For millions of parents on both sides of the Atlantic Dr Benjamin Spock’s handbook, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, was a kind of Bible. Indeed, for half a century it reportedly sold more copies round the world than any other book except for the actual Bible. Its central message to mothers was deeply reassuring: ‘You know more than you think you do!’ In contrast to previous child care ‘experts’, who argued that children should be taught to eat at scheduled times and be trained through ‘tough love’, Dr Spock encouraged parents to pick up their crying infants and hug them and give them what they wanted.
But parenting had nothing to do with my encounter with Dr Spock, one early summer’s evening in Trinity Term 1970, at the Oxford Union. The hottest political issue of the day was the Vietnam War and Dr Spock was one of its most articulate opponents. Two years earlier, he had been one of four prominent critics of the conflict to be singled out for prosecution by the US Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, on charges of conspiracy to aid draft resisters. So he was greeted as a hero by the predominantly left-wing Oxford University students of the time that balmy evening when he came to speak at the Union.
He looked the antithesis of a radical, so clearly East Coast Ivy League, in his Brooks Brothers suit and elegant shirt with detachable collar. Though almost 67 years old, he was super fit, a testimony to his time as an Olympic sportsman (at the Paris Olympics in 1924 his men’s rowing eight won a gold medal for the United States). As the Union President Stephen Milligan – who was also Chairman of the Oxford University Conservative Association – looked on with furrowed brow, Dr Spock had us undergraduates cheering to the rafters as he blasted US imperialism and decried the suffering of the Vietnamese people.
His speech resonated deeply with me, as the previous year, before going up to Oxford, I had been a cub reporter in Vietnam, freelancing for the Manchester Evening News and the Geographical Magazine, so I had seen the napalming of civilians and the defoliation of that verdant land with my own eyes. I thus had no hesitation in bounding up to Dr Spock like an eager puppy at the end of the meeting to let him know. Instantly we were in deep conversation; he had the skill some politicians have of making one feel singularly important while they are talking to you.
Stephen Milligan, who had been hovering on the side in his white tie and evening dress, then astonished me by asking Dr Spock – by this time joined by his wife, Jane Cheney Spock – if he would forgive him if he disappeared to revise for his Finals. I piped up that I would happily look after the Spocks, enabling Stephen to rush off relieved. Though not expected to get a first by his PPE tutor at Magdalen, he was intensely ambitious. It was such a shame that his later political career, after successfully getting elected as the Conservative MP for Eastleigh, was prematurely cut short when an auto-erotic adventure misfired and he was found dead dressed only in stockings and suspenders, with an electric flex round his neck, a piece of orange in his mouth and a black bin-liner over his head.
Back to the Spocks. There was no question of my taking them to my rooms at St Edmund Hall, as there was no water in my building (mercifully demolished soon after) and in a fit of nostalgia for eastern living on the floor I had removed the legs from all the furniture. But fortunately a friend who was with me, the post-graduate social anthropology student Kaori O’Connor, suggested we all go to her comfortable ground floor room in a house in North Oxford. I suspect Kaori’s exotic beauty – a heady mix of Hawaiian Japanese, Irish and Native American – was a major reason Dr Spock agreed.
At Kaori’s lodgings we talked long into the night about Vietnam and about the eating and social habits of the Pacific islanders who were our hostess’s academic speciality. Mrs Spock, who had previously been overshadowed by her husband, now came into her own and I was fascinated to learn that she was herself a prominent civil liberties advocate and academic researcher. In fact, she had done much of the research for and writing of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, though her husband got all the credit. So I was not especially surprised when I read some years later that they had divorced.
By then Dr Spock’s reputation had taken a hammering. A popular conservative American preacher by the name of Norman Vincent Peale, who was a supporter of the US attempt to thwart the so-called domino effect of Communism spreading through South East Asia, blamed the anti-War movement, hippydom and youth’s desire for instant gratification on the laxity engendered in the generation that had been babies raised along the guidelines set down by Dr Spock. Vice-President Spiro Agnew added his ten cents worth by declaring that Dr Spock was personally responsible for the permissive society.
In 1994, at the age of 91, in a new book called Rebuilding American Family Values, Dr Spock was still trying to refute his critics, maintaining that he had always advised parents to give their children firm, clear leadership and to ask for cooperation and politeness in return. Conservatives hated him for his political activism, not for his child psychology, he argued. However, I fear he did no favour to his reputation when he recommended shortly before his death in 1998, in a new edition of his original book, that children should be fed a purely vegan diet from the age of two. I wonder if I would have had such a positive impression of him if I had been fed on lentils since infancy.