impart that same thing Dad did for me – I don’t care what he does, as long as he’s happy. I just want to let him find his own pace and let him grow into the person he is meant to be. That’s all any parent wants for their children, I guess.”

This is an excerpt from Things My Father Taught Me, by Claire Halliday that features interviews with a collection of Australian identities talking about the impact their relationship with their dad had on their lives. Buy it here